Scepticism has greeted a proposal by Prof Hellen Sambili to set up a Youth Council to pull together Government programmes and policies on young people. The body, suggested by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports in a Bill mentioned in Parliament last week, is also expected to direct research on Kenyans ages 15 to 30 years.
The Youth Council Bill, which was delayed due to a lack of quorum, has been criticised by some as "a means to keep the old guard on top". Accountability and governance non-governmental bodies point out that it not only fails to resolve the key question of just who qualifies as 'youth', it limits their participation in selecting the team's members and chair.
Kazi kwa Vijana and the Youth Enterprise Development Fund, a fair measure of established policy, are open to participation to all Kenyans aged 18 to 35. In the former, there have been reports of exceptions being made for people outside the upper and lower limits. Unemployed people above 35 are taken on along with youth excluded by the need for an identity card. This generous approach leads to confusion and opens the door to possible abuse.
The Bill Sambili proposes has a more accurate definition of the youth, but there is no knowing whether this is as arbitrary as the previous age brackets and whether it will affect them in time.
"In the Bill's preamble, youth are identified as persons between 15 and 30 years," notes the Mars Group in a recent mailing. "However, the United Nations categorises youth as those between the ages of 15 to 24 years old."
Given the demographic make-up of the population, and the fact that State programmes for the 'youth bulge' have limited resources, adopting a stricter definition makes sense.
The question is: Do we switch to a definition that ignores the majority that leaves education early (until they get an ID card) and includes older persons? Or should we lower the minimum and maximum ages so that the resources available can keep up with targeted age groups?
Another area of controversy is appointment to leadership in the council. Both the process and criteria are raising eyebrows. Section 5 of the Bill states that the Chairperson shall be appointed solely by the Minister. She need not consult youth groups. Further, no age limit is set for the Youth Council's Chief Executive.
While one may be inclined to presume ministerial discretion is not likely to be abused, the controversies over appointments of public officials to statutory bodies and parastatals — and specifically in the Youth Affairs ministry — suggest caution. Criteria to prevent the seat going to cronies should be introduced.
Appointments to the council's Advisory Board are the preserve of the President, to be made without any reference to Parliament. Again, this is a move inspired by the tussle between the Executive and the Legislature that errs on the side of less accountability.
A proposal to ensure disabled persons and women have greater participation in the Youth Council is fine. Their insights on youth challenges will certainly be useful in making policy or designing programmes. As for one on registration of all youth groups and youth-focussed community organisations, the object should be to facilitate, not to control.
As the National Youth Council Bill makes its way through Parliament, legislators should pay heed to the rising criticisms. In particular, the argument that the council is a weak body whose usefulness can be enhanced if it were modelled on councils elsewhere which have representation in the National Assembly.
Kenya is, and will continue to be, a nation of young people. The idea of involving the youth more in policy formulation and leadership is, thus, a no-brainer. However, it cannot be mere tokenism or, worse, a public relations exercise. The 'youth bulge' in African and Asian nations is classified as a growing threat to instability. It is, therefore, important to have a reasoned approach to youth matters. Without one, such initiatives as the Youth Council will appear ancillary to ad hoc measures like the Youth Marshall Plan and others embraced in recent years.
And that just won't do.