Hug The Hague. Youth Involvement in Democratic Institutions.
The Velvet revolution in Armenia in 2018 showed that young people are most of all interested in democratic changes and that youth can really influence the political situation in the state. Thus, democracy is not only about the opportunity for young people to go on the streets and claim the democratic changes. Our Erasmus+ projects in Armenia and Georgia showed that the knowledge of local youth about democratic institutions and democracy in general is more of a theoretical type and that they are lacking practical knowledge and experience in this field. Tough, where can they get this knowledge if the majority of young people form EaP countries have never been to the EU countries and have never communicated with their peers from the above-mentioned countries? Our questionnaires and interviews showed that the desire of young people from EaP countries to communicate and cooperate with their peers and colleagues form the EU is very high. We were very happy when the Dutch NA of Erasmus+ program supported our project "Hug The Hague. Youth Involvement in Democratic Institutions".
The objectives of this initiative: to create space for exchange and dialogue on Youth Inclusion and participation in democratic institutions between different stakeholders, such as policy makers, NGO representatives, young people and youth workers; to foster cooperation between youth from the EU and EaP countries; to discuss the Democratic Institutions existing in the countries participating in the conference and the level of cooperation between youth, youth organizations and policy makers: to discuss the role and influence of youth on democratic institutions in Program and Partner countries; to define the best practices of youth involvement into democratic institutions and to discuss the possibilities of this experience implication in the countries participating in the project; to develop recommendations on youth inclusion and participation into the democratic institutions, addressing local and regional authorities responsible for youth in the project countries and youth NGOs. According to the project description, we were to implement a 4-day conference "Hug The Hague. Youth Involvement in Democratic Institutions" in The Hague. In the work of the conference there were also to take part the partner organizations from Greece, Poland, Latvia, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia and Moldova. Each project partner was to select 7 participants for the conference including 1 decision maker, 1 policy maker and 5 youth representatives aged 18-30. The decision maker was the leader of the partner organization or an active young activist. Even at the development stage of the project, we understood that its success much depends on the selection of partner organizations and decision makers proposed for the participation by the partner organization. We manager to involved into the project a range of experienced specialists in youth work whom we have already known for a long time and established friendly relationships. As a results, for the conference there were chosen young active and creative participants.
We decided to implement a conference at a holiday park Duinrell. The participants (4-5 persons) from different countries lived in one house, sharing food with each other, meeting guests, cleaning together the place where they live and cooking for themselves and other participants. In such a way, each group had its own small and cozy house. Prices for accommodation and food in the Netherlands have imposed restrictions on the diet of the participants. However, these difficulties have helped young people to come up with great solutions.
All partner organizations, selected for the project cooperate with local authorities in their countries, and they were responsible for bringing one policy maker - a person from local municipality working in the youth filed. This strategy worked for Moldova, and Ukraine – the Policy Makers invited by these teams were representative of local municipalities - Balti Municipal Council (Moldova), Executive Committee of the Kremenchug City Council, The directorate of youth and sports (Ukraine), while the Armenian, Greek, Georgian and Dutch teams invited representatives of Ministries - Ministry of Education and Science (Armenia), Ministry of Education, Research and Religious Affairs, Secretariat General for Youth Section B’: Monitoring of Regional Actions on Youth, Head of Section (Greece), Ministry of Internal Affairs (Georgia), Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Netherlands). Latvian and Polish teams had members of Erasmus Mundus Students and Alumni Association, Advocacy Team (Poland) and Member of the Cooperation Memorandum between Non-governmental Organizations and the Cabinet of Ministers of the Republic of Latvia. At the application stage we had the understanding that with a rather restricted budget we could provide the conditions (accommodation, meals) not for the policy makers of the high level, but it appeared that the policy makers that finally came mostly were not complicated and accepted the conditions. The preparation of presentations was discussed with the decision makers and policy makers. A questionnaire was prepared and sent to all the partners for their participants to fill in. Of all the participants from EaP countries only representatives of Armenia needed to obtain visas, so they were provided with invitation letters. Together with their group leader we did some online research and realized that the Embassy of the Netherlands is actually situated in Georgia, so they had to apply for visas at the Embassy of Germany. We managed to prepare the invitation letter in a way that the whole group got their visas for free. We are very grateful for the Embassy of Germany and the Ministry of the Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands that helped the participants from Armenia to get visas quickly. We asked the participants from EaP countries to take the responsibility and buy insurance policies. We were helping the participants to find the best ticket options using special websites. In some cases we were communicating with the group leader, in some – with participants themselves. We fully controlled the process to make sure there are no mistakes in the dates, all the tickets are bought, everybody stays inside the reimbursement limit or aware of the overdraft and ready to cover it. Preparing the project we were doing the risk assessment considering all possible hazards including active games as part of non-formal education tools, possible intercultural and political tensions inside and outside the group, possible gender issues, plus on the first day of the conference we made a short "safety talk" and announced that there is a man and a woman among the organizers whom they can approach in case of health, personal or interpersonal matters – the project went perfect without any traumas or conflict situations inside or outside the group. In solving these issues, we were greatly supported by the leaders of the groups of their 8 countries..
