Development Issues

Critical Thinking about the World’s Development

Tensions and Challenges between Youth and Civil Society

Tensions and Challenges between Youth and Civil Society

The Hague, 21/July/2006 | By Rui Mesquita Cordeiro |
NGOs and Civil Society Building | ISS

This essay deals with the relationship between the youth and civil society, trying to find tensions
and challenges of this interaction, especially with some types of non governmental organisations
(NGO), latter on specified. To start with, we initially clear the picture, defining society as a whole,
and youth as a power structure within society, with all its dichotomies and comprehensions.
Right after, we live society and focus on civil  society specifically, stressing the main forms of
interaction between the youth and some types of NGOs. As a result, two main challenges are
exposed in this relationship, in terms of empowerment and participation. Such challenges are
discussed in the last part of this essay, where we elaborate more on these challenges and point
out some conclusions and considerations.
The Society and the Youth: Clearing the Picture
Alain Touraine says that the youth is just a reflex of society itself (Touraine 1996), being at the
same time its coming (a source of change and evolution) and its menace (a source of trouble
and threat). This is an interesting view that elucidates how diverse and contradictory society is in
itself, and so is the youth just the same. Both society and youth represent a collective of diverse
and heterogeneous actors, being the youth part of society’s realm.
As a result, defining society is an exercise of looking and understanding its diversity. Many try to
open up the box and to reveal the internal differentiations and variations in social structures,
like: 1. primary social relationships of identity and solidarity among kinship groups, ethnic
groups, primary groups and territorial groupings (Parsons 1961a); 2. economical relationships of
production and maintenance, like capitalists, labourers and the division of labour (Smith 1961;
Weber 1961), the ownership of private properties (Pollack and Maitland 1961), the household
micro-economic system (Play 1961), and the macro-economic development (Schumpeter 1961);
3. relationships of stratification and social mobility, like class stratification and struggle (Marx
1961); 4. relationships of social organisation, authority and power (Parsons 1961b); and lastly, 5.
relationships of religious beliefs, systems and society (Durkheim 1961). Overall, I usually define Rui Mesquita Cordeiro (9553)  ②
society myself as the sum of the relationships and processes between all individuals and
organisations in a given space, time, and culture.
Within society, the main actors vary in many categories. I see five  broader categories,
including the state machinery, the marketplace realm, the civil society space, the families (and
households), and the individuals (citizens and non-citizens). Besides, there are numerous other
crosscutting categories, like the youth, the men, the women, the elderly, the children, the
adults, classes, casts and so on, depending  the cultural aspects of the society. These
crosscutting categories are all around those broader categories, populating part of them
[graphic 1]
Each one of them forms a variety of different relationships with the youth, and all other
crosscutting categories; therefore, any deep study on youth and society should analyse each of
these interactions. As an individual, a young person is subject of rights and duties towards all
broader categories of society, sometimes also subject of lack of rights also; within the family or
the household, a young person is usually exposed to power relations that make her/him
dependent of the relatives’ will; in the marketplace, young people are usually seen as consumers
and as labour force, many times cheap ones; in civil society, the youth is mostly seen as target
group, but some already see it as actors; and within the state, the youth can also be a target
group, subject of rights and duties, but as citizens it can also exercise an import political role in
societal and public affairs. 
Defining youth implies the same level complexity. All above differentiations also apply to it, as it
is part of society itself. Additionally, the word ‘youth’ may suggest very different meanings, and
the simple exercise of looking at a dictionary  revels to us the general public comprehensions
about it, like for instance: “1. the time of life when a person is young”; “2. the quality or state
of being young”; “3. (often disapproving) a young man:
 the fight was started by a
gang of youths”; and “4. (also the youth) young people considered as a group” (Oxford
University 2001). These four  definitions expose some of the important dichotomies
surrounding the relationship between youth and society. These main dichotomies, from my
own standpoint, are:
1.  Youth as unity, youth as diversity: Youth, even in the singular form of the word, should be
understood as pure diversity and plurality, just like the word society is, otherwise, we
would always have to refer to societies (in  its plural form). The most common perceived
differentiations within youth are: rural or urban youth (Carneiro 1998) (Ballinger 2006); poor,
middle class or rich youth (Tommasi 2005, 1-Nov); included or excluded youth (WEF 2000);
student and non-student youth (Dayson 2006); gendered youth and sexuality (male, female,
heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, transsexual and so on) (Edwards 2004; Russell 2006);
and different religious youth (Webster 2006); among others.
