A post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina brought apathy and pessimism amongst youth that derived from deeply rooted national prejudices, divided nationalistic parties, misuse of media by politicians, and a general lack of freedoms. The youth had no chance to speak their voice or identify their needs, and problems in education led to high rates of suicides, trauma, and other unrest. Itsoon became apparent there was a need for the youth to have more of an active role in society and more specifically help impact the political future of the region.
The Youth Communication Center (YCC)of Bosnia and Herzegovina identified a problem in institutional framework that excluded youth decision-making and failed to address youth issues, so they developed a plan to take action. Using support received from a Balkan Trust for Democracy grant, the YCC implemented a project of creating and then strengthening a network of secondary school student councils at the municipality and entity levels. The goal of this project was to provide students with experience in decision-making processes at school as well as a mechanism for participation in government. Initially implemented in about 80 schools from 45 different municipalities in the Republika Srpska, the project now includes almost 300 schools and continues to gain momentum today. While it was difficult to get off the ground at first because authorities were hesitant to diminish their power, the program has slowly become a thriving and universally accepted necessity for Bosnia-Herzegovina. Through their project of pushing youth activism through the council system, it became clear to the YCC that when it comes to youth issues in BiH, one must be patient and not expect immediate results.
This case study analyzes the problem of youth neglect in Bosnia Herzegovina, follows the YCC’s efforts to set up a network of student councils across secondary schools, tracks its accomplishment and failures, and gives recommendations for the future.
In 2005, the United Nations reviewed the national youth policy in Bosnia-Herzegovina through an evaluation conducted by theWorld Programme of Action for Youth (WPAY). They found that while the youth (ages 14 to 29) consisted of just below 20% of the region’s population, about half of them were unemployed, and the heavy majority wanted to or had made plans to leave Bosnia without return.This was due to their dissatisfaction with the antiquity of the educational system, as well as their frustration with the unstable political climate and the belief that they had no impact on political outcomes. Most were not members of any political party themselves, did not attend elections, and had virtually no representative involvement in the legislative government at the state or municipality levels. While there are over 200 youth organizations in BiH, barely any youth were actually involved in them at all.
The purpose of the evaluation was to analyze the relation of the government towards the youth in Bosnia and Herzegovina. They discovered that there was no special institutional framework for youth issues—they were mainly financed by the international organizations with a very weak support for the state, and mostly by local authorities. Most of the organizations did not even have their own offices or appropriate work conditions. Furthermore, there were no university programs for youth workers and youth leaders were often educated informally. Although organizations oriented to different programs such as workshops in human rights, nature protection, and drug addiction did exist, there was no umbrella organization such as a national youth council that existed in other European countries. This problem of the estranged youth only continued to escalate in a highly tense post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina, and action needed to be taken.
CONTEXT + KEY ACTORS
The Youth Communications Center is an NGO located in Banja Luka, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Started in 1997, its goals include the promotion and strengthen civic engagement among young people at a local and regional level. Using diverse activities such as education, volunteering, advocacy, and work with the media, they work to foster democratic values and principals. Their vision is to contribute to societal equal opportunity in which young people can reach their full potential. They want to promote tolerance and understanding among youths, advocating for greater participation of youth decision-making processes in schools and communities and develop volunteerism fundamentals among the youth.
The official strategic goals of the YCC are as follows: *
- To contribute to the development of young people who are actively working to improve the quality of life for all
- To promote human values and a responsible and tolerant society that respects and nourishes diversity;
- To establish and develop sustainable mechanisms that provide an enabling environment for civic engagement of young people;
- To ensure the sustainability of the Radio Balkans, a commercial radio station that simultaneously promotes social activism and social responsibility with a special emphasis on youth.
Today, the YCC has become a hub of youth and civic activities at the local, national, and international levels. They offer more than 20 programs benefiting more than 6,000 young people annually, which has all been supported by the Mott foundation over the past several years. It has used this support to harness systemic change among the youth and Bosnia and Herzegovina’s public education system.
The Balkan Trust for Democracy is a NGO project of the German Marshall fund of the United States. Launched in 2003, it is a 10-year grant making initiative created to support democracy, civil society, the rule of law, and Euro-atlantic integration in Southeastern Europe. The BTD has since partnered with USAID and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation with whom the organization plans to continue activities through 2020.
The YCC has the BTD to thank for the development of the secondary school student council network in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It is with the BTD support that they were able to set up, test, and implement the system of councils in hundreds of secondary schools across the region. The YCC was able to carry out this whole process in only a few years, however it is still an ongoing development that needs all the support it can get. The YCC’s identification of a serious youth problem was a bold move, but it is proving to be one well worth it.
IMPLEMENTATION & RESULTS
Recognizing a strong need for aid, the YCC has recently made their goal to promote national legislation that mandates student councils in all Bosnia and Herzegovina secondary schools. They saw the need for something more permanent than the initial efforts to train young people in conflict resolution, peacebuilding and volunteerism, because they were working in a non-formal way and gathering only a few students each year. So they decided to incorporate this informal method into a permanent structure in the form of student councils.
