Think tanks and youth: moulding active and responsible citizens – Elizabeth Sidiropoulos | OTT Conference 2024 keynote address

5 June 2024
SERIES OTT Conference – Think tanks and their communities

Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, Chief Executive of the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) in South Africa, delivers her keynote address at the OTT Conference 2024 at Fundació Bofill in Barcelona.

Good afternoon everybody! I’m very mindful of the fact that we’ve had a really stimulating conversation around funding but this is now nearly the end of two days and it’s the afternoon so I hope that my remarks this afternoon can inspire in the way that our engagement constantly inspires me with youth in South Africa in this program that I’m going to be talking about.

I would like to use this opportunity to thank OTT for an over-the-top conference. It’s been a great two days so thank you to the entire team for making this a success!


Let me sort of paint the context initially. SAIIA, as Stefania, has said, is a think tank on the African continent which has the world’s youngest population – 70% in sub-Saharan Africa is under the age of 30. By 2030 young Africans will make up 42% of the world’s youth and 75% of those under the age of 35 will be in Africa. By 2050 one in 4 people will be African.

We all of course talk about demographic booms and we look at those in a very positive light but they don’t necessarily create dividends unless you have the right structures, policies and initiatives in place. One of the challenges that I think we on the continent face is that this divide, this demographic boom, may well become a bane because of our educational challenges, the inability to create work opportunities, entrepreneurship, etc.

In my own country in South Africa, we have a high unemployment rate anyway but the unemployment rate among youth is, depending on some of the statistics, up to 60%. You must all agree it’s unsustainable from a social cohesion perspective, it’s also unsustainable from a political stability perspective, so we have a responsibility, think tanks and, I would argue all organizations and countries, have a responsibility to cultivate leaders and informed and active citizens.

In South Africa, we celebrated 30 years of the end of apartheid but we still face many of its legacies. This has been one of the drivers of our thinking around engaging with youth and our engagement with youth at the Institute had very humble beginnings but it was nearly 30 years ago.

The programs

Just over 30 years ago we began to develop a youth program; it was then largely volunteer run and it was very basic stuff: it was a Model UN and model parliamentary debates. 15 years ago, we decided that to run a meaningful effective programme. In the period since, the programme and its scope have grown exponentially; to have a proper program we needed to have full-time staff and so since then the program staff have grown. We now have five full-time staff and, of course, the scope has grown substantially. It’s no longer just a Model UN program and its objectives have also shifted.

Our starting point originally was to use the Model UN to impart critical thinking, research and analytical skills, public speaking and teamwork to young people in high school especially in the last three years of high school.

This has now become an engagement focusing on mobilising and capacitating children and youth (13-25 years) across SA to become more active citizens, to participate in decision-making processes that affect their lives.

It has become a co-creation of research priorities, policy engagement and advocacy. The young people participating in our programmes have worked with us to develop a guidebook on effective participation for young people – bringing them into the policy process is not a tick-box exercise. They have to be prepared, understand the issues, the politics and so on – (I will come back to this later.

This has now become a full-on engagement focusing on mobilizing and capacitating both children and youth. We’ve now gone all the way back to sort of the beginning of high school around 13 years old to 25 years and, of course, when we talk about youngsters who are under the age of 18 we also have to think about issues of safeguarding and making sure that those policies are in place, making sure that our staff and everybody involved understands them and respects them and that where something may go wrong.

We had a conference and we’ve consulted with the young people. We all know that’s pointless and doesn’t bring the voices of young people in an informed way into the policy debates. What we have done as part of this process and this is really the incremental steps is how do we work with the young people to co-create both the way and the themes that we focus on in the respective projects that we undertake, how we engage policy makers, how we advocate and so on.

In that process, about five or six years ago we had a discussion with UNICEF and said: – Well you know we are really active in this space, we have experience on how we build up young people to really effectively participate in policy consultations. Can we develop a guidebook on effective participation and advocacy that young people and organizations around the world can actually use?

