Youth Debate Societal Challenges, Civic Engagement on International Youth Day

ASTANA – The United Nations in Kazakhstan marked International Youth Day on Aug. 12 with a conference open to all interested young people and youth organisations. It was addressed by programme staff from the UN Development Programme, UN Volunteers and UNICEF and opened by UN Permanent Representative in Kazakhstan Stephen Tull.

imagesIt was standing room only in the UNDP building’s conference hall, as students from Nazarbayev University, Eurasia National University and other schools in Astana as well as young interns from a number of the capital’s embassies and representatives from the Astana akimat and the Ministry of Education and Science listened to presentations on the UN’s work in Kazakhstan and took part in conversations ranging from bullying and mental health issues to sustainable development to political engagement.

Umit Kazhgaliyeva, UNICEF programme officer, presented on work in mental health in Kazakhstan, which leads in youth suicide rates in the Commonwealth of Independent States and Eastern Europe and has the fifth highest youth suicide rate in the world. Around the world, 20 percent of young people experience some type of mental health problem, she said. “In Kazakhstan in 2011, more than 55,0000 adolescents, children and young people were registered with mental health conditions. … [A]nd as you know, the actual numbers are usually higher,” she said.

Attendees followed the presentation with pointed questions about access to psychiatric help and what was being done to connect young people to mental health resources. Kazhgaliyeva outlined programmes like the Inclusive Society Programme, a joint effort by UNICEF and the Special Olympics that brings together young people with and without mental health issues through education, sport and health programmes, as well as the Youth Friendly Services centres created with the Ministry of Health and UNICEF to provide free and confidential psychological and reproductive health services. There are now 17 such centres around the country. UNICEF also supports violence prevention programmes, child justice programmes and other youth-oriented initiatives through partnerships with the Kazakh government.

Marina Mironchik, UN Development Programme (UNDP) programme assistant, gave a presentation that generated a discussion on the role of youth in the country’s development. The UNDP operates more than 30 projects in Kazakhstan, frequently with youth as a target group or partner. Projects integrating repatriated Kazakhs and disabled people into local economies and societies often impact Kazakhstan’s youth, she said. Youth entrepreneurship programmes provide training and grants to businesses started by young people, and more than 10,000 young Kazakh citizens have come to the UNDP’s 32 entrepreneurship and business information centres for consultations.

Young participants at the conference had questions about pilot transportation programmes and recycling initiatives, and were exhorted by UNDP Kazakhstan’s head of governance and local development Ainur Baimyrza to start their own projects if they didn’t see the UN or government work addressing their concerns.

“Sometimes it takes more than just a government or UNDP project – sometimes it takes you, personally, to change your lifestyles,” she said. “Start changing your attitudes – then, I think, a big change can be done in society. Every project that we do is just a small pilot or start up. It’s just something to show that it works. [T]hen we ask for people in Kazakhstan to pick it up and do it. That’s what makes the real success afterward,” Baimyrza said.

Ji Hyun Yang, communications specialist with the UN Volunteers, discussed the significance of volunteerism among youth and the UN’s efforts to increase youth involvement in their activities, including its Joint Youth Initiative 2014, which is intended to increase youth communication with the organisation, increase their understanding of UN activities in Kazakhstan, promote youth participation in the post-2015 development agenda, coordinate youth programmes in the country and create broader partnerships between the UN, the private sector, diplomats, academics, media and others on youth issues.

One new measure is the Youth Advisory Council of 10 members aged 15 to 29 who are closely linked to local youth and professional organisations, who will advise Kazakhstan’s UN country team and participate in meetings with them and UN agency heads.

“We’re happily surprised that you are here,” Yang told the young participants. Past youth-focused events had not been very well attended, she said. “This is one of the things we’re trying to increase – communication and youth accessibility to UN colleagues.”

Participation in politics and civil society was the theme of the closing discussion, when participants debated their role and interest in politics in response to a question put earlier by the UN permanent representative. He asked what the gathered young people thought about statistics indicating weakening youth involvement in politics in the country.

It’s true: young people are not generally interested in politics, participant Iskander Beisen answered.  “The reason, primarily, is priority. It’s like our President has said … economics comes first, and our population seems to think the same way. A lot of youth at this moment prioritise their material wealth rather than their civic engagement or their contribution to the political development of the country.”

Diana Madibekova disagreed, saying young people do care about politics, but changing values and notions of what is public get in the way of engagement. “From year to year, month to month, Kazakhstan is becoming more technological, digital. We are living in a digital world, where everything is recorded – everything you say, everything you do. In Kazakh culture, we like being discreet, we don’t like being watched. But I think we need to face that barrier and overcome that challenge. We need to speak out.” Kazakh young people want new values, including democracy, she said.

An education system that leaves politics out is the problem, said Yermorat Aitkhozha. Others argued that being stuck between media machines in Russia, China and the United States made it dauntingly difficult to decide what might be true in the torrent of information, and blamed a general lack of trust between the population and authority figures for a waning of interest in politics by the entire population. Increasing transparency, increasing activity, increasing trust between individuals and doctors, teachers and then akims will make people more confident of their ability to have some political impact, he added.

Participant Asset Mukhatalin noted that it’s important to analyse Kazakhstan in the context of the world. It’s the global economy that’s pushing a business rather than political agenda. “I think we’re just in the context of a global change where politics becomes less important and economics and progress becomes more important,” he said.

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