Guyanese youth gain a voice

One of the joys of supporting civic groups in their efforts to represent citizen interests around the world is to watch them grow and accomplish great things. This was certainly the case with the Guyana National Youth Council, which grew from a handful of students and young civic leaders into a nonpartisan umbrella organization committed to giving Guyanese youth a strong voice heard by government. Ultimately, the Youth Council’s desire to get youth to participate in the democratic process resulted in a voter education campaign that contributed to the highest youth voter turnout in Guyana’s post-independence history in the May 11, 2015 national elections.

{mosads}In 2014, the International Republican Institute (IRI) was privileged to support the formation of the Youth Council. The idea was to bring together a national organization capable of getting more young people interested in how their country was governed, fulfilling a promise in the Guyanese Constitution that youth would play a role in the country’s development. The Youth Council’s interim leadership wanted to follow the structure established by youth councils in other Caribbean states while developing an identity based on local realities. Over several months, the Youth Council coalesced and attracted new members. IRI’s Guyana office offered advice and training workshops.

However, the Youth Council really came into its own when national elections were called in early 2015. Guyana is a member of the British Commonwealth and uses the Westminster parliamentary system. Significantly, it had been governed by the same political party since 1992, although by 2011 that party had lost its majority in the National Assembly, leading to an extended period of gridlock. The result was an extended 2014 summer recess, the suspension of the Assembly and the eventual dissolution of parliament in favor of early regional and national Elections set for May 11, 2015.

A month before the elections, Youth Council members organized an elaborate campaign targeting young people who had reached 18 and were eligible to vote for the first time. The members organized voter education workshops and set up information fairs and mock-polling stations in the capital of Georgetown and around the country, including the Amerindian-dominated hinterland communities of Surama, Annai and St. Ignatius. However, the icing on the cake was the Youth Council’s successful Vote Like a Boss campaign, with words adapted from a popular Caribbean song.

The campaign showed why it was important for youth to vote and informed them about Guyana’s election laws and voting procedures. With IRI support, the Youth Council also created an attention-getting public service announcement (PSA) for TV and radio. The PSA featured a well-known local comedian who made decisions for young people in a series of daily activities, the overall message being: If you don’t vote, others will decide for you.

The PSA was so effective that it not only created a following in Guyana, but the Caribbean Regional Youth Council and the National Youth Council of Jamaica contacted the Guyana Council to see how they could replicate Vote Like a Boss in their upcoming elections. Following the elections, the Youth Council developed a You’re Still the Boss campaign, encouraging youth to hold their newly elected government officials accountable for promises, not only just on youth issues but also on matters of concern to the general public.

More than 60 percent of Guyana’s population is younger than 35. In the past, the country’s political leadership paid little attention to this demographic, which contributed to the departure of more than 80 percent of the country’s university graduates for other parts of the world. Guyana’s new leaders are now paying more attention to their youth and the country is on track to have municipal elections next February, in which youthful voters and first-time politicians will undoubtedly play a big role. In fact, these will be the first local elections in 20 years.

For years, Guyana has seemed like the country that was on nobody’s radar screen, hidden on South America’s often overlooked Caribbean coast among jungles, mountains and breathtaking waterfalls. No longer. While the scenery may seem the same, the political landscape is changing.

For the record, my organization, IRI, has been privileged to lead a U.S. Agency for International Development program in Guyana to strengthen democratic institutions by supporting administrative reforms in the National Assembly, encouraging the growth of civil society and supporting domestic election observation of the May 11 vote. What we learned is that Guyanese want to participate in their government and see their country develop its potential.

It may be a country of only 750,000 people. And, at first glance, its importance would seem modest. That is, until you consider its strategic position in South America and the Caribbean, prospects for trade, and the positive influence a strong and democratic Guyana can project in the neighborhood.

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

Tags Guyana Guyana National Youth Council Voter turnout Youth vote

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