Research Summary

"We can keep the fire burning": Building action competence through environmental justice education in Uganda and Germany

Multi-national projects can be effective in building on cultural and social diversity to help young people become confident and capable environmental actors

Local Environment

This study investigated the impact of the Youth Leading Environmental Change (YLEC) program on participants’ action competence. Four components of action competence were considered: (1) knowledge about environmental issues, (2) reflection on knowledge and experience within the context of one’s values, (3) visions of alternatives, and (4) ability to engage in collective action. YLEC is a multi-national education program that engages university-age students in learning and action related to environmental issues, with a specific focus on environmental justice.

This paper describes the impacts of YLEC on environmental action competence of participating youth in two of the YLEC countries: Uganda and Germany. These two countries represent different experiences with climate change -- Uganda, an economically developing country, faces many direct impacts of climate change; while Germany, an economically “developed” country, contributes significantly to climate change without facing many direct impacts. Selecting two contrasting countries gave researchers the opportunity to compare the impacts of YLEC in different contexts. The researchers interviewed 30 youth (6 In Germany, 24 in Uganda) approximately three months after they completed YLEC in their respective countries. Interviews focused on the development of action competence of the participants from before, throughout, and following their participation in YLEC.

Analysis of the data revealed differences between the two countries in all four components of action competence. These outcome differences reflected participants’ different lived experiences. Overall, findings indicated that the YLEC program helped participants from both countries broaden their previous knowledge and experience to activate higher levels of pro-environmental engagement and action. This was especially evident in the degree of initiative taken by the Ugandan youth in utilizing the resources and opportunities made available through YLEC. Participating Ugandan youth formed strong and long-lasting connections with community resources, which gave them opportunities to engage in environmental actions where, previously, such opportunities were not available to them. This outcome reflects Ugandan cultural values of mutual responsibility and collectivism. In Germany, YLEC was effective in exposing youth to the assumptions born of privilege. This awareness inspired new ideas for action based on promoting environmental well-being on a global scale.

These findings suggest that multi-national projects can be effective in building on cultural and social diversity to help young people become confident and capable environmental actors. What’s required, however, is attention to current and potential forms of engagement reflective of the needs and conditions of people from diverse nations.