That is one of the outcomes that we have produced over the last five years. It’s now on the UNICEF website, it’s a youth advocacy guide. It is structured and drawn up in a way that’s appealing, easy to follow and that young people in communities and organizations have set up and can really use to ensure that wherever they’re engaging with policy makers or policy processors they are doing it in a meaningful way.

I have to emphasize this is not about driving this process, I think we see ourselves increasingly as facilitators of young people who are really keen to take the lead to become engaged and make an impact on different discussions whether it’s on climate change, on gender, on health, on food security and so on. So we see ourselves as facilitators and in this journey, our young people have worked with academia, civil society organisations, the UN, the African Union, the private sector and government. In South Africa they have worked with both local and national government – the presidency, Dept of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment, International Relations and Basic Education.

They’ve also worked with people across the continent. Although our plans in the next phase are really to build that up and to  build a more continental, in the first instance probably sub regional, and then a more continental network. We’re talking with funders here as this will also require additional funding.

Let me give you some numbers before I touch on a couple of case studies:

We have completed 14 youth podcast episodes titled “Youth Tell All”. These podcasts share stories of young people taking action to create a more sustainable inclusive and equitable future for all. They are the voices of young people from across the country involved in different forms of activism.

Our programme has gone through many phases as it has become established, expanded and matured. We have now consolidated it into three phases that build on each other. 

The first one is Capacity building and skills development enabling young people to actively participate in international relations and public policy. The tools used here are negotiation simulation, research, external stakeholder engagement.

The second one is Policy engagement – engaging youth in public policy matters. This builds on the skills developed in the first phase. Critically this is about understanding how one takes a problem such as lack of sanitation in a community and develop a policy to deal with it. It includes understanding the concepts of declarations, statements, legislation, regulation etc. The tools used here include:

  • Youth Policy Committee – this has some 300 participants who are post high school, but not necessarily at university. This was created at the insistence of young participants who had ‘graduated’ from the high school Model UN and still wanted to remain involved.
  • Young Coordinators Leadership Programme – 23 coordinators
  • Alumni Network – how to engage those above 25. This is currently being developed and includes bringing them into the programme structures – also as mentors.
  • Educators Network – these are most often the unsung heroes of these programmes 

The third one is Policy Implementation – This is quite new and arose out of the recognition that implementation of policy was one of the biggest gaps. It was also driven by the questions posed by participants in the youth activities of … “What next? We’ve worked on policies … how do we make them a reality?” Out of these emerged the Youth Implementors for Change initiative. This aims to make youth implementors of policy and advocacy projects in their communities.    


I’m told I have three minutes. I’m just going to bring it to an end by highlighting a number of challenges that we have found and that we’re constantly working with.

In the first instance although we’ve made some significant progress as a network of young people.Young people still have to fight for their place at the table and particularly in terms of genuine representation. We find many people and many organizations and government departments very happy to have sort of a token representative, but there are still spaces where this has to be justified. 

The second one and this is potentially very relevant in the South African context, maybe different in others, is that the current socioeconomic challenges present difficulties for participation across the board for young people. We have young people who come from very different social backgrounds. During the pandemic where we did a lot of our work online with young people, we actually raised money to send them data so that they were able to join virtually in one case. We even booked somebody into an Airbnb about 30, 40 kilometers from the village in which he lived in rural Limpopo province in Northern South Africa so that he could get to a place where there was Wi-Fi so that he could participate.

The digital divide is a very real issue.

The third one is obviously the urban and rural divide. There is an under-representation of young people from rural areas. Among urban young people, there is a good balance between townships schools and better resourced formerly white schools or private schools. South Africa is a country with 11 languages, English i probably the lingua franca, but language proficiency is also asymmetrical, which also requires assistance when it comes to writing more formal versus more colloquial pieces. We also try where possible to translate the guidebooks into a couple of the other official SA languages. Young participants are not homogenous. They come from different backgrounds and different belief systems. So this can also be difficult to navigate although it teaches everyone how to deal with sensitivity around these issues (LGBTQI is a good example of this).

Lastly, we have also discovered that they find it difficult to understand and figure out how to apply policy to practical action.