Linking Youth, Civil Society, and Local Government in Panama

  • Christine Zaino

Since 2014, IRI has been working to help bridge the gap between local government, civil society organizations, and at-risk youth and communities.

Thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for Democracy, IRI is bringing together these diverse stakeholders through agenda-building roundtables, working groups, and special events in the municipalities of Panama City, San Miguelito, and Colon. 

In Panama City and San Miguelito, IRI launched an assessment of current citizen security programs at the local level that revealed the need for better coordination between local government and civil society. In each municipality, IRI brought together civil society organizations (CSOs), academics, the private sector, and representatives of the mayors’ offices in multi-stakeholder roundtables to discuss priorities for improving coordination on key citizen security issues.

Panama City’s roundtable group is working on a domestic anti-violence campaign, one of the key citizen security concerns highlighted during the IRI-led sessions, with a focus inputs from schoolchildren. The campaign will launch early this year with expert support from our partner the Universidad Santa María La Antigua. The initiative could become a pilot for a country-level campaign, as domestic violence is a growing concern of Panama’s national government.

In San Miguelito, the CSO group is designing a pilot project to reduce school dropout rates—a factor strongly linked to youth gang involvement. The CSOs will partner with local stakeholders to implement the pilot first at the Severino Hernández school in San Miguelito, with potential to expand the project beyond the municipality.  IRI is also supporting two youth-led pilots in Panama City and San Miguelito, designed by winners of IRI’s March 2016 Ideathon, Tengo una Idea.

In the Panama City neighborhood of Santa Ana, young people are engaging peers and adults in a campaign to clean and reclaim abandoned public spaces, allowing the community to enjoy areas previously unsafe—used for gang and criminal activity—through music and other cultural and recreational programming. The team has gained the support of the mayor’s office for three sites, the office providing $5000 in funding and additional specialized services, including municipal engineering support for an outdoor theater.

In San Miguelito, the youth team is training peer educators to work with students, ages 15-18, on relationships, gender dynamics, and sexual and reproductive health – addressing neglected subjects which contribute to early pregnancy, gang involvement, and domestic violence. The youth team, led by a dynamic 17-year-old young woman from the Victoriano Lorenzo neighborhood, has already trained 12 peer educators and reached more than 120 young citizens in their community. The group is also participating in outreach beyond their peers, participating in community events like the December 1, 2016 “World AIDS Day” walk-a-thon in San Miguelito, sharing their message on the importance of education for the health and well-being of youth and communities.

In Colon, where IRI began work in 2016, CSOs and the mayor’s office will collaborate on projects to complement a massive renovation of the city’s historic district. The project, designed by Colon CSOs with IRI support, and will work with local youth to plan and implement cultural and recreational activities in renovated public spaces. The initiative garnered the support of the mayor’s office, national government, and local private sector partners, who recognized the importance of improving these spaces to prevent them being taken by gangs or criminals.

IRI will continue working in these municipalities and others in Panama’s capital zone to build relationships and increase coordination among civil society, local governments, the private sector, and at-risk communities. Through a project funded by the Embassy of the United States in Panama, IRI is working with Panama City and San Miguelito to create and sustain Youth Engagement Incubators— structures within the mayor’s offices which will train and link up at-risk youth with civil society and private sectors partners to undertake citizen security pilot projects in line with local public safety priorities. 

Youth from the Santa Ana neighborhood of Panama City celebrate their first public space clean-up with community volunteers.


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