While working with young people across Sub-Saharan Africa, I have noticed a common trend. Young people are commonly termed as beneficiaries: the recipients of information rather than generators of knowledge. Programmes are too often designed with an underlying assumption, young people lack information and external aid agencies need to save them by feeding it to them.

I guess these noble pursuits have been driven by the old adage: ‘Give a man a fish, feed him for a day but teach a man how to fish, feed him for life’. While this sounds intuitively correct, too often the ‘teachers’ do not understand that young people already know how to fish, in fact they understand the waters better than their so-called teachers. What they do often lack however is a pole,  or the necessary tools and opportunities in order to fish for themselves.

A New Era

As the Millennium Development Goals expire, the post-2015 agenda presents a tremendous opportunity to reconceptualise young people’s role in sustainable development. New and important questions are being asked, as the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are being defined. While before the discussion was focused solely on how to monitor the goals now it is also focusing on who will monitor them. In May 2013 the UN High Level Panel called for a data revolution that leaves no-one behind and is driven by the people. Many civil society organisations welcomed that call and started looking at ways to action the “data revolution”. The youth-led development agency, Restless Development is one of them.  They believe that young people should be at the heart of the data revolution and the monitoring of the SDGs and are already working with young people to make that a reality.

This revolution is feasible and achievable as there are unprecedented opportunities for young people to access and engage with data. In the developing world, the expansion of mobile technology has significantly increased the availability and variety of data. If this exponential increase in data can be mobilised effectively, then young people will be better equipped to analyse policies that effect their lives, thus providing space for better accountability.

There are still fundamental challenges that relate to the access of data by young people. Firstly, the availability of data does not necessarily mean that it is accessible. For young people to effectively hold governments to account, data needs to be made available in a form that young people can understand, share, use and add to with their experience

Secondly, while the amount and type of data available has significantly increased, shockingly little is known about certain groups, such as young people and key issues relating to them. That means that there are still many invisible issues, and invisible groups that are grossly unrepresented. Slum dwellers, the disabled, informal workers, all groups in which young people have a strong presence, are consistently left out of data sets, making the issues that many of these groups face nearly unknown. When the scale of the problem is not known, then finding solutions becomes more challenging. And since young people make up over a quarter of the total world’s population and almost 90% of them live in developing countries, a significant proportion of the population is left out of those solutions.

Here is where young people can play a big role, generating data on issues that are not acknowledged by policy-makers or development thinkers.

Enhancing Youth-Led Monitoring: The Big Idea

The Big Idea by Restless Development aims to give young people the tools to fish data for themselves. This programme is based on the premise that if young people are equipped and empowered with the skills to use, analyse and generate data on key issues that affect their lives, they will take the lead in exercising accountability over their governments – particularly accountability over the new Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals.

The Big Idea, acknowledges and supports the potential of young people as generators of  knowledge by:

  1. Using data to enhance accountability

The Big Idea, implements national and regional level data-based advocacy projects, tailored to young people’s priorities and needs. They work to influence local, national and regional policies that young people have identified as priorities, so that these serve young people better.

  1. Recognising innovation in accountability

This programme provides mentorship, technical support and small grants to innovative community-based organisations that want to use data to improve service delivery for youth at the local level.

  1. Networking for accountability

The Big Idea supports young people to advocate for improved accountability over the SDGs, both in their home countries and in international forums. They will also develop communities of practice and global platforms where youth citizen-curated and generated data, community scorecards and live citizen feedback is shared and used together with the learning gained from pilot projects.

  1. Scaling accountability to the global level

Scaling up from the above programme elements The Big Idea will support young people to monitor and report on SDG’s  progress and form a global, youth-led accountability framework. The framework will capitalise on the unique ways young people engage with data and ensure that the post 2015 development agenda is owned by the generation that will be most affected by its implementation.

As we enter this new era whereby the global development agenda is set, there is an opportunity to share and expand the realms of decision-making. Governance can be radically re-imagined to include historically marginalised groups such as young people who have the ideas, capabilities and capacity to really transform their societies.

In the words of Paulo Friere:

“Any situation in which some men prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence;… to alienate humans from their own decision making is to change them into objects.”

Matthew Johnson is a Public Policy masters graduate of the University of Nottingham. He volunteered for Restless Development in Tanzania through the International Citizen Service (ICS) and is now a trained policy professional, experienced development worker, and political commentator.  You can read more of his stuff here.

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