About 600 young people from around the globe gathered in Scotland earlier this month to attend the World Youth Congress. Frederick Bernas finds out why the event was held and what it achieved.

“Each and every one of you has the capacity to make a difference for the better and all I can do is congratulate you on your enthusiasm, passion and commitment,” said Prince Charles in a recorded message during the opening session of the 2005 World Youth Congress in Stirling. The congress was attended by 600 young people from across the globe between 30 July and 8 August.

The congress’s primary aim was to produce an outcome document stating what young people will do in their respective countries to further the six themes of sustainability, education, poverty, equality, community and health. These themes are in no particular order, but the main focus was on poverty.

Out of Africa

Africa was strongly represented at the congress, with about 150 young delegates from the continent receiving scholarships from the Scottish Executive. Robert Kasenene, a 21-year-old from Tanzania, explained that addressing poverty should not just be about giving aid. “Aid should go hand in hand with technical assistance, better trade rules and international policies of individual countries,” he said. “Young people need to be recognised as partners in the fight against poverty.”

As part of the congress, delegates also spent three days working on a variety of action projects in different parts of Scotland. All 40 of the projects linked into the congress’s key themes.

In Neilston in East Renfrewshire, 15 delegates helped turn an abandoned flat on a housing estate into a community centre for young people. Themed rooms were created, each inspired by a combination of local young people and the foreign participants. Ken McIntosh MSP, who represents the area at the Scottish Parliament, visited the flat during the renovations and was “delighted to hear of the work going on.”

Another project in Dundee involved delegates working with local youth workers, artists and young people on a mural for the walls around a housing estate’s football pitch. The congress party also swept up broken glass and dust from the pitch. In the space of three days it was transformed from a dingy and dangerous sports area into a vibrant creative space.

Ben Hunter, 19, a project organiser, says: “We’ve made a huge difference, which hopefully will continue to be enjoyed by everyone in the area.”

As well as the all-important outcome document for the congress, an Action Toolkit was devised. This is a collection of case studies from congress delegates and will act as a guide for young people who want to campaign and make a difference on issues relating to the World Youth Congress themes.

Mihir Chatterjee, 21, from India, was part of the Toolkit team. “The Toolkit will be a comprehensive guide enabling the youth of the world to make a difference to issues that haunt mankind today,” he says. The two documents will work in partnership after the event and help young people build on their experiences in Stirling to start instigating positive change back at home.

A full programme of entertainment was also provided in the evenings.

True to the spirit of the congress, this had an international theme. One of the highlights was the Cultural Fusion night, featuring a wide variety of acts ranging from a drum performance by the Burundian delegation to traditional Indian dance. Other events included a ceilidh session where the young people danced to traditional Scottish music and a guest band named Salsa Celtica, which combined Latin and Scottish musical elements.

Final words

On 7 August, delegates visited the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood in Edinburgh for the closing session. A range of speakers addressed the youth congress and representatives from each continent were joined by First Minister Jack McConnell. Young journalists also had the chance to quiz McConnell in a press conference, where they raised questions about eliminating poverty in Scotland and how young people should be educated about sustainability.

“Sustainable development will only truly be sustainable if there is a high level of participation, particularly among younger people,” said the First Minister. “Governments can pass laws and spend money, but if we’re truly going to change the society in which we live, participation is essential. Youth participation is one of the most important absolute prerequisites for sustainable development in years to come.”

Paul Dwyer, 18, who was representing the UK Youth Parliament at the congress, says: “It was a privilege to be at an event where the people wanted to go out and change the world.” He adds: “Never have I been in a place with people from so many different countries – it was amazing. Now we must all make sure we actually fulfil our promises to go back and make a difference.”

Published in Young People Now, 31/8/05 – click here for original.