Taking Wing: Pathways to participation and leadership through youth wings

This generation of young people is turning away from traditional political institutions and processes – including political parties – and finding alternative ways to express their views and influence decisions. Through individualized forms of activism and online platforms, young people are not rejecting politics, but instead demonstrating discontent with formal systems viewed as inaccessible and unresponsive to their evolving priorities. A recent NDI survey in Hungary, Poland and Slovakia found that less than 10 percent of youth would consider joining a political party, an important formal avenue to participate in politics. Despite an overall global decline in political party membership and youth disaffection with traditional politics, political parties remain essential when it comes to the peaceful competition of power and earning the right to govern in a democracy.

NDI is working to understand the avenues for youth political participation and leadership, and how support can be delivered so that youth can generate change within formal systems. As part of a broader research effort funded by the USAID, under the Global Elections and Political Transitions program, NDI examined the role political party youth wings can play in amplifying the voice and influence of young people. The preliminary findings show that in certain circumstances, youth wings can offer a formative political experience.

For more than three decades, NDI has supported political party youth wings as a means of engaging young people in formal politics. Youth wings are semi-independent bodies within a political party. Although structures differ, most youth wings have an established age for membership (e.g., 16-35), work to initiate young people into party politics and strengthen a party’s ability to address youth-specific policy issues – among other core functions. Organized youth wings, across party systems, are indicative of an important minority of young people trying to satisfy political aspirations through political party involvement. Youth wings can be a source of creativity and dynamism within a political party and are enabled when they have opportunities to shape party policies and participate in decision making. This includes having youth wing representation on internal party councils and drawing from youth wing membership to fill candidate lists. Although they typically comprise a small percentage of youth in a country’s population, these young people have demonstrated an interest in party politics and working within the system to generate change.

NDI’s research identified structural factors that can enable or inhibit active, substantive youth participation and leadership:

  • how youth wing leaders are selected and whether there are reserved seats for youth wing members on the party’s ruling body
  • the availability of financial resources and the extent to which youth wings have autonomy to make financial decisions
  • what roles youth wings play in party decisions
  • and how youth wings are expected to engage during elections

NDI also found other factors that influence the way youth agency develops. For example,

  • Are there opportunities for youth wing members to gain practical political knowledge and skills?
  • Are they interacting with senior party leaders and other adults?
  • Does their activism increase their visibility?

Efforts to support political party youth wings should be designed in terms of the needs and opportunities presented by the enabling environment within parties and the agency of young people involved.

When space is created for meaningful youth participation, young people can play more substantive roles in parties. For instance, in Pakistan and Tunisia, NDI assisted the development of new statutes that give youth wing members a seat on decision-making bodies and provide them with greater access to candidate lists. Similarly, when space is available, youth wing members can be supported as active contributors to party policy making and strategic decision making. This can also include helping youth wing members learn how to run a successful campaign and gain elected office. In countries with a history of violent conflict (e.g., Bosnia and Herzegovina, Democratic Republic of Congo or Kenya), NDI has brought youth wings of different parties together to work on cross-cutting policy issues, which strengthen norms of peaceful and multi-partisan cooperation.  

Young people’s involvement in decision-making requires their political participation through both formal and informal channels. If young people only engage with democracy by employing “civil disobedience,” rather than formally participating, they will inevitably be left out of crucial decision-making processes. NDI’s work with political party youth wings offers a potential pathway young people can use to influence change from within multi-party systems to strengthen inclusive democratic governance.

*Editor's note: This blog was co-authored by Emily Malina and Rachel Mims in Washington, DC.