Lobbying for good
We all know this: Young people feel politically underrepresented. This is a contradiction in terms and we are shooting ourselves in the foot while young people around the world are already trying to save this troubled world. In our second GenerAction essay, ONE Youth Ambassador Sanskruti Ghosalkar explains how citizen lobbying can be a response to our democracy's call for better representation and accountability, as well as finding solutions to global challenges.
Lobbying has been depicted as the playground of the rich and the powerful. And “Brussels", the Belgian city where European institutions are based, is therefore at the carrefour of European politics, and is home to thousands of lobby groups (more than 7,000 according to the EU transparency register) representing a myriad of interests from artificial intelligence to energy sectors.
But lobbying is not only for private interests. Ordinary citizens, especially young activists, are interacting with leaders to push for a more effective governance agenda. For instance, as young activists of the ONE Campaign in Belgium, we are lobbying Members of the European Parliament for a fair financing of the Global Fund, a global partnership to fight the AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria epidemics.
This advocacy campaign gives us a sense of purpose and agency even if the management of this fund is a complex process. But we believe that with this exercise citizen lobbying can be an effective tool to engage with legislators. It presents an avenue for citizens to have direct access to decision-makers and to voice their perspectives.
It allows ordinary citizens to shape how decisions are made, even if politics has become increasingly professionalised. It strengthens the organisational capacity of communities and empowers individuals to engage in civic life. It is facilitating the ability of government representatives to take into account public sentiments, especially those of the marginalised.
Citizens lobbying is democratising influence and ensures that a diverse spectrum of opinions are represented. By representing collective public interests, it pushes policy-making to be more inclusive.
How citizens lobbying can rebuild political and civic trust
By lobbying for causes they are passionate about , citizens can ensure democracy remains participatory and representative.
However, citizens lobbying means also advocating for the regulation of the lobbying industry. Unchecked lobbying has been marred by a disproportionate political influence of business interests. And public officials whose careers are jumping from public office and lobbying for vested interests – a practice known as revolving door– fester public cynicism and do little to preserve the integrity of public institutions.
For lobbying to ensure the engagement of citizens, it needs a greater transparency and public accountability bound by a code of ethics.
Lobbying should be a way to capture diverse voices for public interest, and not engender a frustrated citizenry. Trust, therefore, is a crucible upon which the legitimacy and sustainability of political systems rest. Concerted efforts should be taken to fill in this trust deficit and hold leaders accountable on their promises and the oath made to act in the public interest.
Young and Restless
Young people are yearning for a more active role in democratic and civic spaces.
They now feel underrepresented and victims of a generational gap as elected officials are often older and are not hearing their grievances. Often they do not feel acknowledged and are sometimes belittled.
Say what you will, but young people nowadays are going through their fifth (give or take) once in a lifetime crisis - from political upheavals to economic downturns, wars to pandemics, and environmental challenges that aren’t being taken seriously enough. Youth are politically changed and standing on the failures of the socio-economic systems. Their participation in politics should not be limited by entry barriers or structural factors such as those related to the logistics or financing to vote or attend meetings.
Allowing young people to sit across the table from decision-makers is a powerful way of legitimising their concerns. It gives young leaders an opportunity to articulate their viewpoints so that public policies are inclusive and are responsive to their needs.
For example, earlier this year in February, during the African Union-European Union Summit, ONE activists wrote a letter to European and African leaders calling on them to take action on global vaccine access, youth participation in decision-making, and to ensure a fair global economic recovery from the pandemic. We met with dozens of European and African government officials to share our recommendations. Those recommendations were presented during the “Youth week”, ahead of the official summit.
Similarly, in relation to climate talks, the youth of today and future generations are arguably the most affected by inaction across sectors, from energy to fashion. The world’s 10 most climate vulnerable countries are in Africa, and with their booming population growth, African youth is a major stakeholder that should be included and engaged in the design, implementation and monitoring of climate strategies at local and national levels. The youth feels the urgency and have the most to lose from climate inaction. Instead of being sidelined in parallel discussions, they should be at the table with the leaders to ensure effective communication.
Inclusive participation gives youth the agency to manage their present and their future.
Many young people are active protagonists of their communities, often by mobilising themselves. From the Fridays for Future movement to ONE’s group of global activists campaigning across continents to end extreme poverty, youth have a clear desire to participate in this democracy project and allow for their perspectives to make way into policy-making.
How activists can help drafting a new social contract
This new wave of interaction with the government aims to address the challenges in the current forms of governance and policy making, by aligning it with the principles of deliberative democracy.
Beyond simply influencing decision-making, lobbying, when regulated, has the power to democratise the process by aggregating a range of public interests. Policies constructed through such processes bear significance, especially when difficult trade-offs exist and a consensus is not reachable.
Such deliberative processes have spaces for recognition of plurality, social learning and mutual understanding. It compels the law-makers to rethink their policy priorities, and grants citizens an ownership over policy making.
For it to be considered a new form of social contract, the architecture of lobbying needs to be revisited. For any form of citizen-government interaction to be effective, it needs to be inclusive and should cultivate a sense of citizenship, representation and social fairness by default.
Although no model of governance is perfect, lobbying can signify a new pathway to bridge the solidarity deficit and create a more representative society. Given the different degrees of democracy and frustrations of top-down politics, lobbying extends the privilege of representation and direct deliberation to large swathes of society.
In the end, in any democratic society, citizen participation must be exercised, like a muscle. And like any muscle, when left unused, it shrinks.
For our democracies to continue to flourish, responsible lobbying is indispensable to maintain social cohesion. It offers citizens an active role in the political arena and ensures that diverging arguments reach the ears of decision-makers.