Educating, empowering and involving Youth

untitledText of a presentation at the World Conference on Youth – 8 May 2014

I am grateful to Aide et Action for this opportunity to speak to you, and even more grateful that they have engaged in a process of international consultation to highlight issues crucial for the well-being of youth. The document they have put together provides a clear and concise account of how the areas initially touched upon in the Colombo Declaration can be fleshed out meaningfully.

Underlying the suggestions are a few basic principles that need continuous emphasis. Inclusivity and involvement, information and awareness, empowerment and equal access, all require greater attention from governments.

To achieve this, I think it is necessary to pursue comprehensive reform with regard to mindsets. Reform is of course central to the agenda of Liberalism, which is the creed I uphold, but I think in this context we should also use another word, which has often been twinned with Liberalism.  I refer to the term Radicalism, which means essentially the idea of getting to the core of things and uprooting whatever is not conducive to progress. It is because Liberalism has often been misunderstood, and thought to stand for only free market policies, that in many areas Liberals associate themselves with Radicals, as in an institution of great energy and commitment, the International Federation of Liberal and Radical Youth. This juxtaposition was sometimes necessary to emphasize the Liberal commitment to inclusive progress.

Liberals do indeed believe in free markets, but they also realize, unlike capitalists and conservatives, that markets are not free unless measures are in place to reduce inequalities, to enhance opportunities and to control power, whether it be political, economic, social or physical. The creation of a level playing field may be an impossible dream, but that does not reduce the imperative to pursue this.

This dream, this ideal, lies at the heart of the Colombo declaration, and the additions Aide et Action have suggested on the basis of their consultations in four continents and 16 countries. The details of the consultation make clear how AEA is well qualified to undertake such a task, given the remarkable work it has engaged in all over the world.

I have seen this system of aid in action in just two countries, India and Sri Lanka, but the confidence of their students, and the initiatives they undertake, make it clear that this is an organization that puts its principles into practice. It is for this reason that, over the last couple of years, I have used much of my decentralized budget to set up Vocational Training Centres in the North to be run by Aide et Action. I should add that I was keen that these be set up in schools, to emphasize the link between academic and vocational education, something that the consultations have stressed is necessary. I am happy to say that the initial snooty approach of the Sri Lankan Ministry of Education to Vocational Training is now changing – though not fast enough for my liking – and I received active cooperation from the authorities, both earlier and now, more recently, from the new Provincial administration.

My initiative in the North seemed necessary since, though government had done much with regard to infrastructural development, it had been neglectful of what is even more important, namely human resource development. I believe this is because the Sri Lankan government is built on personalities rather than principles but, as the results of the last Provincial Council elections showed, cement alone is not enough to win hearts and minds. I was reminded then of something I had written ten years ago, when invited to pen an article on ‘The School of the Future’. I referred there to ‘a few principles that I have tried to demand in any institution I work in’, though I should add that I have been largely unsuccessful in this effort. The first was ‘planning in terms of clearly defined targets that are appreciated by all those involved’. This last part is of the essence, and the documents before us, the draft Colombo declaration and the AEA consultation results, make it clear how young people desire information about, and involvement in, measures supposedly taken for their welfare.

In this context I should refer to a point made forcefully in the summary of the consultation, namely the need for ‘conducive policies to promote agriculture, fisheries and allied sectors, and policies to promote small and micro-enterprises’. For the last few years I have been stressing this, both on basic principles and also following consultation of rural communities at the Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committees I had initiated in the North and East. But given the lack of a coherent planning mechanism, and the determination of individual politicians to promote practices that benefit themselves, none of this was even considered. Thus, while government was effective in ensuring that good harvests were produced very soon after resettlement began, it made no effort to add value to the products of agricultural labour.

I still recall vividly a member of a Women’s Rural Development Society, in a long neglected area, telling one of the earliest meetings I had had convened that, while support for agriculture had been provided,  farmers would do better if they had training in marketing. I have also been asked often about support for agri-business, but it took far too long for government to appoint officials to each Grama Niladhari Division to promote Economic Development, and there are still no effective systems in place to ensure the development of small businesses.

Again, despite the obvious need for systematic vocational training in the north, if only because of the obvious construction requirement, very little was done, and we found therefore complaints that building gave jobs to people from outside rather than those in the area who desperately needed employment. The success of the Indian Housing Project, in its latest incarnation where funds are given direct to potential householders, makes clear how much would have been achieved, in providing productive employment as well as ensuring infrastructural development, had planning been more coherent, and placed people rather than construction works at the centre.

The failure also to develop and follow through sensible practices with regard to micro-credit has proved tragic. In one area I was told that the state banks would not lend any more because they had had no repayments, but it turned out that they had given loans only to men. The failure to consider the actual needs of the area, as well as to work on the well established truth that women are more reliable borrowers, had led to what I can only describe as culpable waste. Underlying this of course was the failure to put in place, given the gender inequalities of the past, compensatory measures to protect and empower women.