First day was only for youth and decision makers. Together they defined the main questions and topics they want to discuss with policy makers participating in the project. The organized guided visit to the Parliament was also on the agenda. A special space was created for the first day, which was held in a large and beautiful hall especially designed for young people. Every participants had an opportunity to talk and ask questions. The houses where the participants lived gave them the opportunity to welcome participants from other teams during the breaks and this fact also created good conditions for discussions and exchange and proved itself as a good tool for the Structured Dialogue realization. During the conference there were presentations, work in small national and international groups, work in big group, debates, discussions, brainstorming, questions and answers, role-plays, energizers, cultural evenings. The majority of the participants were in the Netherlands for the first time. The project organizers considered that it would be very profitable if there will be a chance to get familiar with the basics of the Parliamentary.
During the second and third days together with policy makers they discussed the experience of cooperation of youth and youth organizations with policy makers in each particular participating country, the difficulties that youth and policy makers face in cooperation with each other, and successful examples of cooperation between youth and democratic institutions and of youth involvement in political decision-making processes, worked out the recommendations for the local and regional authorities and NGOs. To achieve the set project goals, there were widely used discussions and brainstorming in small groups. The composition of these groups was constantly changing so that representatives of the EU and Eastern Partnership countries could work together and better know each other. All the participants were given the opportunity to communicate with each other both on formal and informal, personal ways – not only in the room during sessions, but also during coffee-breaks, joint meals, joint cooking, cultural dinners and free time.
The meetings with the Ambassador of Armenia in the Kingdom of the Netherlands Tigran Balayan and First secretary of the Embassy of Ukraine in the Kingdom of the Netherlands Mr. Denys Demko, who are the highest level policy makers in their own countries and are working in the Netherlands aroused great interest. They spoke about cooperation between young people from the countries of the Eastern Partnership and the EU and answered the numerous questions of the conference participants. The conference confirmed the success of the methodology for choosing the EU countries to participate in the project - the Netherlands, as one of the most successful EU countries in the field of economics and the development of democratic institutions, Greece, as a country where there were recent serious economic and political problems, Poland, which before the collapse of the Soviet Union was controlled by Moscow, and Latvia, which at that time was a member of the Soviet Union. This choice provided a wide range of experience and practices, which was both interesting and useful for young people from the EU and EaP countries.
The fourth day was only for youth and decision makers again. It started with the session on “How international cooperation can improve the relations between youth and policy makers”, which was followed by the presentations of UNITED for Intercultural Action presentations on their experience of work with authorities during the years and the influence their conferences in different countries made. In the afternoon we had a very important session with the participants working on Action Plan of the Developed Recommendations dissemination on the national and international levels. The day finished with Youthpass and Evaluations sessions followed by the cultural dinner by Greek and Dutch teams.
The main project result were the Recommendations for Authorities, Youth NGOs, young individuals, in cooperation with media. They can be found at the end of the article. These recommendations were shared with the department of the European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations of the European Commission, the Foreign Ministries of the countries participating in the project, the Council of Europe, our partners from 26 countries of Europe. Our partners involved in the project also distribute the recommendations among their networks and among different stakeholders in their countries
The project made it possible to receive knowledge in the field of intercultural dialogue with participation of a big group of young people from different countries. Participating in the discussions and brainstorming in mixed groups, young people gained practical skills and knowledge in methods of finding compromises and general solution-making. The presentations of policy makers and communication with them helped young people to understand better the functioning of the democratic institutions. Young people from the Eastern Partnership countries learned that their peers from the EU countries easily make contacts and are ready to work with them. In its turn, young people from the EU countries were convinced that among their peers from the countries of the Eastern Partnership there are many young bright people with whom they can develop and implement projects together. They also learned that policy makers from other countries, including embassy leaders are not so scary - they are also humans and it is possible to communicate with them both on formal and informal levels.
