Falling down the ladder

Established in 1996, the European Youth Forum has become a self-absorbed shadow of its former self. The cacaphony of voices, wishing either for a new European Youth Network or the return of separate organisations for international youth organisations and national youth platforms, is growing stronger and more determined.

many problems
but no discourse

Because there is, regrettably, no open discourse on the situation of the Youth Forum between the different movements and strands—with most youth organisations, in united hypocrisy, happily ignoring their own call to politics for more transparency—these voices cannot be easily heard, but the increasing frequency, intensity and attractiveness of networks and meetings working on the establishment of organisational alternatives will soon lead to visible results, which will exemplify for how long the dissatisfaction with the Youth Forum has simmered.

The few large organisations that currently dominate the platform—most notably the scouts and the socialists—share a lack of interest to make the European Youth Forum a strong voice of young people with key institutional players such as the European Commission: both sides fear the loss of power and influence.

lack of courage
and authenticity

Luckily for these players, the Youth Forum is, in its current state, caught in internal power struggles and ensnared by a lack of critical voices: seemingly endless discussions culminate in carefully negotiated position papers that lack both courage and authenticity.

Having discovered Youtube, the European Youth Forum publicly demonstrates—for anyone who has the strength to sit through their video speeches—that there is no youth spirit left to show; the organisation is light-years away from the creativity and sovereignty of many young people in using media and making their voice heard.

At the press conference marking the public announcement of the European Commission’s new strategy for young people “Youth — Investing and Empowering“, all that the Youth Forum’s President Tine Radinja managed to achieve is that Jan Figel—Commissioner for Education, Training, Culture and Youth and anything but a talented speaker—shines as a seemingly gifted rhetoric.

Is this the voice of young people in Europe?

How is an organisation defending the interests of young people in Europe that doesn’t have the courage to criticise the blatant discrepancy between the Commission’s ambitions in addressing disadvantaged young people and the tools they employ to this end?

tokenistic symbol

How is an organisation defending the interests of young people that lets itself be willingly abused as a tokenistic symbol of pseudo-representation?

It isn’t — no matter how many times it is written or said to be the biggest regional youth platform in the world, bringing together and representing tens of millions of young people from all over Europe.

Photo by warein.holgado | flickr

Photo by warein.holgado on flickr

It would be too easy an explanation to point at the considerable amount of 2.2 Million Euro the European Youth Forum receives every year from the European Union through the Youth in Action Programme.

The EU, even though they would have the leverage, doesn’t need to apply any thumbscrews.

Faced with a structure that fails to protect the interests of small organisations and offers no efficient instruments to constructively negotiate and mediate between different wings, the organisation consistently blocks itself and is as meek as a mouse.

[The alarmingly high turnover of staff is but one indicator for the state of the association,
in which the creativity and enthusiasm of individuals seems forfeit to vanish.]

Not surprisingly, the European Commission does not miss a single opportunity to praise the European Youth Forum as an important and reliable partner — smothered in harmony they can hardly breathe, and any criticism towards the institutions is systematically silenced.

For many years, interest in creating an alternative platform has remained low, also because there is so little at stake in a democratically defunct European Union — but sooner or later the much needed alternative will emerge.

Chances are that such a platform will be taken seriously — not because they brag to be the biggest organisation on the continent in every speech, but because they have something meaningful to say in ways which are authentic and honest, direct and powerful.

And when all is said and done, chances are that the European Youth Forum is going to find itself in a much stronger position after what will likely be turbulent times.


Full disclosure: I was a member of the Bureau of the European Youth Forum from 1998 until 2000 with responsibility for education and training, and an unsuccessful candidate for Secretary General in 2003. If you are inclined to believe that I am searching for romantic memories or bitter revenge, feel free to do so.

