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Global Youth


An interdisciplinary research centre that examines what it means to grow up in a global world


Politics, economics, children and young people

By Dr Laila Kadiwal, on 14 June 2017

A guest post from Prof.  Priscilla Alderson, Professor Emerita of Childhood Studies, Social Science Research Unit, University College London Institute of Education

The ‘youthquake’ in the June 2017 UK election promises two important developments. One is young people’s new interest in voting, debating politics, and attending political meetings. This was partly encouraged by Labour’s promotion of social media contacts, rallies and gigs where star musicians were very keen to perform. The second development we can hope for is that governments will have to take young people’s needs and interests far more seriously in all their policy making.

However, to date children and young people under-18 tend to be excluded from politics and economics in two main ways. The mainstream researchers, policy makers and journalists tend to ignore young people, while those who research, discuss and write about people aged under-18 tend to avoid politics and economics. They concentrate instead on services and amenities for young people, their relationships and daily experiences, the personal rather than the political.

Yet policies affect the youngest generations most of all. Brexit, for instance, will shape many decades of their lives, but few decades for older people. Taking the legal definition of childhood to include everyone aged under-18, my book The Politics of Childhoods Real and Imagined examines how they are central to mainstream society and policy.

politics priscila book

In the book, I review three main areas: climate change, the breaking up of the welfare state especially the NHS, and neoliberal economics. Academics are supposed to stay inside their very small area of expertise, not to risk showing their ignorance if they venture beyond it. And yet childhood and youth can only be understood within their broad, complex social and political contexts, not apart from them. And each context, such as climate change, can only be understood in relation to the others, to global politics and economics, trade, conflict and inequality.

So I have risked exploring large areas at the level of the informed citizen, to search for the missing children and young people in the policy debates and reports, and to fill in some of the missing analysis of how they are so greatly affected by policies and events. I’ve aimed to summarise knowledge and debates on topics from climate change to neo-liberalism in ways that will interest general readers and not offend experts.

I hope everyone concerned with children and young people will look at the book, so that they can further the book’s aims: to see how deeply current affairs affect young people, and to urge everyone to recognise this and take the youngest generations far more seriously when they think about and work for ‘society’.

To take the NHS and the rapid privatising, for example (see here),  children are among the highest users of healthcare, which can give lifelong benefit by preventing and healing problems or at least reducing them. When the NHS opened in 1948, for the first time, most children in Britain began to have access to healthcare, and therefore the numbers of paediatric staff and researchers quickly grew. By the 1960s-1970s, new services for premature babies and for children’s heart surgery were beginning to save many lives. Children’s heart services depend on swift referral and close contact between local and regional centres, while young people with diabetes need care from a wide range of specialities, which the National Health Service is uniquely able to coordinate.

For 70 years, older people have enjoyed the welfare state, relative peace and a fairly stable climate. But great changes and losses are now starting to affect everyone, and most of all those who may live into the 22nd century. My book ends with a chapter on how to work for utopian change towards more just and peaceful societies with and for young people as well as adults.

The Politics of Childhoods Real and Imagined: Practical Application of Critical Realism and Childhood Studies, Volume 2 (2016 Routledge).

The multiple roles that young people play in conflict-affected contexts

By Dr Laila Kadiwal, on 2 June 2017

Increasingly, attention is being directed internationally to the important role of youth in violence and conflict. In my research with the Research Consortium on Education and Peacebuilding on youth in armed conflict-affected settings, I have noticed that there are five roles that are commonly ascribed to young people in contexts of violent conflict.

Youth model

Youth as perpetrators of violent conflict: This perspective sees young people as risks, threats and active agents in perpetuating conflict and in undermining national or international security. Youth are often described as soldiers, combatants, fighters, terrorists, militants, rebel, abductors, suicide bombers, drug dealers, gang members, violent extremists, and criminals.

Youth as victims in violent conflict: Conflict affects young people negatively in many ways. According to recent figures, more than 25 million young people are currently living in crisis situations (UNICEF 2016). Conflict violates their basic human right – namely, ‘the right to life, liberty and security of person’. They are at increased risk of being killed, injured, orphaned, abducted, or raped in conflict. They are also often forced into roles that make them even more vulnerable, such as: providers of sexual services, couriers, cooks, spies, child soldiers, unwilling abductees and suicide bombers. Most of the young people in zones of conflict are cut off from sustained humanitarian aid and basic services. Studies suggest that conflict hugely harms young people even psychologically as they experience strong feelings of guilt, fear, desire for vengeance and an overwhelming sense of loss and hopelessness in conflict.

Youth as bystanders in peace processes: This perspective views youth mainly as passive onlookers in conflict and peace processes. Many conflict contexts do not have the institutional apparatuses, resources, and /or political will to involve young people or address youth issues, which results in a marginalization of youth from dialogue and reform. Youth are frequently accorded an implicit and indirect place within broader international and governmental initiatives (Lopes Cardozo, et al. 2016).

Youth as an asset in peace processes: Despite this, a substantial policy discourse, promoted more recently by international and local actors, revolves around viewing young people as resourceful agents for rebuilding communities, state and society. Young people are characterized as leaders, ‘capital’ and assets. The findings of the Research Consortium on Education and Peacebuilding from four conflict contexts suggest that the economic dimensions of youth agency receive the most emphasis within the broader national and international economic policies. Youth is often narrowly conceived as an economic asset, whose primary role is to support the neoliberal agenda of the national and international elites rather than as critical agents who question the very basis of inequalities and conflict.

Youth as peacebuilders: This perspective views a youth as a transformative agent, who mitigate social, economic and political drivers of conflict for just and sustainable peace. The characterisation of youth as peacebuilders does not reductively see their role as merely ensuring ‘negative peace’ (as the absence of war and violence), or ‘liberal peace’ (as the promotion of democracy and free trade) but enables them to play a critical role in challenging the root causes of violent conflict. It is this role which receives the least attention in contemporary peace processes.

peace youth

Problems with the descriptions of youth in conflict
While the above labels serve as analytical categories, in practice their application is contextual, incoherent, and problematic in at least three ways.

First, in different contexts and settings, a youth may simultaneously play multiple roles. An armed youth could be seen as both a terrorist and a victim of the broader structure. This means that youths’ peacebuilding agency cannot be understood in isolation to how their surroundings influence them and in turn how they influence their environment.

Secondly, different actors ascribe different labels to the youth depending on their interests and agenda. For instance, earlier this year, I attended a Sikh Vaisakhi festival at a Gurudwara (a Sikh place of worship) near London. Inside, I saw photos of young men that were killed in a violent conflict with the Indian army during the 1970s and ‘80s. While the Sikh diaspora of this Gurudwara venerated these youth as holy martyrs, who sacrificed their lives for an independent Sikh homeland, the state of India view them as militants whose separatist rebellion threatened the national integrity.

Thirdly, different notions of peace underpin different assumptions about the role of youth in conflict. Whether peace means maintaining security, promoting free trade, implementing democracy or promoting a more transformational process determines how the role of youth is viewed in peace process.

In short, youth are simultaneously seen as threats, victims, bystanders, assets and socially conscious actors in conflict and peace processes and these contrasting views tell us of the very different (and often contradictory) roles that are ascribed to young people in conflict by different actors.