We must listen to youth, since democracy depends on it
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As the world marks International Youth Day on Aug. 12, we're likely to hear many stories of the ways in which politicians of all stripes are making life better for young people. What we won't hear enough about is what young people themselves are actually looking for. It's their voice that should matter most — and yet, in too many places, that voice is ignored.

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The danger isn't merely out-of-touch politicians; it's a growing sense of alienation and marginalization amongst the rising generation of the world's youth. Left unchecked, this disaffection can be exploited by nefarious voices hoping to bend young people toward their own, sometimes violent, cause.

At the International Republican Institute (IRI), we have been working hard to help find answers to these challenges. In recent surveys conducted by our Center for Insights in Survey Research, more than half of Jordanians say their politicians aren't listening to the needs and ideas of young people. Nearly the same percentage of Jordanians between the ages of 18 and 34 say they are unlikely to vote in the next elections. But, of course, this isn't merely about Jordan. IRI polls also show around 60 percent of Nigerians and Bangladeshis also feel that politicians don't listen to young people.

It's hard to overstate the urgency of addressing these challenges. Across the Middle East, by some estimates, a staggering 70 percent of the population is below the age of 30. At the same time, there's high unemployment, a regional democracy deficit and instability caused by violent extremism — a toxic combination for young people. It's no coincidence, of course, that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is pursuing youth-oriented public relations campaigns — ones with slick graphics and social media to attract young viewers.

While we should be careful not to overstate the evidence of cause-and-effect, it seems logical that when youths feel they have no voice, no stake in society and nothing to lose, the allure of extremist groups — which offer a purpose and an outlet for anger and aggression — can be like gasoline to a flame.

With an estimated 1.8 billion young people, the majority of whom live in the developing world, we are witness to the largest generation of young people in recorded history. As these youths rise, they will determine whether democracy and universal human rights flourish, or the world is overrun by apathy or extremism. In short, young people are facing crossroads moments every day, and we need to listen to them, share our own experiences and lessons learned, and offer the tools and training that encourage smart choices.

At IRI, we believe there is reason for optimism because, over and over again, young people have been instrumental in driving movements for democratic reform and government accountability. In Brazil, they took to the streets and social media to demand government accountability, and are driving the pushback against statist overreach and corruption. In Hong Kong, they employed innovative technologies to mobilize pro-democracy demonstrations. And in Tunisia — thus far the sole success of the Arab Spring — we've seen young people assume a powerful role in the country's democratic transition.

At IRI, we are making youth empowerment one of the central planks of our approach to democracy assistance. Our Generation Democracy initiative, with over 400 member organizations around the world, is inspiring young people from diverse backgrounds and experiences to learn from each other, articulate their goals and take action to achieve them through peaceful, democratic means. We work with a diverse array of youth programs, including young democrats in Mongolia, efforts to prevent violent extremism in Niger and working with mayors in Panama to engage young people in the decision-making process.

Youth engagement isn't about telling young people what to do; it's about hearing what they want, and helping them locate the tools to make it happen. This year, let's celebrate International Youth Day with something novel: actually listening to international youth.

Green is president of the International Republican Institute, former U.S. ambassador to Tanzania and former member of congress representing Wisconsin's 8th District.


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