by Daria Azarjew*
The International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) recently completed two annual summer democracy camps for youth ages 14-19 in Kyrgyzstan. This year’s camps build upon IFES’ legacy of more than 20 years of democracy camps, with over 80 camps conducted across the world, including 50 in Kyrgyzstan alone.
The democracy camp model recognizes the need to provide youth with early exposure to the principles of democratic governance and civic rights and responsibilities, even before they reach voting age. To this end, the camp educates youth on their political rights and works to inspire participation in their communities, as well as in all stages of the electoral process.
Throughout the nearly two decades of its evolution, the camp’s methodology has been developed to foster youth leadership, promote engagement in civic life, support young people’s belief in their potential, and strengthen their ability to advocate for their own and others’ political rights. These skills are developed as students learn to think critically, gaining the ability to process information and develop independent positions on a topic. Equipping youth with such skills holds particular significance in Kyrgyzstan, where previous academic experience has ingrained passiveness in students and discouraged individual thinking. School teachers are responsible for everything in the classroom, leading the entire process and providing the correct answers, and students’ passiveness is also considered a sign of respect. This context led IFES to transform the camp’s methodological approach from a position where only one person in a classroom leads while others passively listen, to a significantly reduced role for the trainers, providing students with the opportunity to become active, creative, and empowered.
During the camps participants learned how to work collaboratively across social, regional and gender strata and acquired leadership and critical thinking skills, as well as a hands-on understanding of government structure and the electoral system, with a particular focus on the core principles of civic engagement and importance of voting. The entire team of camp trainers and facilitators, which included experts from a variety of professional backgrounds, volunteers and democracy camp alumni, joined IFES administrative staff to provide professional support to participants with disabilities and fully integrate them into the camps’ 10-day curriculum. The specialized program taught students the value of inclusion and had a profound effect in breaking down entrenched stereotypes and stigmas among participants.
Keeping with democracy camp tradition, the 2018 camp program concluded with the creation of capstone student action projects, which participants designed during the camps with the support and mentorship of camp trainers. These action projects are initiatives that, when implemented upon return to their home regions, will help students solve problems and challenges in their own schools and communities. While the camps have proven to have meaningful, long-term impact on participants, as evidenced by the success of alumni post-camp activities measured through follow-up surveys, the program has also had an immediate, transformational and palpable effect on students measured by the broad smiles and newfound confidence displayed at the end of the 10-day program.
Kanat Abdyjaparov, a winner of the Arm-Wrestling Championship of Asia among youth with disabilities, expressed his thoughts on the camp experience, “I really liked the trainers in the camp, as they were able to interest and support all the participants. There was no such moment where one person worked and everyone else rested. We did not have time for rest; we worked hard and learned a lot. In 10 days I became more open, learned to express my thoughts clearly and overcame some of my barriers.”
“I liked the atmosphere in the camp, which has contributed to my development and comprehension of materials. I feel that I have changed inside and my thinking has changed as well.” – Arina Taran, a high school student from the Chui region
2017 camp alumnus Alambek Gulamidinov, a 16-year-old from Kyzyl-Kiya, shared his post-camp impressions by noting, “In 2017 because of my sister, I applied to participate in the democracy camp. My sister is also an alumna of this camp and I am very grateful to her for the fact that she helped me. The camp was able to fill a void in my soul and make me feel like a full-fledged person. I realized that for me there is nothing impossible, I just need to try and life will smile to me. I realized the limitations we set for ourselves. I decided to change my lifestyle and myself.” Upon his return to school, Alambek stayed true to these reflections and initiated a mini democracy camp for his peers, where participants had the opportunity to gain new knowledge and skills, as well as learn how to ask questions and find answers. “Currently, I am preparing for the implementation of many projects; I launched my own Birimdik volunteer club in Kyzyl-Kiya. With our team we gift people joy and happiness. For instance, last week we organized a chess tournament to promote chess in my motherland because it helps you to make moves with a strong purpose and guide your thinking process in the right direction.” Alambek proved to be a very civically-minded young activist and implemented various socially-oriented projects throughout the post-camp year, which contributed to his selection as a 2018 democracy camp volunteer.
Democracy camps have proven to be an effective tool in accelerating the growth of civically-minded teenagers, while also convincing the less engaged to be more active and assertive. Previous years of follow-up surveys illustrate how the degree of civic participation, confidence, leadership skills, and rate of volunteerism among alumni continues to grow after the camp experience. Alumni have consistently found ways to implement lessons from the democracy camps in their communities through a range of charity and fundraising projects. Like Alambek, 2017 democracy camp alumni have been working to organize community actions such as cleaning up their cities, leading youth awareness campaigns and organizing charity drives, including campaigns to raise funds for an orphanage and for students studying science to buy needed tools. Alumni are eager to share their newly-acquired knowledge and skills and several have already led a series of presentations on core themes, including democracy and elections, financial literacy, early marriage, women’s rights and Kyrgyzstan’s state management and balance of powers. Other students have led trainings and outreach campaigns on other issues, including the internet and its influence, asthma and HIV/AIDS. Camp alumni are continuously seeking to share the lessons gained from the camp program; a majority of those who have led an activity brought together more than 20 additional participants.
The broad range of initiatives serve as a testament to the impetus that the camps’ lessons can provide for alumni in implementing impactful changes in their communities, building a new generation of empowered Kyrgyz youth leaders who inspire others with their passion and activism.
*Daria Azarjew is a program officer with IFES' Europe and Eurasia division.