2.  Youth as a biological age group, youth as a social constructed identity: The two first
meanings on the dictionary are part of a classical dichotomy within youth and development
studies, between youth as a biological age group and youth as a social constructed identity. Rui Mesquita Cordeiro (9553)  ③
Youth is a concept usually related to a certain age group; therefore, to a biological concept.
The UN system, for instance, defines youth as the group of people between the ages of 15
and 24 (UN 2005); however many other definitions are available, like those by Nicola Ansell
and Ben White
[table 1]
, but there’s no common agreement on these definition; moreover,
there are many inconsistencies between the academic world, the policy making world and
the real world when applying a  biological approach to define youth. Many countries have
different official definition of youth for their youth policies: for El Salvador it is between 7-18
years of age, for Colombia between 12-26 years, for Costa Rica between 12-35, for Mexico
12-29, for Argentina 14-30, for Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, and the Dominican Republic 15-24,
for Guatemala and Portugal 15-25, for Chile, Cuba, Spain, Panama and Paraguay 15-29, for
Nicaragua 18-30 and for Honduras it is between 0-25 (Reyes 2004). This biological
understanding is counter argued by the idea that youth is also understood as the state of
being young; being therefore a state of mind, or a state of spirit, that varies from culture to
culture (Côté and Allahar 1996). This is a social constructed approach, and as such, anyone,
being of any age, could be considered of youthful or non-youthful behaviour. As a matter of
fact, it is usual to find older people that still keep a strong youthful attitude towards life and
the world; while, on the other hand, it is  not difficult either to find youngsters which
behaviour and attitude are far from being considered youthful. Another idea upon social
constructed approaches towards youth is the cultural concept of generations and
generational conflict (Baskir 2006). 
3.  Youth as a problem, youth as a solution: The third Oxford Dictionary’s meaning for youth
reveals the taboo already stressed by Alain Touraine (1996) of youth as a problem and
youth as a solution; but unfortunately, the  dictionary only brings about the more
conservative side of this dichotomy, looking  at youth is as a problem. Indeed, there are
many defenders of such an idea, and many existing organisations dealing with it. Three main
approaches are seen within this logic: youth  as thugs, as user and as victims (Jeffs and
Smith 1999); furthermore, others analyse predictive and preventive factors to avoid the
“problem” (IYD 2003). The main critique to this view is about the negative label of marginal
or rebel given to the youth, and therefore the conservative response that automatically
comes in forms of control and punishment (Foucault 1975). From another perspective, more
progressist views point to youth as source  of solutions, and sources of renew. Many
 have been held and many websitesii
 created to debate and to spread solutions
coming from segments of the youth, both toward the youth itself and society in general.
Recent ideas on partnering with the youth (Rocha et al. 2005; Tancredi 2005; WKKF 2005)
show that the youth has an important role to bringing society more alternative solutions.
4.  Youth as future, youth as present time: From the previous dichotomies, it is easy to
develop the question whether the youth is owner of the future or of the present time. There
is still an important concern stating that youth points to the future of society; nevertheless, it
is very importantly to realise that many young people stress that it is not only the future that
belongs to them, but as they are “natives of the present” (Margulis and Urresti), they need to
be heard and to be taken into account right now, with no delay, both in terms of youth rights
and in terms of youth empowerment.
 Rui Mesquita Cordeiro (9553)  ④
5.  Youth as target group, youth as actor: The last Oxford Dictionary’s meaning for youth
exposes yet another dichotomy, on youth as  target group or youth as group of action.
Depending how one finds herself/himself over the previous dichotomies, she/he will relate in
a very different way to the youth. On the one hand, more conservative understandings on
unity, age, problem and future may open space for treating the youth as mere target groups.