8 replies on “Falling down the ladder”

  1. Hi dear Andreas,
    as usual you were polemic, straightforward and provocative… all characteristics that i appreciate:-)
    I must say i somehow identify with several of your remarks. It as astonished me lately, how far away the Youth Forum speech and practices have gone far away from many young people and youth organizations reality. Last year in the Slovenian Presidency Youth Event under the topic of inclusion of disadvantaged young people, i found myself facilitating a working group on employment where many representatives of YFJ member organizations clearly showed by their contributions how far away is their world from that of many disadvantaged young people. In fact, many didn’t had any clue or previous close contact with such kind of young people – and there they were proposing policies to address the needs of these youngsters!?!?!
    I would like to add some questions to your article:
    1 – If the Youth Forum is “representing” the needs and opinions of young people, why isn’t there more spaces in the youth forum activities or in the activities where youth forum decides on who should participate, for youngsters from non member youth NGO’s? Usually the argument against is that those people were not “elected” or do not represent the voices of many young people. Do this so called “representatives” really represent the opinions of many young people or just the interests of few people within big organizations and their personal and political tight agenda?
    2 – Is the Youth Forum currently really a space of reflection and participation of all member organizations or just a few of them decide on the forum’s directions and others just follow the path expecting to continue having access to european opportunities to participate and access to information. If that is the case maybe the youth forum transformed itself into an information provider and not anymore a platform for building common ground among diverse youth NGO’s.
    More questions crossed my mind but i will keep them for now.
    This is just a rapid reaction to your article from a former GA and COMEM delegate, a council of europe affairs commission member and youth forum Pool of Trainers member who actually values and believes in the potential of the Youth Forum as a pan European platform and a global youth actor.

  2. Dear Nuno,

    neither you nor I have to justify our criticism by assuring that we value and believe in the potential of the Youth Forum. Why would we otherwise take the time to think and write about it? I find it much more problematic and questionable that this article has been read more than 1.500 times by now, and has found one person courageous enough to comment.

    You make a few—in my opinion: really crucial—points: the Youth Forum is indeed a membership-driven organisation and its current state necessarily reflects what member organisations would like the Youth Forum to be – or not to be.

    What I wonder about: most information about developments and opportunities is widely available anyway; in this respect the Youth Forum has never been able to offer a truly competitive advantage as a provider and broker of information.

    Why then do so many of the smaller member associations just watch the big shots abuse their platform as a playground? Because many of the small NGOs are fully aware of—and many of them continuously complain about—the harsh distance between the reality of many young people and the Youth Forum’s policy-bubble-talk…

  3. Between seeing ghosts and refuting representative democracy-

    I am not the biggest fan of blog discussions, as they usually curtail arguments and tend to be misleading or misinterpreted. In addition I am very late with my response, as I did not see it last month. None the less I felt the urge to highlight a few things that show that the Youth Forum does have a culture of discourse and that there is genuine interest to make the European Youth Forum a strong voice of young people with key institutional players. Your blog entry is mainly based on assumptions; I consider some of them offensive but unfortunately you are not offering solutions. To create a new platform will not solve the difficulties related to diversity of members. Indeed the Youth Forum has organizations with hundreds of employees like AFS, Red Cross youth or YMCA, member organizations with millions of Euros annual turnover, but also has members with not even a single paid staff and an annual budget just above the five digits. That is a very unequal starting point and it is a constant challenge to sever the needs of all types of members. The Youth Forum plays a varied role for the different members, sometimes it is a marginal thing they do amongst much bigger international projects, sometimes it is the only source for cooperation and direct information (and yes, there are plenty of information channels open, that makes a “readers digest” even more necessary for less well resourced organizations – you know the old “over-newest and under-informed” story).

    Seeing ghosts 1
    Other then Nuno I am not a big supporter of polemics. There are some assumptions that might intend to rightly challenge or scrutinize the current and previous YFJ leadership, but that are based on wrong facts. For example the YFJs relation with the European Commission, whilst the vast majority of the member organizations truly believe in the European project (which is accordingly reflected the YFJs policies) there is no praising of the Commission. Other then you might remember from your times, there are no longer any annual negotiations about the Youth Forums budget. Knowing that there is a separate negotiation about the budget every ear – might cause as we say in Austria “scissors in ones head” and people might be afraid of consequence of assertive critique and therefore censor themselves. The funding regulations however have changed and the Budget of the YFJ has a legal basis and is guaranteed till 2013. So there is no self-limitation or existential need to be friends with Commission officials. Indeed, if measures were taken that alleviated problems for example of the funding of international NGOs we do recognize them. But we used in the recent years all classic public relations options and every single opportunity to challenge the European Institutions (articles, interviews, our own publications, speeches, position papers, campaign material). This is especially evident in Areas such as Migration, Visa or NGO funding, where the lip service paid of the European Institutions is outrageously disproportionate to the resources made available to support progress or the actions taken in this respect. Then again, banging on doors and asking or screaming to be let in is loud and sometimes aggressive. With some interlocutors these times are simply over, the Youth Forum is not outside the building but on the table. So we cannot only scream that we are against things. We need to deliver suggestions, develop solutions or take responsibility. Clearly this is less spectacular then a wild street action or demonstrations. Still I wonder were your conclusion, that YFJ and EC mainly praise each other comes from. If this is indeed the public perception, this mismatch needs to be altered.

