Wednesday, February 23, 2011

ICP Exec Director Travels to the UK for Conference, Meets with Youth Service Groups

In February, ICP Executive Director Susan Stroud traveled to the UK to participate in a conference entitled “Democracy and the Power of the Individual”, organized by the Ditchley Foundation. The conference brought together academics and practitioners from around the globe to discuss the “relationship between democratic governments and their citizens in the age of the internet and social media.”

The conference tackled several question, but focused on the power and limits of social media. Participants questioned the use of sites such as Facebook and Twitter, asking if they are just better, faster, cheaper means of communication, or if they can change behavior, giving people more active roles in government and greater self-determination.

As the recent revolts throughout the Mideast clearly show, social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter can be used to disseminate information, gather support, and help power a revolution. The internet and social media have already helped to give the general populace a more active role in government; the question is how such sites will affect the day-to-day business of governing.

While in the UK, Susan also met with several youth service organizations, including the Commonwealth Youth Programme, VSO, British Council Active Citizens Program, and Raleigh International. These organizations have different methods and areas of focus, but all have impressive programs engaging young people in their communities.

For instance, part of the Commonwealth Secretariat, The Commonwealth Youth Programme (CYP) is an international development agency that works with young people in 54 different countries. CYP focuses on three strategic program areas: Youth Enterprise and Sustainable Livelihoods, Governance, Development, and Youth Networks and Youth Education and Training. They do this by providing skills and resources for young people to create businesses, working with the government to increase the impact of young people, developing youth work as a profession and a number of other tactics. CYP just launched a new website,, designed to get more direct feedback from young people around the world.

The British Council Active Citizens Program promotes community involvement and improvement around the world. This includes programs such as establishing dialogue and helping to reconcile two warring villages in Kenya, engaging 4,000 young people in Pakistan and implementing skills-training programs at home in the UK. The British Council also organized the Youth in Action for Global Change symposium where Susan gave a keynote address in January, and it is planning a Youth Policy Symposium Series in May.

VSO is an international development organization that works through volunteers to fight poverty in developing countries. VSO has volunteers in placements around the world, serving in capacities as varied as an urban planning advisor in Zambia, a physiotherapy lecturer in Ethiopia and an art and design specialist in Bangladesh. In the UK, VSO has a special program for youth, called Global Xchange, which partners two young people from different countries in an immersive volunteer experience.

Raleigh International focuses on providing international volunteer projects for people taking a gap year or career break, and works with people of all ages and levels of experience. It works in Costa Rica, Borneo, Nicaragua and India and has projects concerned with the environment as well as community development. Raleigh International is also featured on ICP’s Green Youth Service Online Resource Center.

Are you familiar with other innovative youth civic participation programs in the UK? We’d love to hear about them in the comment below!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

US Service Threatened by Proposed Budget Cuts

Last week I wrote about how budget cuts in the UK are affecting youth service programs. This week, I discuss the effects proposed cuts could have here in the US.

In the United States, national service has generally been a bipartisan issue. When the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which greatly expanded national service, passed in March 2009, it had broad bipartisan support, garnering seventy-one Republican votes in the House and twenty-one in the Senate.

In the aftermath of the 2010 elections, however, things seem to be changing. With Republican leadership under strong pressure to cut the budget by $100 billion, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) is proposing to eliminate the Corporation for National and Community Service. Many programs fall under CNCS, including popular programs such as AmeriCorps and Learn and Serve America (who oversees Summer of Service for which ICP is a grantee).

The elimination of these programs would be detrimental to all Americans. AmeriCorps members alone serve over 60 million hours a year, making critical differences in communities from education and disaster relief (see ICP’s 2010 report Transforming Communities through Service: A Collection of 52 of the Most Innovative AmeriCorps Programs). It would be far more expensive to hire people to do this work than it is to give a small stipend to AmeriCorps members. Learn and Serve has 1.2 million participants, many of which are students from high-risk, low-income schools. These are not services America can afford to lose.

President Obama realizes the importance of service in the US and was an ardent supporter of the Serve America Act. In his FY 2012 Budget, Obama requests $1.26 billion for CNCS, which is $109 million more than the current level. President Obama’s budget, however, is merely a first step. Republicans in the House seem poised to oppose an increase in CNCS funding, and any budget proposal will have to go through floor consideration, conference committees, and final passage (and perhaps contend with a Presidential veto).

Here at ICP, we hope that the President’s request is approved, and that the Corporation for National and Community Service is allowed to remain strong for years to come. And we’re not the only ones. National service has been a hot topic as of late, with many writing to discuss the importance of service in America. Here is a selection of recent news articles discussing the importance of national service:

General McChrystal: Why America Needs National Service

Bipartisan Case for National Service

Idea of the Day: We Can’t Eliminate the Corporation for National and Community Service

Defund National Service, Cripple the Nation

Why Conservatives Should Love AmeriCorps, Not Kill It

Worried about how these potential cuts could affect your organization or community? Take Action! Voices for National Service is a great resource for information and activities regarding CNCS funding. Their website includes information on the proposal, instructions for calling your Member of Congress and talking points to make that phone call easier. Calling your Congressperson only takes a few minutes and could help save CNCS funding.

