Research by the British Council, the Universidad de Los Andes, and Universidad Del Rosario, offers new insight into the minds of young Colombians. The findings reveal hopes for a peaceful future, concerns about prospects and political engagement, and a striking focus on the power of education, which suggest a valuable future role for the UK. 

Hopes, fears, and dreams

The views of the next generation of young Colombians offer hope for lasting peace in the country after 50 years of vicious political conflict. The results of research published by the British Council reveal that most young Colombians (defined for these purposes as 14-28-year-olds) care deeply about their country’s future and express great pride in its history, culture, and sports. In the aftermath of 2016’s peace process, the research run in 2017-18 found over 50% of them said they identify primarily with the nation as a whole instead of any faction or region, creating the possibility for a sense of shared citizen identity which will be vital to the rebuilding of a country where the prolonged experience of violence has left deep scars.

Yet although young people have real pride in parts of their country such as the cultural assets of Colombia, there are also serious concerns. Over 40% of the young people said there were things about Colombia which made them feel ashamed, including violence, corruption, drug trafficking, and the experience of social and economic inequality.  Furthermore, a history of conflict and recent political developments have been cited by young people as causing a breakdown in trust in government and politics as a whole. Young Colombians feel disengaged from traditional forms of political participation and do not necessarily believe that politics and politicians create change in society. 

The 2018 study found that, whilst keen for change, the next generation of Colombia are not content to reinvigorate what they see as a problematic political status quo which does not harness citizen participation as a vehicle for that change. Not only did young Colombians say that they did not trust their governments; only 39% of them said they were interested in political events happening in the country. Many young Colombians are disenfranchising themselves and dropping out of politics altogether. More than 40% of them are not willing to vote, as they believe this cannot change their country, and trust in political parties is low. This creates the danger of a vicious cycle in which young Colombians are unlikely to have their voices heard and then in turn become ever more disenchanted with politics. Youth unemployment running at 56% contributes to this attitude and sense of low motivation and self-esteem.

Paramilitary groups are unsurprisingly the least trusted despite having exerted a considerable influence and force over parts of the country in past decades. Fewer than 10% of young people say they were in favour of them; perhaps unsurprising in a country where a fifth of young people say they have experienced violence from armed groups and around two fifths have been victims of crime, much of it organised crime. This is reported to have had severe effects on the mental health and resilience of the next generation of Colombians. 

In this moment of transition, the study identified that for young Colombians, there seems no strong majority towards a trusted vehicle for political and social change. But this low expression of trust in politics does not mean young Colombians are not socially conscious or are uninterested in political outcomes or their rights to citizen participation; rather that they perceive few positive changes made off the back of election promises.

79% of young people throughout the country believe citizen participation is essential for change in a society, and young people are challenging the flaws they see in traditional political mechanisms by seeking to create positive political change in different ways

Only 15.5% of those surveyed felt political parties take young people’s needs into account. Political participation by young Colombians has moved away from traditional party politics entirely, and toward social organisations, and local, grassroots and community orientated forms of political participation. Belonging to and being active in civil society groups, the Church, or through volunteering is seen as a more effective way to be politically engaged than voting. At the heart of this is a passionate belief in the value of citizen involvement: 79% of young people throughout the country believe citizen participation is essential for change in a society, and young people are challenging the flaws they see in traditional political mechanisms by seeking to create positive political change in different ways. 

Colombia is at a crucial point of rebuilding after decades of conflict, so it is essential to understand and capitalise on this untapped energy to mobilise for a positive, peaceful future. Young people (defined for this study as 14-28-year-olds) represent 26% of the Colombian population and have huge potential as a political group. These young people should be listened to, and their energies and potential harnessed. This will require creating greater opportunities for them in terms of employment, skills, and education.

Opportunities for Colombia - and the UK

Young Colombians were near unanimous (94%) in their agreement that education was essential to a successful future; and (96%) that it helps to propel change in society. One of those interviewed for the report put it particularly starkly: ‘If you don’t study you have no future. That’s it.’ Yet current educational provision and quality are patchy - particularly in rural or previously conflict-affected areas. Although Colombian young people are engaged with their education, the vast majority of 14-17 year olds expect to finish their education before the age of 17, and many express a desire for greater educational opportunities. 

This is a great opportunity for the UK to work in partnership to support Colombia. As a world leader in education and skills, and the second favourite provider of overseas education according to Colombians, the UK can offer world-class assistance to the country. Empowering young Colombians through education programmes and exchanges can have multiple benefits for both countries, building on initiatives such as the British Council led Mutual Recognition Qualification Framework to recognise the quality assurance systems in each country and therefore achieve reciprocal recognition of degrees. This 2016 scheme has released potential for increased academic and research cooperation between institutions, encouraging the creation of academic partnerships. The UK is already one of the leading study destinations for Colombian post-graduates, and the mutual recognition of degrees is designed to strengthen these existing links - enabling greater academic exchange, benefiting Colombian thousands of students, and strengthening UK soft power through links between future leaders in the UK and Colombia.

As the continent’s second most populous country, after Brazil but ahead of Argentina, Colombia’s economic potential is massive

A more educated Colombian youth population, with greater life opportunities and international engagement, could help to sustain the fragile peace that has recently been achieved. Secondly, in addition to its hoped-for peace dividend, this rising generation itself offers a potential demographic dividend for Colombia and the whole region. Compared to its crisis-riven neighbour Venezuela, Colombia is seen by many as being relatively well placed to take advantage of that dividend. The Economist Intelligence Unit has dubbed it one of the nations to watch in coming years, as part of the “CIVETS”. As the continent’s second most populous country, after Brazil but ahead of Argentina, Colombia’s economic potential is massive. Colombia is currently only the fifth richest of the 12 South American countries in GDP per capita by Purchasing Power Parity (according to the CIA’s World Factbook), so the energy of its youth population offers tremendous room for development despite its considerable challenges. 

The study found this next generation of Colombians feels compelled to connect to the world, particularly through education. Yet without facing their many socio-economic challenges, these hopes and dreams cannot be realised. Responding and making a difference to these challenges, as well as recognising Colombia’s potential as a future economic partner, the UK should consider helping young Colombians by offering partnership and expertise, and engaging more closely through culture, education, personal connections, and exchange. Doing so would be in the interest of both countries. 

Despite its problems, the hard-won peace, together with the optimism and drive of young Colombians, offer real hope for the future. There are signs that young Colombians are waking up to the huge potential of their country - and also their own power. “I would say we are [on the right path],’ said one respondent, ‘because young people are the future of Colombia.”

About Next Generation

The Next Generation research series examines the conditions that support young people in becoming creative, fulfilled and active citizens in their countries. The reports focus on young people in countries experiencing a period of significant change. They look at how this change affects young people’s view of themselves and their place in the world. They also ensure that young people’s voices are heard and their interests represented in decisions that will have lasting implications for their lives.