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Bake while the fire burns

Baka þig, meðan eldurinn brennur

Iceland sets the scene for a countrywide youth participation initiative with great ambition.

Imagine a country extending over 103,000 km² on an island between the old continent and the new world. Only 320,000 people, a mixture of descendants of Norse and Celts, live on this island covered by volcanic mountains wrapped in snow. This is the home of a brave people, the home of Ágúst, Guðrún, Auður and Gunnar, whom I had the pleasure of meeting on my trip to Iceland’s “Youth and Democracy” conference.

Early January 2009

UMFI, the Icelandic Youth Association, informed ISCA about its plans to broaden the idea of youth empowerment and youth participation throughout Iceland. Guðrún Snorradóttir, project officer at UMFI, explained that recent legislative initiatives by the Youth Ministry would commit local authorities to establish youth councils. UMFI welcomed this action, as they genuinely believe this will bring some new energy into local communities.

“Empowering young people to engage actively with their peers and the rest of the local community, including schools, clubs, organizations, local authorities and the individual citizen will help us rebuild the proximity between people and give young people the possibility to choose their destiny”, affirms Guðrún.

Just like in many other Nordic countries young people in Iceland participate in adult life at a very young age. Many youngsters get a student job already at the age of 14 and thereby supplement their educational experience with practical experience in shops and smaller companies mostly in the service sector. This means that young people in Iceland are busy, really busy. This situation obviously challenges NGOs and clubs that want to recruit youth volunteers. Often the choice between making your own money and volunteering in a club is linked to the financial condition of the family and the social framework of the youth.

Ágúst fiór Árnason from the University of Akureyri says: “We are a very busy people. There is simply an enormous load of work to be done in a country as big as Iceland and with a population as small as ours. Everyone learns from an early age to contribute and to participate.”

Ágúst himself started working at the age of twelve in his fathers construction business, whereby he began his career. Today the type of jobs young people choose are different and the youngsters might be a bit older, however the pattern remains the same. In addition to this early entrance in the labour force, many young people leave the country at some point to study abroad. Today about 40% of Icelandic students follow a higher education somewhere outside the country. This evidently entails a break in the voluntary engagement of many.

Finally, the worldwide economic crisis has hit Iceland in a severe way. The nation's continuing economic turbulences have caused significant unrest in the past months, to the point that the country was forced to take a loan from the International Monetary Fund in order to recover. The NGO sector is not sheltered from these recent developments, as many organizations are to make ends meet and therefore need to redefine their priorities.

But …

Iceland is Iceland

Whilst in the middle of the crisis, Iceland is now pulling itself up by its bootstraps. You haven’t been in Iceland, if you don’t know these extraordinarily kind people that against all odds and outsized Goliaths start rebuilding the foundation of the country, just like Asterix and the Gauls resisting the Roman Empire.

The social cohesion of the country is at stake. Therefore young people must have their say in binding Iceland together. As Auður Kjartansdóttir (18) from UMFI’s Youth Committee points out:
“Youth participation is very important because we are the future, we have ideas and they deserve to be listened to. I believe that in UMFI there is an increased awareness in this regard and the adults become better and better in including us into the organization, the consultation and the decision making, and I hope that we can bring this spirit to as many local clubs as possible.”

In this spirit UMFI has engaged in a partnership together with the University of Akureyri to work out a sustainable model on how young people can be included in participation processes in local municipalities, organizations and clubs. With the passionate lector of human rights, Ágúst fiór Árnason, they found the perfect motor to forward the idea of youth participation and brought some academic resource to the venture.

I had the opportunity to get a closer look behind the scenes as I was invited by UMFI to speak at the opening of the national conference “Youth and Democracy” for young people working in youth councils.

March 4-5, 2009 Akureyri, Iceland

It is here in the very North of Iceland where 60 young people from various towns, cities, NGOs and clubs gathered to hold their first national conference on “Youth and Democracy”.
With the support of the European Commission’s Youth in Action Programme and many weeks of preparation by the organizing team, young people from all corners of the country met to discuss their experiences in working in a youth committee or council.
Iceland’s Minister of Education, Science and Culture, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, wished the participants much success in their efforts and highlighted the importance of youth participation to her ministry. She assured the participants that she was following the progress of the conference and the outcomes with great interest and expressed her hope that there will be some consistent follow-up initiatives by participants and organizers.

Ágúst fiór Árnason confirmed that, “If you have courageous and open-minded politicians and bureaucrats you can open-up many decisions to young people and involve them much more in the local life, without being afraid of loosing influence.”

Having briefly met the minister it seems as if she is a political figure that is indeed opening doors and that she welcomes initiatives coming from a grass-roots level. As an ISCA representative to the Council of Europe’s Advisory Council on Youth, I will surely meet her again at one of the coming meetings of the Joint Council on Youth; this will be a good opportunity to follow-up on the conference.

“But what does youth participation really mean and when can we talk about true participation?” This question was raised in the opening speeches by international conference guests Ane Marie Anderson and Andreas Berger from the Norwegian association PLAN and by myself.

We can establish a rather broad definition by saying that participation refers to the process of sharing decisions which affect one's life and the life of the community in which one lives. In other words, one shall be able to participate in decision making on an individual and collective level. Furthermore, we can refer to the United Nations convention on the rights of the child stating that ”every child has the right to express its opinion in matters concerning themselves. The opinions of the child must be taken into consideration.” Here the notion of freedom of expression and the obligation of consultation can be asserted. Consequently we can derive an ethical basis for youth participation, though not an unmistakable interpretation of the degree of participation. And in there lies one of the pitfalls of youth participation.