They proposed school councils, or democratic organizations that provide students with a voice in decision-making, to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Ministry of Education. The main concern was that they would not be able to convince educational and governmental officials who felt their power and authority was being diminished. The YCC first had to create a model before they introduced the idea, working with university professors and using knowledge from previous projects they had implemented in primary and secondary schools to develop a curriculum for the councils.
After being piloted in 20 schools, positive results were displayed. Afterwards, implementation was slow, but the YCC were able to build awareness and generate support for councils by training teachers, school administrators, and students. They developed a system in which students were constantly being linked together through peer education, YCC radio broadcasts, internet and print publications, and international exchanges with the Organizing Bureau of European School Student Unions (OBESSU).
They recognized the student council project to be a long term but worthwhile process, due to the importance of providing students with the tremendous opportunity to learn how to become active citizens in a country where it was previously unavailable to them. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Ministry of Education continues to monitor the progress of the school councils.
In the past two years, grant support was able to strengthen entity-level networks of secondary school student councils, which together represent 290 secondary schools, and comprising of more than 135,000 students. The grantee also helped national and local government agencies in Bosnia-Herzegovina develop and promote volunteerism. Today, other ongoing activities include the operation of Radio Balkan, which is a youth-run radio station, has hosted a range of non-formal community-based education programs, and provided psychological support to vulnerable groups through direct counseling.
Since the deriving of the student councils, student representatives have been elected, and they have begun to network between schools, even conducting advocacy campaigns to raise public awareness of youth issues. Over 3,000 letters have been submitted to the Republika Srpska’s Prime Ministerial Office requesting increased inclusion of the secondary school population in decision-making on youth issues. The campaign included a student street demonstration called ‘Students Conference under Tents’, drawing attention to the government’s neglect of the needs of the youth population. Youth campaigns such as this has garnered widespread media coverage and increased pressure on governmental institutions. Chosen representatives of the network even held meetings with the Minister of Education to help facilitate communication between students and government ministries and deliver recommendations or future activities.
Student Councils – Currently representing about 290 schools – 95% of all secondary schools in the country
Radio “Balkan” – Provided radio equipment to allow the youth to use media as a vehicle for expressing their needs and openly speak about youth issues in post war BiH. Started by 15 students in 1997 after being trained by international experts. YCC was the first NGO in BiH to run the radio, and it soon became the most listened to station.
Banja Luka Youth Bridge (BOM) – A monthly youth magazine written, edited, published, and exchanged between students to spread the idea of a better future.
Conflict Resolution Catalysts (CRC) - Created to ”to enable communication amongst youth of different nationalities at safe and neutral place” (okcbl.org). Working to develop positive solutions and initiatives to the needs of the youth in their community.
Lessons learned from a proposition that potentially threatens the power of others are very important to note. It is necessary to work in goals gradually, plan it out step by step, and not expect short-term results. When trying to alter a national outlook on the youth’s participation and influence on state affairs, it is necessary to be cognizant of opposition and expectant of backlash. Youth affairs can be a sensitive topic because people usually have strong opinions one way or another on the issue. The YCC did an impressive job working with the Ministry of Education and other authorities to avoid appearing like they were undermining any sort of existing power, and rather established a communal goal of promoting youth empowerment and activism. They framed it in a light that would be beneficial to all, and this is the most important factor in implementing a project as large as the YCC’s—it is important present one’s plan as not a sides issue, but one of working together to better the community as a whole.
Because the YCC student council network had a slow start and still needs to gain more momentum, I would recommend the continued push and effort of all parties involved. YCC cannot pull out of the project just because it appears to be going well. Government actors, educators, and students must all continue together to work as hard as they can to keep this program relevant, accessible, and working smoothly, or else the youth of Bosnia-Herzegovina will risk falling back into a state of disdain for their county’s politics. I would recommend that not only the Ministry of Education monitors the continued program, but other elected representatives, or even a cycle of chosen NGOs that are devoted to the upkeep of the student council system. The Ministry of Education is more removed national entity that may develop ulterior motives, including a desire to shut the program down in the future due to a fear of threat to their authority if it continues to grow. We cannot let the country continue to stifle youth opportunities of activism in Bosnia-Herzegovina, because they will soon be the face of the country. While the YCC’s youth empowerment project is impressive, there is still much work to be done if they want to revolutionize the role of students in regional politics.
The German Marshall Fund. (2013). Youth Center Facilitates Student Participation in Decision Making in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Retrieved from http://www.gmfus.org/commentary/youth-center-facilitates-student-participation-decision-making-bosnia-and-herzegovina
*Insight on Conflict. Youth Communications Center (YCC): Western Balkans. Retrieved from http://www.insightonconflict.org/conflicts/western-balkans/peacebuilding-organisations/ycc/
The Mott Foundation. (2014). General Purposes: Youth Communication Center – Banja Luka. Retrieved from http://www.mott.org/Globals/Grants/2014/199900081_08_General%20Purposes
The Mott Foundation (2005). Developing Democracy in Banja Luka through high school student councils. Retrieved from http://www.mott.org/news/news/2005/banjaluka
OKC. About Us: Youth Communications Center History. Retrieved from http://www.okcbl.org/en/about-us/history/
United Nations. (2005). Independent evaluation of the national youth policy in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Retrieved from http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unyin/documents/wpaysubmissions/bosnia.pdf