Have you contacted your member of Congress? Signed a petition? Worked in other ways to help save CNCS? Tell us about it in the comments.

Friday, February 11, 2011

UK budget cuts undermine “big society” and weaken volunteer programs

Last July, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced a program called the “big society.” In this program, many responsibilities held by the national government would devolve to localities (thus allowing Britain to be a “big society” instead of a “big government”).

The idea behind this program is to give people more control over their lives, while simultaneously shrinking the size of the central government. Under this plan, care of many community properties such as libraries, housing developments, and even hospitals would devolve from the government to community groups. Big society is a moderately popular plan. On paper it sounds plausible, invoking memories of George H.W. Bush’s a thousand points of light. Government would step out, but nonprofits, local governments, and charities would step in. Most people want to be civically engaged, and local control does allow for more flexibility in programming.

However, nine months later, the concept of a Big Society is colliding with the reality of harsh austerity measures, leading to what many volunteer and other youth service groups believe is a recipe for disaster. Like many other nations, the UK is deeply in debt.When the Conservative PM Cameron took office, he promised to reduce the debt and tame the “out of control” spending created by years of Labour-run government.

In order to do that, strong austerity measures were put into place, severely cutting the budget of many local councils. Theoretically these cuts are supposed to reduce wasteful spending and bureaucracy. In reality, councils are both cutting overhead and choosing to defund important programs including senior citizen services, the police force, public building hours and, perhaps more than anything else, youth services.

The austerity cuts alone have major implications for youth service. Volunteering England, which offers volunteer training, may have to close 30 centers, and 3000 local youth workers may lose their jobs. Brendan Barber, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), said that the voluntary sector was going to lose £4.5bn because of the government's austerity measures.

This only gets worse when combined with the new responsibilities of the big society program. Because the government is stepping out, other associations have to step in. These groups are now expected to do far more with far less funding.

The Liverpool city council, designated as one of four big society pilot projects, recently quit, claiming that the budget cuts didn’t allow the big society to function. Dame Elizabeth Hoodless, outgoing Executive Director from Community Service Volunteers (CSV), the largest volunteer organization in Britain, claimed that the cuts were undermining the big society program and “destroying the volunteer army”.

While the austerity cuts in Britain are noteworthy, funding cuts for community service agencies are being discussed elsewhere as well. In the US, Republicans are recommending budget cuts that would eliminate the Corporation for National and Community Service entirely, and many local communities have already cut programs.

Here at ICP, we’re both concerned about potential cuts and excited for many programs in the UK, including the launch of their National Citizen Service program this summer. For a detailed look at service in the UK, take a look at ICP’s Youth Civic Participation Worldwide snapshot. We hope that as governments both in the US and abroad look for ways to cut their budgets, they don’t forget the power and wisdom of investing in young people.

Has your local volunteer program been affected by cuts in government spending? Tell us your stories in the comments below.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

3 Months After the IANYS Global Conference on National Youth Service in Egypt, Young People Demonstrate Civic Engagement in Action

February 9, 2011

When ICP hosted the 9th Global Conference of the International Association of National Youth Service (IANYS) at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria, Egypt last October, no one could have anticipated the extent of the popular upheaval that has swept through Egypt since January 25. Yet, discussions of Egypt’s youth at the time were in many ways prescient.

According to the Egypt’s 2010 Human Development Report on Egyptian youth, which was presented at the conference by lead author Dr. Heba Handoussa, close to a quarter of Egypt’s total population is between the ages of 18 and 29, and over 50 percent are under 30. If encouraged by inclusive, well-managed programs and policies, these youth represent a “formidable force” that can contribute positively to Egypt’s future growth and development (EHDR, p. xi)

Yet, unemployment is extremely high among young people, even college graduates. An estimated 90 percent of unemployed people are under 30 and many more are affected by perpetual underemployment (EHDR). Governments throughout the MENA region face tremendous challenges in channeling the potential of their youth population as they make the transition to adulthood.

Creating an enabling environment for youth civic engagement by supporting a “robust and vibrant civil society” is a key strategy for confronting these challenges (IANYS 9th Global Conference Report, forthcoming). During the Global Conference, participants emphasized the need for government policies that allow freedom of association and expression, which are fundamental to civic participation, as well as communications outlets that can raise awareness among youth about opportunities available to them.

Unfortunately, while the energy and vitality of Egyptian youth and civil society have been on the rise for years, the Mubarak government has attempted to restrict such participation, and recent events have propelled this underlying pressure to the surface.

