Youth Leadership: The Development Alternative

From Ebola to climate change, at local, national and international levels, youth leadership is changing the world, says Lily Mackow-McGuire.

My sister is 16. She goes to a small sixth form in the suburbs of London. She learnt about climate change from instagram and YouTube and recognised her school wasn’t doing enough. So she did something. Ruby put pressure on her school until they banned plastic bottles in their canteen and are now encouraging reusable alternatives. My sister is what youth leadership looks like to me: young people taking action when they want to fix something. 

And this is happening all over the world, and on a much greater scale. During the 2015 Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, over 2,400 young volunteers played a critical role in the national response. Reaching almost 1.9 million people across the country, young volunteers raised awareness of safe burial practice and encouraged fast reporting of Ebola cases (including through reducing stigma). As Sierra Leone was declared free of the Ebola Virus Disease it was widely recognised that young people’s ability to engage and mobilise communities played a vital role to achieving zero new cases of the virus. 

A young leader in Sierra Leone, facilitating a session to train volunteers on Ebola prevention.

Shifting power to young people.

Despite these results, young people’s power is being limited. Often, governments and development actors see them as ‘beneficiaries’ not as powerful agents of change like the examples above. The work of Restless Development challenges this. We support young people on their journey to become a leader in their community and in the world. 

One of the most exciting ways we are doing this is through the Development Alternative consortium. Along with six exciting partners we are leading a new initiative whereby development is led by young people and communities. Over time, we are attempting to shift power to the people and communities, so that those with insight and experience of the problems they face guide and lead the solutions to those problems too. 

Five paths to youth leadership

In this programme, we support young people to lead through five interrelated and complementary paths: 

  • Young people act as equal partners in the delivery, design, management and governance of the programme. 
  • Individual young people partnering will mobilise thousands of community members to demand and deliver solutions to development issues they face. 
  • Young people are working as advocates and researchers to elevate their priorities, evidence, and solutions to national and global levels.  
  • Young leaders from youth civil society organisations will work with development actors and move from merely surviving, to becoming thriving equal partners. 
  • Young people are driving this programme forward, sitting on our highest governance boards as equal stakeholders. 
Volunteers providing feedback to the programme during a full day workshops.

Young people multiply their leadership

Our model for youth leadership doesn’t stop there. Critically, our model impacts on the lives of communities beyond just those we directly engage with. Young people have proven their ability to influence other young people to take action, creating a generation of young leaders. We can see this in action all over the world. Just look at Greta Thunberg: one sixteen year old mobilised communities all over the world and other young leaders to speak out about climate change. 

So if Restless Development is about one thing, then it’s about youth leadership. This is what we believe can create real change.

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Lily Mackow-McGuire

Lily Mackow-McGuire

Lily Mackow-McGuire is the Youth Leadership and Design Senior Manager at Restless Development. After studying for an MSc in Development Studies, Lily worked across India, Cambodia and Laos specialising in access to education and women's rights. Now based in London, she also leads the Youth Stop AIDS London Local campaign group, a youth-led movement campaigning for a world without AIDS by 2030.

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Youth Leadership: The Development Alternative

by Lily Mackow-McGuire Reading time: 2 min
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