    Seeing ghosts 2
    I also do think the YFJ is a place for discourse. Not only did the YFJ undergo serious internal reforms in the last years, where the main aim was to increase the ownership of its members, were the unequal resources of members to participate in their umbrella organization were taken into account, where spaces were created for more continuous and meaningful participation at early stages of processes and policy making. The YFJ and its members also took honest stock of their weaknesses, one example being diversifying their own membership. Being aware of the responsibility that the YFJ has through its privileged position with the EU or the CoE as well as being aware of trends that do not necessarily favour lifelong membership in an association, plus first and foremost having an emancipatory vision and faithfully trying to empower young people in Europe and the World. And without a doubt, reaching out to more and more diversified youth groups, especially those who are currently marginalized is not easy and does not show immediate results. The YFJ tried to highlight practice that led to successful and respectful inclusion of predominantly marginalized youth, we tried to reform funding structures that contradict the aim of social cohesion, and we exchanged experience, made tools that should help to start responsible long term outreach projects. This included structural changes, a lot of awareness raising and campaign work as well as enabling individuals. With already limited reliable funding options, this is surely a continuous struggle for a youth organization but it is inevitable that these struggles will be continued and even more effort will be made in this respect. The current priorities of the YFJ and its work plan point in this direction.

    Representative democracy 1
    Surely the YFJ is a membership-driven organization and its current state necessarily reflects what member organizations would like the Youth Forum to be – or not to be. And indeed, the member organizations do not want the Youth Forum to be a grass route organization, but an advocacy organization. The YFJ truly does not have the most pinnacle and pointed positions. There is not a big tradition of adopting positions with a razor-thin majority, rather the opposite- the members tend to look for compromise to ensure positions that reflect the common ground we share. This decreased the flashiness, but I hopefully continues to increase the ownership. In this respect I do not really understand which wings of the forum you are talking about, as all significant decisions were taken almost unanimous. Certainly single-issue organizations would be able to deliver more specific critique or demands, but the YFJ is a broad and hybrid platform, were such a significant change of organizational culture would only be possible if the vast majority agrees to go a more controversial path. To call the position papers a culmination of lack of courage and authenticity is simplifying and ignoring a democratic and representative tradition, which is valued by the YFJs members, despite being not the fastest way to come to decisions or the most trendy management style. However dominant you perceive different members of the Youth Forum, no matter how articulate some are, at the end of the day, every member organization has only one vote, so neither arithmetically a member can be dominant over another, nor financially, as there are flat rates for membership fees and a balance between the pillars.

    Representative democracy 2
    Indeed only a minority of events that the Youth Forum is organizing is open to people other then its own member organization delegates, it is only the case for events that are co-organized with other cooperation partners. The Youth Forum is aiming to debate, exchange, and learn with and from its members and this is challenging already. So unsurprisingly policy seminars or trainings are supposed to support and strengthen members and are based on the understanding that the participants function as multipliers. This should guarantee coherence, avoid reinventing the wheel and assure early involvement of members in defining directions of the YFJ. The needs of the members change over time and indeed, a major overhaul of the action and activity culture of the YFJ might be needed. A current reform debate of statutory bodies and working methods should soon allow developing a better and more adequate offer for the membership. A changed or reformed system must increase the ownership of the members and make it relevant to their work and such change cannot be dictated by a few member organizations only. And it should strive the balance to still be able to develop specific policy and practise solutions for challenges that young people face today.