In taking to the streets, young Egyptians are demanding changes in their government and demonstrating their desire to participate fully in society. Their leveraging of social media (some sources have even called it a Facebook-fueled movement) has broadened participation in the protests and drawn international attention to their cause.

Youth who were the focus of discussion and participants at the Global Conference have played a leading role in these historic protests. They have also become the fierce protectors of valuable public buildings, including the Bibliotheca Alexandrina that hosted the conference, organizing groups and calling on the army to join them in guarding against vandals and looters.

Their actions seem to highlight the transformative power of civic engagement—one that can counter repression and pressure governments to enact reforms that address grievances and allow for the plurality of ideas and public debate vital for peace and democracy.

“This is about the people of Egypt who are fed up,” Barbara Ibrahim, the founding director of the John D. Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement at the American University in Cairo, told the Washington Examiner on January 31. She is hopeful that the “people are winning” and that the transition of power will be lawful and orderly.

In an article for Al Jazeera, Firas Al-Atraqchi observed that the Youth Movement, as it has broadly come to be known, is made up of young people who have “have known no other president, no other ruling party and no other political system.” It does not define itself by political ideology, but demonstrates optimism toward Egypt’s future that has inspired an entire society. Also a professor at the American University in Cairo, Al-Atraqchi wrote that her students have made it very clear to her that “opposition parties, long defunct and impotent, have been replaced by grassroots social action.”

The driving force of youth in these current events and the participation of individuals from all ages and backgrounds have shown the possibility for inter-generational partnership, another important feature of an enabling environment discussed at the Global Conference in October.

Photos courtesy of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina

However, as protests give way to what Egyptians hope will be a genuine democratic transition, political leaders must take care not to discount the significant achievements that youth have made in the streets by excluding them from this process. As Egypt faces its future, national dialogue must readily encourage the participation and leadership of youth. Some observers suggest that the creation of an Egyptian Youth Party is necessary for ensuring a legitimate voice for young people in the political process.

For the sake of Egypt’s youth, our hope is that whatever new government emerges in the aftermath, it will take the formidable force of its young citizens seriously and make a concerted effort to enable and harness their full capabilities. As the title of Egypt’s 2010 Human Development Report suggests, youth are crucial to building Egypt’s future. The courage, hope and dignity of Egypt’s youth witnessed by the world over the past two weeks have made their commitment to that future even clearer.

IANYS will be releasing its Report on the 9th Global Conference, which highlights several important themes and issues related to the situation in Egypt, within the next few weeks. In building an ongoing community of practice, IANYS also aims to foster shared learning among its members and will provide opportunities for international and regional dialogue and coordination via an interactive online networking platform, building on the impressive momentum of the conference.

Further reading:

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Virtual Volunteering

A recent study by the Pew Research Center has shown that people who use the internet are more civically engaged than their offline counterparts. This doesn’t come as a surprise, as both internet use and mainstream modes of civic engagement are correlated with income, and Pew used an expansive measure of civic participation, including everything from political rallies to online chatrooms. However, the increased engagement of internet users demonstrates that the internet is great resource for volunteers, and one that has yet to be fully tapped.

Nearly all volunteer agencies and nonprofits use the internet for information and recruitment. (For example, see or There is no doubt that social networking has changed the way volunteering functions, and has led to great changes in how people find volunteer opportunities.

However, ask the average person what they think of when the word volunteering is mentioned, and they may conjure images of soup kitchens, construction sites and long hours spent mentoring youth. While this type of engagement is necessary (and commendable!) it does not fully capture the opportunities that technology has made available. Every day, thousands of people volunteer without ever leaving the comfort of their home.

Websites such as Sparked help people take advantage of these opportunities. Sparked, which considers itself a “micro-volunteering” platform, allows volunteers to help nonprofits based on their specific skills and interests.

On the site, nonprofits from around the world post “challenges” that volunteers then take on. Right now, there are challenges from a Swedish nonprofit looking for help with Twitter, a Cameroonian organization looking for revenue ideas, a Canadian nonprofit looking for help with event planning, and hundreds of other challenges in dozens of different fields. Volunteers can do as much or as little as they would like—all without leaving their home!

More traditional organizations have also gotten into the act. The United Nations Volunteer (UNV) website also has virtual volunteering opportunities that can be searched by skill or interest area. The UNV program is more formal than Sparked (you have to apply and be screened in order to volunteer, whereas Sparked is open to everyone) but the goal—to allow people to volunteer from home—is the same.

This type of crowd sourcing isn’t a new idea, but the move into the civic engagement sphere is a positive development. According to the US Bureau of Labor, 45% of Americans who don’t volunteer cite lack of time as the reason. Innovations such as Sparked and UNV virtual volunteering help to mitigate this excuse, and allow people to volunteer without setting aside a major part of their day.

Next time you’re bored online, remember this simple fact: A little time volunteering completely offsets a day spent Facebook stalking.


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