On the other hand, more progressist understandings on diversity, identity, solution and
present open space for treating the youth as an actual actor in society; therefore, realising
that the youth should be considered and should participate in all levels of decision making in
our current society, in a true intergenerational dialog. Targeting the youth is still necessary in
some circumstances, some will argue, especially in cases of poverty, delinquency, lack of
rights, and so forth; but, my main point here is to argue that the youth today faces a similar
problem that the women faced  (and unfortunately still face) of being sub judged by other
actors in society, the adults. This youth-adult relationship can be a source of conflict (Baskir
2006), but also a source of partnership (Tancredi 2005) and more equalitarian relationship
(Rocha et al. 2005). The more visible circumstance where this target/actor dichotomy occurs
is probably in formal and informal educational processes, when the relationship between
young people (usually as the educated ones) and educators become a power relation (and it
usually does) (Rocha et al. 2005).
To partially conclude, I stress that it does not stop here, simply understanding youth as social
actors; in addition, we will need to differentiate the different levels of power that youth actors
can achieve, in order to exercise more influence within society. As said before, we will focus on
the relationship between the youth and civil society, not forgetting about all other ones.
Civil Society and Youth: Forms of Interaction
To be considered as a real social actor, the youth must be understood as a power structure
within society, with social, economical and political roles to play. For such, we need to overcome
the notion of youth from an individualistic outlook (young person or young people power) and to
deal with the notion of youth collectives (youth groups, youth organisation and youth led
movement). This is due to a simple assumption, that collective youth action is the most
effective and important basis for political youth action and empowerment.
By youth collective I mean any kind of youth group or organisation, being it formal or informal,
legal or not, professional or volunteer, revolutionary or reformist, composed by two or more
young people (of any age), that shares any common identity or objective. From this definition,
of course, I exclude those youth agglomerations that do not necessarily share any identity or
objective. Youth collectives are the baseline for what I call youth led movement; however,
there are few, definitions for youth led movement. If we apply social movement theories, it is
easy to get to misleading conclusions that there is no such thing as a youth led movement.
Both my understanding and my experience tell me to define it through the empirical
observation of the phenomenon, rather than through social movement theories. Through the
realisation of such impressive social phenomenon, its presence becomes undeniable and
oblivious, even though still not very much recognised, especially in the field of development.
There is a key question to help understand the phenomenon: what does the youth movement
seek to achieve? And the answer may be very tricky. Two similar, but different, things should
be distinguished: a pro youth movement and a youth led movement. The first one is composed
by any (young or not) person or any (youth  or not) organisation that share the common
objective of fighting for pro youth policies and for youth rights, while the second one is
composed by young people (as individuals) and youth collectives (groups and organisations).
The youth led movement is diverse in its own essence; its nature and political agenda is
equally diverse, but also complementary; and  it is somehow engaged in a bigger claim for
change from local to global societies (Cordeiro 2005). The constituency of the youth led
movement has its basis on both young activists and, mainly, youth collectives. The main
aspect to differ a bunch of youth collectives and the youth led movement is the political aspect
of it; the more politicised the agenda of youth collectives is and the more open to society they
also are, the more part of the youth led movement they are perceived to be.
 Rui Mesquita Cordeiro (9553)  ⑤
How does this youth led movement fit into civil society? Civil society represents the vast scope
of thinking in relation to the relationship between state and society. My definition of civil
society is an adaptation  of White’s (1994) definition iii
: civil society is an intermediate
associational realm between private and public interest, populated by organisations which are
separate from the state, the market, the family and individuals, with autonomy and are formed
voluntarily by members of society to protect or extend their interests or values. In between
the private and the public interest, there is a whole spectrum of half private/public interest,
composed by many groups of  interest and organisations. On the one hand, the only pure
private interest is the interest of the individual himself/herself; while on the hand, the closest
to a real public sphere in the contemporary society is the state. However, a deeper
comprehension about the topic is vital, because civil society is a multi-dimensional concept.
Kees Biekart (1999) shows the material, the organisational and the ideological dimensions of
civil society; in addition, he differs economical society (inhabited by private for profit ventures)
from civil society and draws the boundaries of the relationship between the sate and civil
society through the called political society (Biekart 1999). The two main actors within civil
society are social movements and non-governmental organisations (NGO).
