Tapping into the Political Potential of Ugandan Youth

Can election debates aimed at youth voters help activate the largest, nascent voting block in Uganda? Twaweza and Youth Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda organized #WhatWouldYouthDo political debates to engage youth voters.

(Header image: "Apathy is our weakness, being involved is our right." Artist Santana Karma shares his thoughts at the #WhatWouldYouthDo debate #happeningNow at Hotel Africana and also live on NTV Uganda and Glaxy FM 100.2. Youth Coalition for Electoral Democracy, 14 February 2016)

With three-quarters of its population under the age of 30, Uganda is one of the youngest countries in the world. Because of their large absolute and relative numbers, Uganda’s youth should be a formidable political block, wielding significant influence and clout in the voting booth. There are plethora policy issues that affect youth, including high unemployment rates, low-quality education, and a lack of political voice in the current administration. Despite these motivations to act, many youth in Uganda are disengaged from politics, and feel ineffective and isolated from political processes.

How can such a potentially influential group be mobilized to participate in politics, and help achieve positive electoral outcomes? This election cycle, civil society organizations in Kampala attempted to do just that. Twaweza, a civil society organization based in Tanzania, partnered with the Youth Coalition for Electoral Democracy to encourage youth participation in politics and advocate for policy issues that resonate with the youth—education, health, employment, creative arts and sports, and participation in decision-making. The Coalition’s campaign was multifaceted and extensive, using radio, television, in-person debates, and celebrities to encourage youth to participate in politics and convey the message that their voice is crucial to achieving political progress in Uganda.

One of the most ambitious components of the Twaweza and Youth Coalition campaign was organizing issue debates with party representatives. The debates were broadcast live on TV and the radio, and several hundred youth had the opportunity to attend the debates in Kampala. Each debate focused on one of the coalition topics (employment, health, education, sports and the creative arts, and youth participation in decision-making). Party officials discussed the relevant policy solutions they proposed in their manifestos, addressing one topic per debate.

"Aside from Political participation, How do the political parties plan to address youth participation in decision making in projects like NUSAF, NAADS, etc" - Participant #whatWouldYouthDo, Youth Coalition for Electoral Democracy, 14 February 2016).

To maximize the interaction between the youth audience members and the party officials, a portion of the debate featured audience questions. Held at a premier hotel in Kampala, the debates featured representatives from several political parties, including the ruling party. The debates were intended to provide youth with the opportunity to interact directly with party representatives, posing questions about the party proposals to tackle challenges plaguing the youth. By making party officials more accessible to young people, the Youth Coalition hoped that more youth would be motivated to participate in politics and realize their full potential of influencing the Ugandan political system.

MIT GOV/LAB and Twaweza collaborated on research to evaluate this assumption. We designed an evaluation for the final two issue debates, conducting a baseline and endline survey of randomly selected audience members and holding focus group discussions after the debate. The two methods of data collection complement each other well; we were able to ask more questions about a wide range of political attitudes and behaviors in the surveys, while the focus groups allowed us to collect rich qualitative data on how the youth thought about the debates and conceptualized their role in Ugandan politics. In the survey, we wanted to know things like past voting behavior, interest in politics, and beliefs about their personal efficacy in politics, while in the focus groups, we aimed to collect descriptive data about how the audience members reacted to the debates.

We are looking for changes in the audience members’ perceptions of government accountability and responsiveness before and after participating in the debates, as well as collecting information more generally about youth attitudes. The insights from the focus group discussions will provide anecdotal context for any patterns we see in these responses. If there is no change in opinions after participating as an audience member in these debates, can we use insights from the focus group discussions to hypothesize why this might be the case?

The process of implementing an evaluation like this is not without its obstacles. In particular, convincing audience members to participate in not one, but two, fifteen-minute long surveys certainly requires persuasive and tenacious enumerators. After the debate ended, though, people were enthusiastic about the opportunity to participate in focus groups and to continue discussing politics with their peers. Some audience members even voluntarily formed their own discussion groups to discuss what they learned during the debates.

Was the chance to participate in a debate that focused on issues relevant to the youth specifically perceived as beneficial? What did youth think of being able to speak directly to party representatives? Or, are youth so frustrated by the current state of Ugandan politics that their opinions are unchanged after the debates, and they continue to feel ignored? We will let you know in future blog posts, as we begin to analyze the data.

For more on youth attitudes towards politics in Uganda, see Paige Bollen’s guest post, here.

Blair Read is a first year PhD student in the MIT Political Science Department. Previously she was a GOV/LAB field manager and research support associate based in Uganda and Tanzania. She can be reached at bmread@mit.edu.