Restless Development’s Global Capacity Building Manager Rachel Walker outlines four common mistakes, five easy questions and one handy bullseye for meaningful youth engagement.
We don’t want young people to get ‘reached’, we want them to meaningfully participate in and lead development. With an increasing commitment to youth engagement in the development sector, Restless Development often get asked how international development practitioners can ‘do meaningful youth engagement’ – so our answer is: let’s ask young people.
Based on evidence from our 31 years of experience of youth-led development, and after supporting young people from Mozambique, Tanzania, South Africa and Zambia to meet up in person, we had a go at answering that question of how to make meaningful youth engagement practical. We came up with this bullseye:
Common mistakes and how development practitioners can make sure to hit the bullseye.
A young person in the room is not meaningful. Youth engagement is not simply having a young person involved or present in a development programme or initiative. There are many forms that young people’s involvement can take: from the non-participatory forms of manipulation, decoration and tokenism to the fully participatory standard of youth participation with shared decision-making or youth leadership through young people initiating change and adults supporting. For a young person to meaningfully engage in a development initiative they need to have clear roles and responsibilities, feel ownership over the initiative, have a sense of belonging with it and be able to either partner in or lead development. Shared decision making with young people is key to both of this.
Youth engagement does not happen without people and relationships. Simply put, youth engagement is a relationship between two actors, a development practitioner and the young person. They way in which this relationship is structured determines whether the engagement is meaningful or not. Development practitioners have two main roles within this. The first is to open up closed spaces or create new spaces. In this sense spaces can be anything from the physical space of engagement to the opportunity within which the young person is being engaged. The second is through capacity building and individual support to make sure that rather than bringing a development initiative or opportunity ‘down to the young person’s level,’ we are upskilling, motivating and supporting the young person to meet development practitioners or other decision-makers in the development initiative or opportunity.
Youth engagement cannot be our only goal or end goal. Youth engagement is action orientated and therefore a process rather than an end in itself. While well intended, development initiatives focused only on youth engagement can result in a disempowering experience for the young person if they cannot answer the question of what they are working to achieve. It will be hard for the young person to understand what their role is within an initiative and even harder for them to truly partner in or lead the initiative. It is important, even before considering how to meaningfully engage a young person in development, that the practitioner has already thought about the mandate that development initiative has within which youth engagement will take place. This does not mean that the end goal needs to be decided ahead of engaging the young person. For meaningful youth engagement a young person needs to be involved throughout the entire program or initiative cycle, from agenda setting, to planning, designing, implementation, storytelling and monitoring and evaluating.
Meaningful youth engagement is hard – but worth it. Hard work yes, but by approaching youth engagement in a conscious and thoughtful way it can be pretty straightforward. All a development practitioner needs to do is ask, listen, trust, open up in a transparent way and be in it for the long-term. And to make it even easier, when you are creating or reviewing a youth engagement opportunity the Meaningful Youth Engagement bullseye can be used together with the following five questions to ask yourself:
Which young person(s) are you engaging and why them?
What is the defined role and responsibility for the young person(s) you are engaging?
What is the space within which the engagement will take place?
What is the mandate that the young person(s) will have in this engagement and what is the result they can hope to achieve or the change that development practitioners are prepared to make based on youth engagement?
What support and which spaces will you as the development practitioner be offering them (type, length, activities etc.)?