    The real problems of the real young people?! – or where does authenticity come from?
    The criticism that European Umbrella structures are hardly lead by the most marginalized in society is curious. Not only am I not aware of any qualitative study looking at the bank accounts of the youth leaders and their parents – also per definition, if I am president or chair of an organization I am no longer marginalized. So whilst there might be much more people in leadership functions that were raised by single mums, that experienced poverty, that are gay or had migrant experience then we know, I am also fully aware that volunteer work is increasingly becoming a luxury. In times of rising tuition fees, of precarious and dubious work contracts or simply increased pressure at the labor marked someone without significant support from family and friends can not devote high amounts of time to European youth policy on an unpaid level. And confronted with the choice of volunteering a bit more or paying the next months rent – usually the existential option to earn a living wins. So the close contact to youth facing challenges, the involvement of young people struggling on the grass route level is essential to hopefully soon reach a level where they are enabled and have the means to speak for themselves at every level. The YFJ tries very hard on many levels to progress to this point – through advocating for legal changes allowing greater participation and sanctioning discrimination, through awareness raising and campaigns that make our political leaders recognize the problems of young people today and through work and involvement with young people that is aiming at emancipation and empowerment. We do this through our members at all policy levels and with all kinds of tools and ways of communications, and surely not all creativity and sovereignty in this respect is visible throughout Europe. Anyhow, this is an area of constant challenge and where enhancement is duly needed. But at the same time alleviating problems is not enough, real systemic and structural changes are needed here, which we can surly only reach with a big alliance of people that we share this goal with. Whilst the Youth Forum at a central level might seem conventional, many of our members are very creative and innovative to enhance their representativity and all of them have contacts to thousands of young people, may they be their members or just joining their efforts for a cause or a campaign.

    The only point where I do agree with you is that the YFJ is not yet reaching its full potential, but I have full trust that the current leadership is running to improve. Bettina, Bureau member 2005-2008

  4. Hello Bettina, and many thanks for your thoughts, and for putting aside your reservations about blog discussions! There is no rush with this debate—there are no quick answers to many of the Youth Forum’s dilemmas in any case—and while a month may seem like a long time, I cannot see how this makes your comments less valid.

    I fully respect that your opinion differs from mine—it is what makes a discourse interesting and potentially useful, after all—but I don’t think there is reason nor truth in calling me on wrong facts or claiming that I am seeing ghosts. (In fact, I disagree with Nuno about being polemic.)

    Much of what you write sounds reasonable, but in my perception the problems are lying underneath your descriptions – which might be accurate, but they are not complete.

    Many political positions, both on issues and on functions, are pre-negotiated in what are usually closed circles. I don’t think it is my role or responsibility to bring these groups out in the open, but I know from numerous COMEM delegates—current and past—that they continue to exist and remain active.

    There is, of course, not a problem per se with certain groups of connected organisations predetermining their positions.

    The problem is rather that the Youth Forum, as a platform, continues to behave as if this phenomenon would not exist. Courtesy to this ignorance, it remains a privilege of the few large and recourceful organisation to sort out their arguments and positions within their network in advance. The many small members do not have that capacity, and since the Youth Forum has not been able to provide them with an alternative, every meeting and every discussion begins on an unequal footing.

    Let me just quote the Scouts here, to exemplify what I mean. No small organisation has the capacity to develop and implement such a determined strategy to strengthen their influence in the Youth Forum:

    The membership of the Forum appointed Giuseppe Porcaro of AGESCI Italy and former key volunteer of the European Scout Region as the new Secretary-General of the platform in Brussels from 8 to 9 May. This appointment will further strengthen the role of Scouting at the helm of European youth civil society following the election of WOSM representative Tine Radinja as the President of the organisation in November 2008.

    Let me take up three further aspects in no specific order:

    1. I don’t think there is a mismatch between the public perception and the actual positions. I think there is a mismatch between the Youth Forum’s perception of how critical its positions really are!

    2. If the Youth Forum wants to be an advocacy organisation, that’s fine. But claiming to be representative for millions of young people? (I have, personally, always found this deeply embarassing and ridiculuous, but alas.) I do think that this kind of claim and self-entitlement is weakening the organisation, because neither young people nor political partners have reason to believe it, and they very often don’t.

    3. It’s not my personal claim that position papers are usually a meager compromise. I have heard this from numerous people who have actually worked on them, I have had this confirmed in emails in response to this article by people who preferred not to express their agreement or disagreement with my perspective in public – and it is a concern that has again been voiced in Island, just a few days ago.

