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Youth work in Croatia has a long-standing history dating back to the former Yugoslavia, and its youth work actions, activities and organizations under the wing of the Communist Party. The youth work of the era had a straightforward ideological goal to propagate the communist regime. It also conceptualized young people as a resource in (re-)building state infrastructure (roads, dams, bridges…) and society at large in the decades following WW2. At the same time, it promoted youth engagement in diverse hobby, cultural, sports, leisure-time and technical organizations and activities which benefited young people in the process of socialization and skills-building.
In 1991 Croatia declared its independence and five years of civil war ensued. During and immediately after the war, civil society organizations and initiatives set up a wide anti-war campaign promoting peace building in the face of armed conflict. The Anti-war Campaign was initiated and carried out by thousands of young peace activists from Croatia and abroad. In war-affected areas and divided communities, they (mainly volunteers) organized a myriad of bottom-up actions related to direct peacebuilding, the protection of human rights and media activism.
This can be seen as the point of inception of contemporary youth work in Croatia. The main paradigmatic shift in youth work in the early 1990s in Croatia was premised upon a very different approach towards young people – they were seen as a subject in need of various social services, while previously youth people had been treated as a subject that delivered services following the agenda of the Party in order to build and support the regime.
Youth work in the 1990s was exclusively situated within civil society. Although it was subversive in relation to the socio-political context of the time, it was not perceived as having any substantial societal influence. It was supported by international donors and, due to its peacebuilding character, youth work developed very distinctive principles which led it to evolve strongly in the direction of non-formal (youth) education.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, youth organisations continued to deliver various youth work programmes and activities, mostly focusing on non-formal education, but still with a strong emphasis on non-violent communication and conflict resolution. Such activities were often designed to support and encourage young people to engage in community-building actions and to develop their leadership skills. That period also saw a proliferation of youth organizations and initiatives in the field of arts, culture, environmental protection, social integration, etc., which, in 2002, led to the creation of the Croatian Youth Network – a platform for exchange and advocacy gathering most relevant youth organizations in the country.
Youth organizations and different civil society organizations working for youth have since expanded their programmes and activities with young people. However, they have also strengthened their role, becoming watchdogs, advocates and partners in policy-making processes. Today, as a result, youth work is gaining a more prominent place in the youth policy framework of contemporary Croatia. The current state of youth work development in Croatia is characterised by a strong orientation towards advocacy for the professionalization of youth work.
National definition or understanding of Youth Work
There is no official definition of youth work in Croatia. For the first time, in 2014, youth work found its place in an official national document. The National Youth Programme (2014-2017) emphasised the importance of youth work as “…a set of activities which contribute to the personal and social development of young people. Participation in youth work activities is voluntary and complementary to formal education. Youth work activities contribute to the development of self-confidence and self-respect in young people, as well as the competences necessary for the creation and maintenance of quality personal and social relations. Youth work offers young people opportunities to learn and develop competences across various fields. It also enables young people for active participation in society and decision-making processes”. This provisional definition heavily relied on European best practice and was not an outcome of a wider national debate or research. Therefore, one of the measures of the National Youth Programme (2014-2017) stipulated that an analysis and definition of youth work in Croatia should be completed by the end of 2017. As of January 2021, the measure has not been implemented. Moreover, the expired National Youth Programme still does not have a successor and a potential youth work definition in Croatia remains elusive.
A glimpse into a common understanding of youth work can be gleaned from the 2016 survey on the youth work profession conducted by the Croatian Employment Service. The survey shows that youth professionals understand youth work as a variety of tasks which are, among others, normally carried out by teachers, social workers or psychologists. It is obvious that the term “youth work” in Croatia is rather vague and can be seen as a stretched concept.
This, in turn, is also a result of linguistic ambiguities concerning the term “youth work” in Croatian. Although there is no official consensus, “youth work” in Croatian is usually called “rad s mladima”, which literally translates into English as “working with youth”. As such, it is not a coherent concept but rather a descriptive category without specific meaning, as many professionals across many different disciplines “work with youth”. As a consequence, youth work is generally poorly understood, except by a very limited circle of experts.