All this is the sadder, because the guidelines on which we should have worked were present in the manifesto on which our President ran for election. But the relentless politicization of public policy over the last few decades, and the empowerment of politicians rather than people, enhanced by our destructive electoral system, has meant that the Presidential manifesto was totally ignored by the Parliamentarians who, having propelled themselves into a host of executive offices that serve little purpose, really exercise power in this country. So the local consultation enjoined by the President was ignored.

Other areas in which Presidential directives have been ignored bear directly on problems raised in these discussion papers. It is clearly acknowledged that ready access to education is essential, but we continue to tolerate difficulties with transport that prevent rural children from getting to school easily. Recognizing the problem, the President advocated two years ago that transport for schooling – and for markets, another necessity to encourage the farming community – be provided by local authorities. But controlling interests, whether at the level of Central or Provincial governments, have done nothing about this, and sadly our Presidential system of government in fact prevents the President from ensuring that his directives are carried out, given his total dependence on a Parliamentary majority.

One other area of concern, where the President’s vision has not been enacted, refers to the judicial system. Many voices in these documents indicate the need for a new approach to juvenile justice, that stresses reform rather than punishment. But, while there is a little more attention to rehabilitation than previously, the radical reforms of the judicial system that we need are not being pursued. In particular, efforts made in trying to fast forward the recommendation of the National Human Rights Action Plan, to reduce mandatory remanding, fell flat in the failure of clear responsibilities within the system for the proposed reforms. So we find vast numbers of young people still being remanded for trivial offences, in a system that seems designed to create criminals rather than prevent criminal activity.

Problems are particularly acute with regard to drug related offenses, and I am glad that these documents refer frequently to this problem. Unfortunately many countries, not only Sri Lanka, do not pay enough attention to prevention rather than cure. In particular we need to recognize the need for better and more readily available counselling, in particular for young people. Sadly, despite the need that was apparent as the war was heading to a conclusion, for better counselling services in the North, nothing was done to develop these, and my constant reminders seem to have fallen on deaf years. I should note though that, thanks to the dynamic vision of the Secretary to the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs, efforts are being made to put in place helpful services. But it must be recognized that this will require better coordination between all relevant actors, a practice Sri Lanka seems to find undesirable. But perhaps this is true of many countries, given the egos of those in authority who would prefer to fail on their own, rather than enjoy a success that must be shared.

Interesting enough these documents suggest another way of dealing with the tendency towards substance abuse, namely encouragement of sports and leisure activities. This fits in with a strong recommendation of our Parliamentary Consultative Committee on education, namely that extra-curricular activities be made compulsory. Unfortunately this recommendation, like many others, has been ignored. But I hope the many arguments these documents make regarding the positive impact of such activities will at least get some attention from those able to make and enforce decisions. In particular I should cite the recognition in the draft Colombo declaration of ‘the role inclusive recreation, sports and culture can play in social integration and in particular the role of sports in avoiding non communicable diseases’. But the draft also notes the ‘lack of motivation by parents, school and the community for recreational activities, arts and sports and the attitudes towards these leisure time activities often means youth are not willing to participate in them’. In this regard I can only hope that the dynamism of our National Youth Services Council will be given free reign, and that the blocking elements in the relevant Ministries will be persuaded to allow those who can, to do, without engaging in the bureaucratic blocking that currently seems endemic.

The AEA document also draws attention to the need for provision of sufficient land for such activities, and ‘the strong need to have some budgeting provisioning to create such facilities at the village level’. While all this is correct, I would add that the state should also take steps to encourage self-help in such situations. Thus, in the Eastern Province, under a visionary Deputy Inspector General of Police, the Civil Defence Committees were encouraged to engage in projects to satisfy local needs, and this included the provision of playing fields (as well as toilets and other essentials for schools). I would suggest then that, if my suggestion of a more inclusive approach to aid programmes is accepted, we develop mechanisms of providing matching funds to local community organizations that are willing to expend their own time and energy for building such facilities for the young.

This should also extend to community centres which could be information centres whilst also providing facilities for cultural activities. I am reminded in this context of the work of our most imaginative Inspector General of Police, who encouraged Community Policing long before the concept became fashionable, and explained the need to provide entertainment and opportunities for communal activities for villages. L believe this is as important as the promotion of employment opportunities for youth ‘who otherwise would not prefer to move out to urban areas for employment’.

