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In Panama, Local Governments Embrace Youth Participation

In 2016, the International Republican Institute (IRI) organized Panama’s first Ideathon competition, a program in which young people develop innovative projects to benefit their communities with the aim of improving engagement between youth and local government.  

Over the past four years, the Ideathon has inspired like-minded competitions throughout the country, launched social improvement projects and contributed to improved engagement between local governments and young people. By increasing youth engagement with government, IRI encourages citizen-centered solutions to governance problems and policies that are responsive to issues youth face every day. Ultimately, these results create environments that support the success of young people and produce Panama’s next generation of democratic leaders.  

More than 50 percent of Panamanian citizens are under the age of 30. Young people are increasingly participating in conversations with all levels of government, due in part to demographic changes and the popularity of social media. As part of our mission to support youth participation and empowerment, IRI organized Panama’s Ideathon competition in 2016 and 2017 and supported several local iterations in 2018 and 2019.  

Through the Ideathon, young people develop innovative projects that directly benefit their communities by tackling issues ranging from citizen security to high drop-out rates. The winning teams presented their projects to local authorities, who worked with the winners to make their visions a reality. The winning project of the 2016 Ideathon to revitalize three neglected local parks in Panama City received not only seed funding from IRI but $5,000 from the Mayor’s Office. 

The Ideathon’s success led the growing municipalities of Colon and Panama City to independently replicate the competition in their own constituencies. The impact is being felt far beyond Panama as well, as participants have shared lessons learned with youth in Haiti, Thailand and beyond.

With municipalities beginning to hire specialized youth personnel and incorporate a youth agenda into their organizational structures, the time is ripe for Panamanian youth to share their ideas and become more involved in local government. After participating in the Ideathon in 2017, the Mayors Office of Panama City created the Integral Youth Development Unit, which provides facilities for activities that promote a culture of peace and collaborates with schools to promote youth leadership.    

As an example of the Ideathon’s enduring impact, San Miguelito and Colón have also established youth secretariats, which meet regularly to define and address community priorities. As 21-year-old Aldayr Ortega, a 2017 Ideathon winner and current Secretariat of Youth at the Mayor’s Office of San Miguelito put it, “Youth must be part of our institutions. Spaces for young people within the mayors offices provide an opportunity for them to interact with the institutions they are closest to. They can be more comfortable, feel like a team, feel supported, and understood. Young people can offer support through ideas.” 

The Municipality of La Chorrera, some youth of which have participated in previous IRI Ideathons, supported the creation of a Youth Volunteer Network, in cooperation with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the Ministry of Social Development of Panama and IRI. This network comprises 12 young people from La Chorrera who represent young independent activists, youth groups and nongovernmental organizations.  

In December 2018, the Network and the Mayor of La Chorrera signed an agreement to cooperate on addressing youth priorities including school dropouts, the quality of education and youth participation in political processes. Ahead of Panama’s 2019 general elections, the Youth Volunteer Network organized a conversation with six out of seven candidates for Mayor of La Chorrera. Some 120 young people attended the event, during which candidates were questioned about how they would address youth priorities such as the lack of civic education if elected.  

More robust youth participation in municipal governance will improve the ability of stakeholders from all levels and sectors to incorporate the priorities of young people in local politics, delivering a more citizen-centered and responsive government. As more and more municipalities in Panama make youth participation a central pillar of their policy agendas, they will give young people a stake in their societies and become partners in forging a strong and stable democracy.