Within civil society, social movements are “collective challenges, based on common purposes
and social solidarities, in sustained interaction with elites, opponents and authorities” (Tarrow
1998). From a social movement literature perspective, the youth led movement does not
perform as a social movement in a constant  flow; nevertheless, which movement actually
does? The life circle of social movements is very fluid and dynamic, which helps it to be
constantly renewed and reinvented. In this paper, the reader should not mix up the ideas of
social movement and youth led movement. To simplify, the youth led movement can behave
as a social movement, accordingly to context specific situations, but it is not compulsorily
characterised as such in its fundamental nature.
Yet still, NGO is at least a vague term that needs to the always better explained. Academically,
its broadness is also accepted and taken into  consideration; therefore, there is a need to
narrow the concept in sub-divisions of NGOs. In the 1990s, the  academic fever lied on the
strongly economical “third sector” explanation of the phenomenon (Salomon 1994), a very
broad and contested concept. Usually, the term brings about ideas of being private
organisations, therefore non-governmental; in  addition, they do not seek for profit, being
therefore non-profit organisations, what differ them from private corporations. Still another
refinement, the term Civil Society Organisations (or CSO) is also largely applied. By CSOs,
some aid agencies mean those NGOs concerned with influencing public policies, excluding
those other ones concerned with service delivery (Biekart 1999 p.39). Another key aspect
while looking at NGOs is in terms of ownership; more popular organisation, like membership,
community and grassroots organisations, are significantly  more accountable to their
constituency than others NGOs (ibid.). NGOs also differ in their agenda and context, thus it is
always useful to add adjectives to quality what kind of NGO you are referring to; for instance,
northern NGOs are different from southern NGOs, donor NGOs differ from recipient NGOs, just
like advocacy NGOs are dissimilar to their service delivery counterparts.
To illustrate the relationship between civil society and the youth, let us look at some different
kinds of NGOs (southern NGOs, donor NGOs and youth led NGOs) and their approach towards
the youth. The indicators I will use are in  relation to their intervention, organisation,
accountability, power relation and level of influence; all of this based upon my personal
experience as a development practitioner and young activist from within the youth led
movement in the north-eastern region of Brazil between 1995 and 2005
[table 2]

  Local NGO  Donors NGO  Youth Led NGO
Here we refer to local based
NGOs, usually dependent on
external resources, dealing
with youth issues in their
political agenda.
Here we refer to NGOs which
fund projects of local NGOs in
relation to youth issues. They
are usually based in the
northern developed
hemisphere; although, the
number of local donor NGOs is
slowly growing in Brazil.
Here we refer to youth
collectives which opt for a
legal and official status to
operate and to be able to
receive funds for their projects
and agenda.
(Korten 1987)
Oriented either for service
delivery or for lobbying. In the
first case, they are usually
targeting young people to
deliver education, health of
capabilities for employment.
In the second one, they are
usually seeking and lobbying
for the creation or the
implementation of youth
rights and citizenship. Most of
these NGOs in northeast Brazil
do both things in their youth
Funding is usually given to
local NGO for them to achieve
and delivery projects for the
youth, establishing an vertical
aid chain (Biekart 1999).
Rarely they establish direct
partnership with the youth,
but there are initiatives
(Tancredi 2005).
Most of them address a
diverse spectrum of issues,
and only few of them address
youth issues alone. Even
though, they easily establish
real horizontal partnerships
with other youth collectives.
(Fowler 2002)
Usually dependent of strong
leadership and vertical
relationships with donors.
Undoubtedly, they try to
overcome traditional forms of
market-like organisation, but
frequently they fall in the trap
of inefficiency and internal
Many of them are very
traditional and vertical, but
with room for innovation,
especially among donors less
dependent of the market.
Those constituted with market
money tend to be more
Usually they are very
horizontal and practitioners of
collective leadership, being
very similar to membership
organisations. However,
sometimes this generates a
lack of practical needed
leadership. There is a
tendency of internal tension
when the initial leaders
become older in relation to the
other members.