But, as noted, the centres which should be set up at least in every Division should be for education and information as well as entertainment. They should be manned by facilitators who could help fulfil the need AEA records of exposure ‘to global issues and developmental perspectives through peer interactions and e-learning tools’. I should note too that such centres could be used to increase awareness with regard to migration in pursuit of economic opportunities. Whilst I much appreciate the emphasis in the records of some of the AEA consultations on the need to create jobs locally, we have to recognize that, for the moment at least, getting a job abroad is the dream of many youngsters. We need therefore to help them both to understand the problems migrant labour faces, so that their decisions are informed ones, and also to develop the confidence and capacity to deal with such problems.

I was heartened in this regard that the AEA report notes that ‘Youth across all the countries highlighted the need to have strong soft-skills development component within vocational education and skills training programs. For underprivileged youth, soft-skills help tremendously in building their confidence to deal with new work environment and life situations, since they are the first generation entrants into the formal sectors of work’. In this regard I have tried repeatedly to ensure that the syllabuses of our Vocational Training Authorities, including the University of Vocational Technology, include effective soft skills, but this is another area in which I have to admit failure. Given that UNIVOTEC for many years produced hardly any graduates, given the still lingering belief amongst the academically oriented administrators it had that technicians were a lesser breed without the law, I suppose I should not be surprised that there is little commitment to empowering youngsters who are not seen as fully equal. But I trust that the realities of modern employment opportunities and conditions, and the institutionalization of consultation procedures with the youth for whose benefit programmes should be developed, will lead to a change in attitudes and practices, sooner rather than later.

What I can only describe as Neanderthal attitudes have led in Sri Lanka to actual backsliding with regard to another important area addressed in these reports. The draft declaration has many sensible ideas about ‘Promoting healthy lives and access to health’, and asserts that sexual and reproductive health needs should be identified, and that ‘non-discriminatory, rights-based, age appropriate, gender-sensitive health education which includes comprehensive sexuality education’ should be provided. However in Sri Lanka, though in theory the subject figures in school syllabuses, it is often avoided, and the lame excuse is offered that many teachers are shy about the subject. And now, to make matters worse, reproductive health services are being reduced, apparently in the ridiculous belief that they led to falling birth rates amongst some communities. The fact that we now have increasing instances of sexually transmitted diseases, as well as abortions, is ignored, since the promotion of shallow ethnic concerns is seen as more important by some policy makers than health and safety. False arguments with regard to the need to cut costs, or to promote an archaic concept of morality, should also be forcefully combated by young people, since bigoted old men – rarely, I suspect, women, who are the main victims of such attitudes – should not be allowed to endanger those with their lives ahead of them.

In this regard, as well as others, I should reiterate the need for education to be about empowerment. In Sri Lanka our Ministry of Education has rested for years on its laurels with regard to literacy rates where, because of the imaginative vision of our first Minister of Education, C W W Kannangara, we provided free education to all who needed it. He also developed high quality schools all over the country, which gave rural students education that equaled that of their urban peers.

Sadly there was no effort after he lost his seat at the time we got our independence, and was replaced by a conservative old worthy, to take forward the spirit of his reforms. So we have in effect gone backward, despite good literacy rates, and we no longer provide decent opportunities to most rural students. The disparity between prestigious schools and others with regard to pass rates in subjects that will ensure productive employment is massive. And though periodically the Ministry embarks on grandiose pojects, generally involving much capital expenditure, to improve a few rural schools, there is no coherent planning to improve teacher quality (and indeed presence) or enhance administrative skills.

Syllabuses by and large fill heads with facts on the lines of Dickens’ Gradgrind, and there is no room for imagination. I was horrified to find recently that there were no stories in an English text book for small children, but I suppose I should not be surprised that those responsible have not bothered to respond to my complaint. Though lip service is paid to developing skills and attitudes, there is little room for initiative or project work that will enhance skills of communication and cooperation.

Underlying this is a problem endemic in Sri Lanka that I see as a hangover from the all-powerful colonial state. This is the practice of the same agency prescribing what is required, providing it, and monitoring such provision. Kannangara believed in establishing a framework, encouraging diverse models of delivery, but also ensuring provision to all who needed supply. Unfortunately the bureaucracy he created has ended up, like all monsters, concerned mainly with perpetuating itself, and adding to its size. So uniform texts without any system of quality control are produced, and more and more of them, texts and workbooks and teacher guides, all of which are duly paid for. Uniform test papers are prepared with separate payment for marking, unlike in the days when schools had to display initiative within the established framework. So no room is left for the diversity and promotion of individual excellence in a social setting that the old autonomous school engendered.

Aide et Action has developed practices to overcome the sausage machine mentality that our current education system develops, and I hope its methods will be studied and replicated. The serious effort made, through its international network, to flesh out the draft declaration shows what can be achieved by the application of principles through discussion and the encouragement of diverse responses. The throwing up of ideas, which I have also tried to do in a small way, is the key to progress, and I hope the efforts of youngsters to express their aspirations and their ideals will bear fruit after this vibrant process.

Rajiva Wijesinha, MP

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