By Edward Kipkalya
Despite Kenya being a very youthful country, a large percentage of the so-called excluded majority (the youth) is unemployed and feels marginalised in terms of access to opportunities, representation, and participation. According to research done by Emerging Leaders Foundation – Africa in 2019, the top 3 impediments to prosperity of the Kenyan youth are unemployment, lack of mentorship and limited access to information.
Never before have so many youth been hungry for change. We have seen them take to online social networks and communities to connect, express their voices, and campaign for change. We have also seen them protesting authoritarian regimes, corruption, and inequalities. We have also seen them fighting for sustainable development and a better future for current and new generations.
However, the political representation of youth remains limited, yet they are the majority. They are increasingly demanding more meaningful participation in decision-making processes, so they can have more control over how their lives and futures are shaped. Although youth are involved in activism in the digital space, protesting, volunteering to improve their communities, and innovating for social good, their participation in and influence on formal politics is limited. Voter turnout is in decline in all democracies and is concentrated among youth. Youth are underrepresented in political decision-making positions and their involvement in political parties is dwindling.
Why is this so?
Putting into consideration that the current Kenyan youth is grouped into two generations – some of the Millennials (born between 1980 and 1995), and all of Generation Z (born between 1996 and the early-mid 2000s), their needs are not truthfully or effectively reflected in policies related to them. This is because the policymakers do not understand the youth, and the target group’s apathy toward anything as serious as politics or policymaking exacerbates the problem. In Kenya, the millennials are called ‘The joking generation/Unemployed youth’ those who behave in a way that their precedent generations find it strange, bizarre, and disrespectful. Unknowingly criticized now, millennials grew up being heard and praised (Leaders of tomorrow tag). According to Kenya’s Central bank’s financial report 2019, the biggest priority of millennials by education, wealth, sex, and residence was putting food on the table. This is not only their last straw but also a means to their end. On the other hand, Gen Z commonly referred to as ‘digital natives’ are characterized by less reading as compared to other generations. Their desire to learn is limited to our current teaching model which bore them to sleep. It’s a generation that learns differently. Therefore, until we recognize this difference and conceptualize our way of teaching and learning, we will turn them off to education. They prefer learning that is relevant, useful, instantly useful, active, and fun.
These are just but a few differences to show that the youth are not a nameless, faceless mass as they have been treated. Portraying youth as a homogenous group fails to recognize their complexity. It may also be counterproductive to solving key global issues such as fragility, lack of meaningful work opportunities, inequity, and violence even with substantial youth leadership.
Most Kenyan youth in their 20s or 30s are not “active citizens.”. When the government and policy makers ask them to take part in public participation opportunities that might help create policies helpful to people in their age group, the answer tends to be, “Sorry, I am not interested” or “I’m too busy.” Thus, only a handful of those youth insiders are included in the policy process. Is it, then, acceptable to let the majority be excluded? The answer is an emphatic “NO!,” because any policy solution should meet the needs of majority in the target group, not just those of a few individuals. However, since most of this generation is not engaged in policymaking, it continues to be difficult for policymakers to understand their needs and develop effective policies to resolve them. The paradox of the excluded majority is a wicked problem, indeed.
According to a study by Well Told Story, the Kenyan youth can be segmented in 5 categories each with different information needs and different perceptions of government.
First, we have the insiders – these are the youth referenced in policy and government reports, they appear at events to “represent the youth”. However, they are the chosen ones with contacts and access to the right channels of information. They are benefitting from government because they win contracts and tenders and have influence amongst their peers.
Second, we have the professionals – they blindly hang around politicians, serially attending rallies, workshops. They do the dirty underpaid work of those tenders that are given to youth and the “Insiders”. They are benefitting financially in a small way from government. They think they have influence, but they don’t.
Third, we have the disengaged – this is a large group made up of those who feel excluded but still feel that it matters that they are not part of the system. They had hopes in all the government promises but these hopes have gone and now they’ve given up, they are looking elsewhere for help and inspiration.
Fourth, we have the disgruntled – they represent vijana wapotovu, a smaller group of ‘angry’ youth, with skewed or no information, feeling excluded and voiceless. They feel their vote meant nothing and they’ve been let down by a government who cares nothing for them and just sold them lies. This group may be tempted by any offers of structure and opportunity like radicalization by extremist groups such as Al Shabaab.
Fifth, we have the disenfranchised – in politics there has been a biased notion that ‘youth’ = ‘male’. Most young women fall into this category of the disenfranchised. They ‘don’t even know if they care’ about politics. They make no assumptions about their ‘rights’ in the political space and get on with their lives with little thought of governance and certainly none of participation.
Despite multiple policy statements that acknowledge profound differences in youth, there is no widely accepted organizing framework that shifts the perspective from seeing youth as a homogenous mass, to thinking about how we address specific challenges and opportunities. When we talk about youth development, youth is as unique as the issue we’re trying to resolve, and the context in which it occurs. We need an issue-focused approach, in which youth is not labelled indiscriminately, but seen as people with a specific problem they need to solve. Youth are a key piece of the puzzle to solve global challenges. But a more effective approach, and the real solution, lies in narrowing in on the problems that affect them and forging specific, contextualized solutions to those problems.
As a Kenyan youth, I am optimistic that the youth of Kenya will one day claim its meaningful role as equal partners in the development process. That day will draw closer by registering as voters and voting for the the leaders who are ready to invest not only in us but our future generations. All this is possible if we act. Talk is cheap, voting is free; let’s take it to the polls. Vijana Tunaweza!