(Edwards and
Hulme 1995)
Typically, they are more
accountable upwards, to their
grant makers than inwards or
downwards, to their
Like the local NGOs, they are
also mostly accountable
upwards, to their funders,
especially northern
There is a tendency of being
more inwards accountable,
rather them up or downwards,
especially because when they
do, they manage very small
Power Relation
(Lukes 1974;
Foucault 1975)
They exercise some power
relations towards the youth,
especially to young people as
individuals in the case of
service delivery local NGOs.
Either conflicts or dependence
are easily created in such
cases. In the case of lobbying
local NGOs, the power relation
is different, less incisive, but
still few open space of the
youth to voice their need.
Commonly adults, experts on
youth issues, set the agenda
for the youth.
Indirect via local NGOs, but
they are typically some open
for youth consultation to
better organise their program;
rarely does it go beyond
consultation towards real
When youth led NGOs deal
with youth issues, they are
generally establishing more
horizontal power relation, by
the natural identification
process that happens between
them and the targeted young
Influence in
Their level of influence is very
variable, depending on the
networks on which these local
NGOs operate. Those working
with lobbying are in some
Very high, not only because
they concentrate economical
power, but especially because
they are able to assemble
public opinion leaders as staff
members or as consultants.
Still very low, due to the lack
of recognition in society. The
natural way to achieve some
influence is via mobilisations
and manifestations.
Drawing from this simple analysis, at least two elements seem to be weak in this interaction
between NGO actors and the youth within civil society, the level and the quality of youth
participation in NGOs and the question of the youth empowerment itself. As crucial elements,
they are going to be especially analysed below, in order to understand the challenge, so
needed for the development of our local and global societies.
 Rui Mesquita Cordeiro (9553)  ⑦
Challenges of Youth Participation and Empowerment in Society
Participation and empowerment are two close concepts, once participation is ultimately about
decision making and for that empowerment is needed. Even being related, there is no causality
between one and another. On the one hand participation is understood as both means and
ends for the people to directly participate in political, economical or social decisions in issues
that affect their life; on the other hand empowerment is meant as the ability of individuals,
groups and organisations of achieving some  autonomy and independence, as well as “the
structural conditions which affect the allocations of power in a society and give access to its
resources” (Breton 1994). For civil society, empowerment is also seen as complementary to
empowerment, as a way to encourage people to assume their rights and to strengthen popular
organisations, trough cognitive, psychological, political and economical dimensions (Molyneux
and Lazar 2003).
The challenge for the youth and its relationships within society lies on the connection between
both, as foreseen by Sherry Arnstein (1969), when she clearly defines participation as citizen
power; furthermore she differentiates the participation in a qualitative scale, the ladder of
citizen participation (ibid.)
[graphic 2]
GRAPHIC 2 – The ladder of citizen participation (Arnstein 1969)
This quality of participation/empowerment is today really important for the youth in society,
due to the low quality of participation and empowerment, as observed in table 2 before. Non-
participation and tokenism are still present  on this relationship between youth and civil
society; therefore, this initial idea of the ladder evolved into a new ladder, of youth
participation, by Roger Hart
[graphic 3]
The current level of interaction between NGOs and the youth is, with few exceptions, still
around the steps four, five and six of the latest ladder. Both ladders are important tools to
analyse the qualitative level of participation and empowerment; however, they may lead the
reader to the misleading perception that to achieve higher levels of participation it is needed to
climb the entire ladder up, step by step from the bottom to the top in a causality function,
what may not be necessarily accurate. As any other social process, participation and
empowerment are flexible and unpredicted processes, and factors like political will, power
relation and awareness are essentials to  determine the movements of the quality of
empowerment and participation.
Anyhow, the challenge is to achieve higher levels of citizen’s control and youth initiated
initiatives sharing decision with adults, for a more equitable relation between youth and society.
For that, we propose more awareness about the youth internal  reality and associativism, by
civil society organisations; moreover, we also suggest more awareness by the youth about the
relationships among themselves and the rest of civil society, especially about their political role
in society, as they might perceive it. From more awareness, inter-generational partnerships (or
conflicts) may result, depending on how problem  is perceived and addressed by the different
actors, with their different powers. With more empowerment, the youth will be more able to
change the society in the way they perceive it, finding its place in the difficult paths of





21 July, 2006 - Posted by | Development, Youth

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