    Last but not least, you rightly observe that I do not offer any solutions. Such solutions could only be found in dialogue – yes, I would be very interested in engaging in such a dialogue, but I suppose it is the Youth Forum’s decision to take on that challenge, or not. My cards are openly on the table, and have been for a month now.

  5. Just a quick pointer in response to Bettina’s observation that

    … criticism that European Umbrella structures are hardly lead by the most marginalized in society is curious…

    One of the many reports underlining and showcasing that participation in democratic societies remains a luxury as long as voluntary work receives no acknowledgement of economic value is this report from the 2005 thematic seminar of the Youth Partnership on social inclusion and young people.

    There are youth organisations across Europe who address this dilemma not only on a political level, but also on a pragmatic level — by providing financial support for their volunteers in key functions, for example.

    Their argument usually claims that the financial independence gained through such systems of renumeration allows economically marginalised young people to take advantage of their right to participate which remains otherwise purely theoretical and reserved for those young people whose parents are willing and able to financially back their engagement.

    This is a problem that only gets worse at European level, because the money needed to sustain one’s participation in a European association is considerably more compared to local, regional and national levels.

    I guess Nuno does have a point there.

  6. I am happy that this debate is moving on and we are now 3 active participants. Thank you Bettina for your comments. they were sharp, clear and inspiring. I must say i do not appreciate polemics for the sake of it. What i like is the sort of provocations that can motivate reflections and maybe new ways of addressing old issues.
    As for the Youth Forum i really think it is a micro example of how things are happening in our modern democracies within Europe.
    About democracy and representation i must say i agree with Andreas that the speech that YFJ is representing all young people around Europe is fallacious and embarrassing, at least for me. Nevertheless, we must recognize that it is the biggest youth organization around the world and that is represents more young people than most political parties in power around Europe. Therefore the political recognition is nothing more than a must and a conquest of the past young leaders generations.
    On the other hand, just like in each country when elections take place, the participation of member organization in the forum is not only unequal between the bigger and the smaller MOs but also it suffers from many deviations in what concerns participation of young people in the decision making processes within the MOs themselves. I wonder how many people in each MO are able to follow the Youth Forum agenda and to really contribute to its enrichment. I know from my background organization that it is quite difficult to do so. On this matter i think we must invest more in each MO on the development of the participation processes and the links between the core activities of each organization and the political demands coming out of this activities. So there needs to be a sort of conciliation between the daily life’s of young people actively involved in the organizations work (volunteers, organizers, decision makers, etc) and the political agendas they defend within the youth forum context. I know that in reality most organizations agendas are dictated by very few people who might not be responsible for that (sometimes it is a question of who is active and interested in such matters) but who are at least responsible to fight within their organizations to involve more people in the decision making processes who are more demanding time and resource wise. This means that new processes connecting the grassroots’ work with the political dimensions must be put in place by MOs and the Youth Forum and not just having leaders interpreting the young people’s aspirations, needs and demands.
    Finally i want to focus my criticism on youth forum matters in what concerns the decision making processes and the elections since i think that it is here that the political games are reducing the capacity of the platform to be a transparent, participatory and dialogue based organization. The current informal blocks of interest are working on logics of agreements and vote obligations which reduce their capacity of autonomy and internal processes of decision making. If one organization must be obliged to vote according to its political or interest family within the forum due to agreements on future support to a candidate of their own then we loose the opportunity to have democratic process where organizations choose what is the best common interest to start working in a logic of families whose vote is a negotiation for personal interests and not the interests of the entire platform. At the moment i see this as one of the main problems that affects the quality of the leadership and the quality and stability of the secretariat. How is it possible that bureau members are not aware of the YFJ agenda and fully depend on the secretariat to construct their opinions, discourses and so on??? It sound like a perfect example of how the European Parliament or any national parliament works but we are talking about a pan European youth platform who wishes to transform society defending principles such as inclusion, participation, human rights and democracy. I fail to see that discourse in essence in most of the leaders of today within the youth council.
    Another concern of mine is that this political crisis in the youth forum is the reflex of the current crisis in our societies and their political leaderships. for me these crisis are an opportunity to change paradigm and reconstruct our societies renewing their own foundations. In case the youth forum doesn’t find processes and approaches that incorporate the new trends of “common” young people and their capacity to innovate and create new approaches, it will continue to develop in a more formated and formal way than even the politicians and institutions it addresses, who are so far away and facing such crisis of trust with the common citizen of Europe.
    We must never forget that the historical recognition and support the youth movement has guaranteed in the last decade as come with a counterpart – this support is a sort of decompression from the pressure pan which are our societies – instead of leading to social change and transformation it might become a tool for enduring power relations among institutions and interest groups.
    The challenge is then to have MOs ensuring the link between their grassroots work and the work within the Youth Forum, reducing the gap among this and the young people who are on the base of the organizations. It is not an easy work but for sure a necessary one to make the work of the forum more transparent, accountable and known to a wider public.
    That is all for now. Thank you both for enriching this reflection.
    Sarava

