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Learning Note 9: “They wait until the youths become miserable adults”: exploratory study on young people and elections in Uganda

Guest post by Paige Bollen, Governance Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Building on the exciting Twaweza – MIT collaboration in the context of the 2015 Tanzanian elections, which resulted in very rich formative and evaluative insights (see for example, Learning Note 8), we turned the research lens on Uganda, where the national election took place in February 2016. Although the countries are geographically close, their socio-political contexts are quite different. So in Uganda, as in Tanzania, we began with a qualitative, exploratory study, this time focusing on young people. In Uganda, 78% of the population is under 30 years of age (and roughly one quarter is between ages 18 and 30). Before designing and implementing initiatives around the elections, we wanted to understand how young people currently think about leaders, politics, and elections. What better way than to talk to a varied group of young people from different corners of the country?

Youth make up the majority of Uganda’s population, yet account for a very small percentage of those who vote. What factors contribute to this disengagement? Additionally, given that elections provide opportunities for citizens to engage with their government, can anything be done to increase young Ugandans’ electoral engagement?

The MIT Governance Lab (MIT GOV/LAB) partnered with Twaweza East Africa to explore these questions and to provide information for Twaweza to draw on in the design of their interventions. Walking down streets and dirt paths across urban and peri-urban areas near Kampala, Gulu, Mbarara, and Mbale, MIT researchers and research assistants spoke to 79 young Ugandans about their perceptions related to political information, political participation, and political leaders. Through these interviews, we learned a number of useful insights about what goes into youths’ calculus of the costs and benefits of electoral participation.

Insight one: Perceptions of their ability to dictate the outcome of elections lead many youths to focus more of their political resources on local rather than national elections. President Museveni has been in power for most of our respondents’ life, and therefore, many respondents feel like they have little power to sway the results of the presidential election. In contrast, respondents feel like they have more influence in deciding the outcome of local elections, such as the selection of their MP and LC1 representatives, because they have seen a change of leadership among these government levels. One respondent exemplifies this by saying: “Last election, I voted for president and nothing happened, but for MP, I changed the leadership.” (Author’s interview 9/26/15; Kampala)

Insight two: Young people do not feel represented in government, and also experience a general disconnect between them and the leaders. Many of our respondents complain that there are not enough youth representatives in the government, and their interests are therefore less understood. Respondents blame this lack of leadership on older generations dissuading them from participating as electoral representatives because of their inexperience: “The adults keep lying [to] the youths that you are leaders of tomorrow—five years elapse, again—you are leaders of tomorrow—five years elapse. They wait until the youths become miserable adults.” (Xavier Week 2; Respondent 1; Mbarara)

One approach that respondents commonly noted as a way to judge a political leader’s capacity to effectively represent their interests is whether she directly engages with those she represents, especially outside of the campaign season. For example, youth interviewees report that they trust leaders who directly interact and engage with their constituents, rather than those who drive in “cars with tinted window glasses.” (Xavier Week 2; Respondent 1; Mbarara) Direct engagement is linked to respondents’ trust in a leader, because they feel like their point-of-view is heard. When political leaders fail to directly interact with their constituents, respondents feel ignored and exploited for their vote, which can further youths’ disengagement with electoral politics.

This may not be initially intuitive: you would think that those who are politically frustrated should have even more of a reason to politically engage. In Uganda, however, youths have experienced or heard about numerous rigged elections and violent suppressions in response to protests throughout their life, with the recent election being no exception. They thus feel like political engagement has few tangible benefits, but instead has potentially very high costs. Without proper youth representatives to speak on youths’ behalf and with general perceptions of political inefficacy, many young Ugandans highly value political leaders who they consider capable of understanding and portraying their interests.

Insight three: Despite these barriers to youths’ engagement, they seem to receive a large amount of political information, especially during the campaign season. This finding counters the common assumption that information is scarce in dominant-party systems. So, where does this information come from? Young Ugandans report that they gain most of their political knowledge through conversations with family and friends, media outlets, such as television, radio, and newspapers, and local leaders. Rather than depending primarily on one of these sources for all their political information, youths rely on some combination of the three, and which one(s) they weight more heavily depends, in part, on access to and trust of that particular source. Therefore, the key question pertaining to political information in Uganda is not whether they receive political information, but rather how they assess the information and trust the source.

Insight four: Above all else, respondents value whether information sources are impartial and knowledgeable. If the source is seen as biased toward the National Resistance Movement, for example, many young Ugandans tend to discredit the information because they believe that the government may be construing the facts. Comparatively, youths trust sources with the most perceived knowledge, which they judge based on a source’s reputation. One interviewee mentions that the source “doesn’t have to be an educated member of society, but he must be wise. Wise comes from his reputation—Does the person have influence in other areas? Has the person done anything for the community?” In this manner, youths use information they have about various sources to sift through the large amount of political information they receive.

Our research project sought to better understand the disparity between the proportion of Uganda’s population that are youth and the proportion of those youth who vote. Although our sample of respondents is by no means exhaustive in terms of its reach or size, our results provide important insight into youths’ electoral engagement in Uganda.

What lessons did Twaweza and its partners glean from these results? First, given youths’ perceptions of inefficacy when it comes to presidential elections, Twaweza focused on increasing youths’ engagement with local elections. Second, the large amount of political information that youths receive pertaining to elections makes the source of information particularly important. Twaweza partnered with the African Youth Development Link, which has a reputation for being credible and unbiased, to disseminate political information relevant to young people. Finally, in the absence of youth political representatives to champion youth interests, direct interaction between candidates and young Ugandans was promoted through issue-based live and interactive debates. These took place both at the national level (in Kampala), as well as regionally, through a series of 96 debates among sub-national candidates (MPs and Councilors). All debates were televised as well as broadcasted on national and local radio. Note: Twaweza and MIT GOV/LAB are also currently working together on other components of research looking at Ugandans electoral engagement, including an evaluation of the debates, as well as a conjoint field experiment, similar to that conducted in Tanzania. We will post insights from these projects in the near future.

Read more: government Uganda youth

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