IFES has been implementing Democracy Camps in Kyrgyzstan for over a decade to familiarize a new generation with democratic principles. Through an interactive methodology of group discussions, simulations, games and competitions, Democracy Camps provide middle and high school students the tools to advocate for change in their society.
Regional Program Coordinator for Europe and Asia Augusta Featherston had the opportunity to meet with Democracy Camp alumni while visiting Bishkek for local elections on November 25. Despite frigid temperatures, which created a three-inch layer of ice over the city, Featherston was enveloped by the alumni’s warmth and enthusiasm.
Tell us about IFES’ work with youth in Kyrgyzstan.
The heart of IFES’ youth work in Kyrgyzstan is the Democracy Camp program, which has been running since 2000. The camps have a good reputation, especially within the donor community due to its broad appeal to students from all backgrounds and tangible impact on participants while conducted at relatively low cost.
An additional component of IFES’ youth work focuses on training civic education teachers and updating a civics textbook intended for course use in secondary schools throughout the country.
The Democracy Camps are very popular. Do the alumni stay in touch? Where are they now?
I had the opportunity to meet several alumni while I was in Kyrgyzstan. The first alumnus I met is now a volunteer in IFES’ field office in Bishkek. There is a core group of about three or four alumni from 2009 who come to the office regularly to volunteer with special projects. When I arrived, these young people were helping prepare voter education materials produced by IFES for distribution to the Central Election Commission (CEC). They had an assembly line set up in the conference room and must have handled about 5,000 brochures.
On my first free day, Dmitry Shevkun, IFES’ Chief of Party in Kyrgyzstan, arranged for me to meet a few of these young people at the National Museum. I spent the day with Shirin and Elikas, both camp alumni from 2009. Both Shirin and Elikas live in Bishkek with their families. They finished secondary school and are currently continuing their studies. They were excellent guides and showed me interesting sights around Bishkek, but the most rewarding parts of the day were the conversations we had as we walked all over the city. They asked me a lot of questions about IFES’ headquarters and my background working with American and international students. Likewise, I asked them about their lives and experience at camp, which they found to be one of the seminal events of their young lives.
You mentioned the alumni helped IFES prepare for the election. In what other ways were they involved in the election?
After the election on November 25, IFES held a post-election conference in Bishkek that was attended by trainers and Democracy Camp alumni volunteers from the outlying oblasts, as well as representatives from Bishkek. The trainers and alumni volunteers were together during some of the conference sessions and separated during others. I stayed with the alumni during a session that examined ways for them to continue their involvement with civic activities post-election. It was incredibly rewarding to be a part of that meeting because I witnessed alumni working together to develop ideas for future projects.
To me, that is what youth work is all about; you give them the right tools and then step back and see what students come up with on their own.
How have they continued to apply what they learned during the camps?
From the time I spent with the alumni at the post-election conference, it looks like they have absolutely continued to apply the skills they gained from the camp experience. Watching them outline an idea for a community project is a great example. The small groups came together, discussed options and chose what they felt was best. Then they created an outline and identified resources and support that would be needed. They pretty much hit every aspect of project planning.
What did they mention was the most beneficial aspect of the camps?
Different alumni mentioned different things, but many expressed that camp activities helped them speak up and participate in a group setting with more confidence. The Democracy Camp curriculum provides ample opportunity for participants to develop this skill since group work can feel like a high-risk activity for an individual who is not comfortable contributing ideas in that setting.
Other benefits that were mentioned to me included how to form and defend an opinion,; how to plan a project; and how to make new friends.
Shirin and Elikas talked about how participating in the camp has turned into other opportunities, such as the chance to volunteer in IFES’ field office.
Do they remain in touch with other alumni? Is there an established alumni club for these camps?
It seems like they stay in touch with each other, especially those who attended the same camp session. There is a group on Facebook where alumni post pictures and check in with each other. Part of the outcome of the post-election conference was an idea for the alumni volunteers to establish “IFES corners” in the oblasts (provinces) across Kyrgyzstan. This allows alumni to stay in touch with each other and reach out to those in other parts of the country. It is particularly beneficial for collaborating on post-camp projects.
What do Democracy Camp alumni offer Kyrgyzstan, which has seen a reinvigoration of its commitment to democratic principles since the events of April 2010 that led to the ousting of former President Bakiyev and a move toward establishing a parliamentary government?
I believe that each successive group of alumni helps build the foundation of an electorate that is knowledgeable of democratic principles. It is much like building a house. No single piece can be whole on its own, however, each young person that can take something positive away from their Democracy Camp experience and translate it into action is another sturdy beam supporting the structure of Kyrgyzstan’s democracy.