Degrees of participation

Looking at a slightly adapted version of Hart's (1992) “Ladder of Participation”, we differentiate between 9 different degrees of participation, whereof the positions 1-3 describe a genre of pseudo-participation, positions 4-6 illustrate an adult directed form of youth participation and ultimately position 7-9 typify an emancipated interaction between youth and adults.

  • 9    Youth initiated and directed    Designed and run by youth and decisions made by youth
  • 8    Youth initiated, shared decisions with adults    Designed and run by youth who share decisions with adults
  • 7    Youth and adult initiated and directed    Designed and run by youth and adults in full partnership
  • 6    Adult initiated, shared decisions with youth    Designed and run by adults who share decisions with youth
  • 5    Consulted and informed    Designed and run by adults who consult with youth. Youth make recommendations that are considered by adults
  • 4    Assigned and informed    Youth do not initiate but understand and have some sense of ownership
  • 3    Tokenism    Symbolic representation by few. May not have a genuine voice. May be asked to speak for the group they represent.
  • 2    Decoration    Adults use youth to promote or support a cause without informing youth. Youth are not involved in design or decisions.
  • 1    Manipulation    Youth involvement used by adults to communicate adults' messages.
Unsurprisingly, one cannot claim an absolute right and true model in organizing youth participation. Nonetheless, we can say that a greater level of trust and autonomy given to youth, leads to a higher degree of participation according to Hart.

Lector Ágúst fiór Árnason comments: “We need trust. We need to figure out ways to cooperate in a political but not partisan way and get a constructive dialogue going. UMFI always was a political organization, but never a partisan organization and they contributed much to the process of making people active and engaged citizens.”

The Icelandic civil society and the political actors are thus challenged in multiple ways. They need to rebuild the interest and trust of its citizens into the system, they need to reach you to all parts of the country, engage in a constructive exchange of ideas and finally they need to involve special target groups in the decision making in order to solve problems in a relatively pragmatic fashion.

Ágúst fiór Árnason continues: “Over the last 15 years Iceland has opened up to the world and we followed a number of significant developments one can also observe elsewhere in the western world. I believe that broadening the democratic participation of youth in society will bring back the interest of young people towards what is happening in Iceland. I am convinced that youth will take ownership of Iceland’s future.
The democratic game in Iceland can use some more direct participation, and populations that are living in remote areas outside of the capital need to be included in these processes. UMFI has played a very valuable role in involving people from all places in Iceland and we need to renew the band that brings the people of Iceland together. Youth is undoubtedly a very good place to start.”

The aftermath

The “Youth and Democracy” conference proved to be a successful prelude bringing young people into the democratic game. The programme provided numerous opportunities to learn more about different approaches and to exchange motives for shared responsibility.

Yet, the challenges are numerous as guest speaker Ane Marie Anderson points out: “One of the main challenges is that everything is so new and support systems are not yet in place, so that responsibility can be distributed appropriately. It will be interesting to see what way they will go in Iceland?
Another very interesting development to follow will be how the relatively young politicians that got into public office will respond to the youth participation efforts?
I am quite curious to see if they will reproduce the same pattern that they experienced a generation ago or if they will be more accessible to youngsters.”

Gunnar Sigfússon (19), member of UMFI’s youth committee, draws his personal conclusion of the conference: “We are still in a process of establishing youth councils throughout the country and we do not have one common way of working. I believe that we need more experience with different models of operating to be able to evaluate what is the best practice in the country. An opportunity like this conference facilitates the exchange of experience and that’s incredibly useful. A structure that would coordinate various approaches and eventually bring them closer would be a crucial step forward and we are with much enthusiasm looking towards UMFI and the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture to help us with that.”

The moral, political and financial support from the government, public institutions and the NGO sector is vital to the successful continuation of this exciting journey. ISCA’s experience with youth participation has been rich and today youth plays an important role in the management of the organization. I can in particular refer to the tremendous work of ISCA members SVOLI in Finland and DTB in Germany, who have a widespread strategy of including young people at all decision making levels. These models and the Icelandic initiative can serve as inspiration for others that are willing to walk the same path. ISCA’s large variety of youth training courses, seminars and conferences provide an excellent platform for those who are engaging in youth participation and we are happy to share our international youth and sport networks.

The fire burns

We were, are and will be part of this journey. Thus, I shall answer to those who are still wondering; “The fire of youth participation is burning, we better get baking.”

Jean-Luc Frast

About PLAN

Founded over 70 years ago, Plan works in 49 developing countries across Africa, Asia and the Americas. Plan directly supports more than 1,500,000 children and their families. Plan wants to achieve lasting improvements for children living in poverty in developing countries, through a process that unites people across cultures and adds meaning and value to their lives.
Plan works with children, their families, communities, organizations and local governments to implement programmes at grassroots level in health, education, water and sanitation, income generation and cross-cultural communication.
Plan protects and promotes children’s rights, helping millions of children to take an active role in their own development.

Plan Norway is established as a national branch of Plan International and includes a youth council of 15 youngsters that advise and consult the organization in youth related questions.
Plan’s website:

About UMFI

The Icelandic Youth Association (UMFI) was set up in 1907. It is a national federation of sport and youth associations and has about 90,000 individual members.
The UMFI national assembly, which is held every two years, holds the highest authority in the dealings of the movement, and elects a board that is composed of ten members and a chairperson.

UMFI’s slogan “Cultivating the people and the country” implies that the whole work of the movement is characterized by strengthening the individual socially and physically, as well as showing care and respect for our environment and their country.

UMFI’s main activities include national meetings and national youth sports meeting, youth and recreation camps, training courses, conferences, seminar and leadership education in Iceland and abroad.

UMFI’s website :