  7. I very much agree with your conclusion Nuno: “The challenge is then to have MOs ensuring the link between their grassroots work and the work within the Youth Forum, reducing the gap among this and the young people who are on the base of the organizations. It is not an easy work but for sure a necessary one to make the work of the forum more transparent, accountable and known to a wider public.”

    Being in the leadership of the YFJ I would have loved thousands of people more who care and who make the effort to contribute with their expertise. I also observed that already with the easiest things – like one click forwards of an e-newsletters or a seminar invitation– this communication was not very smooth. More knowledge and understanding of what is going on in the YFJ would increase not only the ownership of its members but also the accountability of its leadership.

    If organizations have the same understanding of how the youth forum should run, I see it pragmatic and logic that they get together and work and coordinate closer how to reach their aims. Whilst I am fully aware that arithmetic is needed to win elections, it is always saddening to see when such debates are no longer made based on common understanding and vision and who could implement those best, but mainly reduced to arithmetic reasoning. This is especially limiting when it involves promises for future elections. Every delegate and every organization has to decide in how far they engage in bargaining. Both – secretary general and president – have to win the trust of more then half of the membership and there were alternative candidates in the all recent elections. I think it is inaccurate to blame election results on the bureau and call the whole youth forum a self-absorbed shadow of itself.

    As youth organizations, we must be conscious of the risk of reproducing structures of exclusion, and serving as the hothouse for the elites of the future. In seeking to demonstrate that we are the leaders of today, we must embody the diversity of our constituencies, recognizing their heterogeneous needs, and duly articulating them. For youth organizations, reaching out must go beyond quota systems, political correctness, or ill-thought out idealism; reaching out means providing excluded youth with opportunities for participation, and access to those opportunities. While this may entail making ourselves vulnerable, it also signifies a true acceptance of the agency of young people to make decisions and act on their own behalf.

    But one thing is for sure, even if a new European umbrella is set up, alliances would quickly develop. Also new umbrella organizations will have the same problems of connecting the European Leadership with the local volunteers.

    Unfortunately we all got to see in the last days what a disconnection between European level and National level means: Shifts to those who play with the fears of citizens. Europe is home to some of the richest countries in the world and still there is racial polarization and an almost unbroken rise on the extreme right. Politicians too often resort to stereotypes or amplify the negative to the point of distorting reality, falling short on providing solutions through which all can progress in their lives. Politicians may exploit anger and fear to divide electorates along racial or social lines, or to make up for their own failings. Fading welfare policies may have, for many years, worsened the situation and widened the gap between those with access to resources and opportunities, and those left excluded which is now scary humus for the economic crisis.

  8. “And without a doubt, reaching out to more and more diversified youth groups, especially those who are currently marginalized is not easy and does not show immediate results. ”

    It may not be easy, but there are youth organizations doing it. Find them and empower. Their work is yours.

    As far as ‘does not show immediate results’ goes, I disagree. More like ‘has’ not shown immediate results [yet]. Step around the beaurocracy and bring socially, economically, and politcally diverse youth voices to the table. Beaurocracy is so unyouthful. There are ways to bring immediate and meaningful contributions from a larger and more diverse crowd. Crowd sourcing technologies for immediate input is one example, cost effective, and opens the number of youth who can participate. Live broadcast, web streaming, and pda media is youth in an immediate way.

    I stumbled on this article through twitter and was captivated. Love the passion for change and yearning for authentic youth voice.

    :)
    Mark

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