The decision makers also improved their knowledge, skills and competences. They gained lots of important and useful information on youth work in other countries, the influence of youth and youth organizations on decision making in these countries. They participated in intercultural dialogue, played a very important role in explaining/training the youth from their and other countries how to lead non-violent communication, intercultural and international cooperation. Communicating with their colleagues they gained new information and technologies of non-formal education methods for inclusion of youth.
The policy makers from EU had a unique chance to communicate with the representatives of youth NGOs from different countries of EaP. Due to the project realization, they had better understood the way of cooperation of youth and youth organizations with policy makers in the countries of Eastern Partnership. They got deeper understanding of the difficulties that youth and policy makers face in cooperation with each other; learned existing successful examples of cooperation between youth and democratic institutions and of youth involvement in political decision-making processes. Due to the project, policy makers from EU countries better understood the potential, which the youth in the EaP countries has. This knowledge will help to make the program of the Eastern Partnership more effective.
In general, the learning outcomes were much broader than we expected. The young participants were mostly really very young and for a big group of them this project was the first experience of existing as an adult, caring about themselves, organizing their trip, spending lot of time with their peers etc. So, they learned to be adults, to communicate with other adults, with representatives of different cultures and fields of work.
As a result, both young people and group leaders and policy makers highlighted the importance of the necessity to continue the development of the space for exchange and dialogue on Youth Inclusion and participation in democratic institutions between different stakeholders from both EU and EaP countries.
Recommendations for Authorities
1. Reinforce effective mechanism of peer control between countries with regard of youth policy and youth participation;
2. Scale up digital tools in citizens/youth participation;
3. Invest in nurturing youth self-awareness and self-confidence;
4. On local levels create budgets for funding Youth initiatives and startups;
5. Meetings with decision makers on regularly basis;
6. Take into account not only suggestions by NGOs but also by informal groups;
7. Create more social spaces for citizens to discuss and implement their initiatives;
8. Create and popularize special electronic systems for citizens to comment and vote on draft laws;
9. Ensure low cost tickets specially for young people;
10. Free data for everybody in EU;
11. Create more opportunities for youth like part-time jobs;
12. Organize more visits for young people to parliaments and governmental institutions;
13. Share information about importance of volunteering.
Recommendations for Youth NGOs
1. Choose the right communication means to spread information among your target audience;
2. Start discussions on hot topics. Remember that you are serious and important player in society;
3. Show more results of your work, achievements, stories of success;
4. Organize annual events/conferences for NGOs, business, policy-makers to share results of your work and to learn more about each other;
5. Search the opportunities of different public spaces for your events (e.g. Residence of Polish Ambassador in UK was used for events from youth organizations about science and technology);
6. Provide more civic education in secondary schools and lobby empowerment of such education by schools themselves;
7. Before cooperation with institution/donor/partners - STUDY profile of organization, their way of understanding civil society, so you can choose more effective way of communication;
8. YOUTH is main word - if you are seeking for partnership with diplomatic institution which is working with youth ALL your ideas / projects / proposals have to be connected to YOUTH (Youth in solving environment problems; youth is fighting for human rights; youth migration etc) - find magic words;
9. Be clear and honest (you, your friends, your mom and policy maker clearly understand that you cannot save a world for 5000 euro);
10. Make honest and clear reports;
11. Use more modern technologies to promote opportunities, sharing experiences and blog posts internationally;
12. Provide innovating learning using games and technologies;
13. Promote P2P learning among youth;
14. Provide bonuses for active youth members such as:
d) Invitations for conferences and seminars;
15. Promote equality of opportunities for youth;
16. Make publications in a creative way;
17. Use alumni potential in order to promote an active participation, leadership and mentoring.
Recommendations for young individuals
1. Join civil society, because you can:
a) Influence more on policy which is more about you than you can imagine;
b) Get new experience in managing people and events in international project that will help you to improve your skills and employment potential;
c) Travel, find new friends around the world, learn languages;
d) Stay up to date and follow news and trends (in education, business, leisure) all over the world;
e) Feel more European.
Recommendations in cooperation with media
1. If nobody don’t want to speak about you - create your own media:);
2. Make focus on online tools;
3. If you project/initiative is big and attractive for media - there are more chances that they will share information about it;
4. Invite journalists to participate in your projects - they will write about you;
5. Cooperate with press agencies;