Commonwealth Secretariat's Youth Division Director Katherine Ellis (middle) with the winners of this year’s Commonwealth Youth Award. Photo by: Commonwealth Secretariat

Among the many development programs and projects featuring elements directed toward young people, how many support youth-led activities?

It’s a question Commonwealth Secretariat’s Youth Division Director Katherine Ellis is keen to raise. As head of a program that has supported young people to become leaders for more than 40 years in 53 countries, she said the global community often does too little to support young people as agents of change.

Instead, she said, international efforts too frequently see young people simply as beneficiaries and recipients.

Devex caught up with Ellis on the sidelines the Commonwealth Youth Awards in London earlier this month, where she shared some insights on how global development professionals can do more to put youth-led development at the heart of their work.

1. Include targets for youth-led development in the post-2015 agenda.

Ellis and her colleagues are currently campaigning for targets that recognize youth-led development to be written into the post-2015 framework. She said the current proposals do not include a “good enough recognition of young people.” Of the 169 targets, the youth director said only six specifically mention young people.

“There are a few more that mention young women under the gender-empowerment agenda, but otherwise there are only six, and they’re all focused around entrepreneurship, education or jobs,” Ellis said. “The majority are about young people’s needs — young people as beneficiaries.”

Only one target, Ellis asserted, highlights young people’s capabilities to be drivers of change and leaders of development. This is found in Goal 13, which urges implementers to “promote mechanisms for raising capacities for effective climate change related planning and management … including focusing on women, youth, local and marginalized communities.”

“It’s just not enough,” said Ellis. “At the Commonwealth Youth Program we have all these youth networks — the Commonwealth Youth Council, the Youth Human Rights and Democracy Network, the Youth Climate Change Network — and they’re all young people who are contributing on a policy front and driving action forward. To not even acknowledge that and the importance of investing in that as part of the post-2015 agenda is, to me, a massive issue.”

Last year, the Commonwealth Secretariat worked with the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs, U.N. Habitat — the U.N. human settlements program — and youth-led development charity Restless Development, among others, to draw up new target recommendations. Four were endorsed by African youth ministers from 15 countries in February, who added a fifth recommendation about peace building.

The Commonwealth is holding further meetings with youth ministers in the Caribbean in April, Asia in July and the Pacific in September to gather more support for this effort.

“They cover involving young people in peace building, civic life, decision-making and monitoring of development, and really acknowledging the role young people play,” Ellis said. “It would be a travesty if those weren’t included [in the SDG framework]. If we don’t fix it now, it’s going to be 15 years before anybody starts to take notice again of the fact we have this massive cohort of young people who need to be prioritized.”

Devex asked the U.K. Department for International Development whether it believed there was enough focus on young people in the current draft of the SDGs. A DfID spokesman said the current goals did “focus on children and youth in a number of key areas including education, skills and employment,” adding that the U.K. is advocating to have the principle of “leave no one behind” embedded in the SDGs. This means that “no target is met unless it is met for all relevant groups in society,” a principle that would see the indicators used to track the goals being disaggregated by different indicators, including age.

2. DfID should prioritize youth leadership across its projects.

While acknowledging that DfID invests in youth — it funds 30 percent of the Commonwealth Youth Program’s budget — Ellis would like to see the department implement a more crosscutting focus on young people being able to lead its work.

“To use DfID’s own words from a great report it released a few years ago: young people as leaders and partners in development, not just as beneficiaries,” she said. “I use that phrase all the time because to me it absolutely epitomizes the way we should be looking at young people in development.”

Ellis said the projects DfID funds in terms of youth employment or health are “fantastic and absolutely necessary.” But she would like to see projects that are about supporting young people as “empowered agents of change” in whatever issue it is that they are addressing, “whether it’s climate change, health or education rights, good governance or anti-corruption.”

Among DfID’s current programs supporting youth-led development is its #YouthForChange campaign, where a youth panel determines what issues to campaign, what actions to take, what digital activities to carry out and which events to attend. Other examples include the International Citizen Service — a volunteering scheme for 18 to 25 year olds — and funding provided for Restless Development to implement a civic action scheme called Big Idea.

Ellis would like to see more, however.

“There should be a youth element in everything and a conscious investment in making sure there are empowered young people being developed and brought into the projects, and being able to lead the projects as well,” she said.

3. Improve and use youth development indicators.

The Commonwealth launched the first index measuring the development and empowerment of young people worldwide in 2013. In summer, it plans to release an updated version of the Youth Development Index. Ellis said producing the report revealed where countries were weak on youth development and where investment was needed. It also resulted in some surprises, with some countries scoring unexpectedly well, from which others could learn lessons.

“Samoa ranks very highly in education — it’s in the top 10 — yet it’s a very small country,” Ellis suggested.

The exercise is hoped to encourage more countries to collect and use data on young people, with the Commonwealth encouraging this by developing a national-level methodology and toolkit for individual countries to use and build on the YDI. It also plans to sync the results with the U.N. Human Development Index.

“By having a YDI we’re starting to see a realization that it’s important to track this stuff,” Ellis said. “It’s highlighting youth development as a key development indicator.”

What other steps can global development professionals take to put youth-led development at the heart of their work? Have your say by leaving a comment below.

Want to learn more? Check out the Youth Will website and tweet #YouthWill.

Youth Will is an online conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, The Commonwealth Secretariat, The MasterCard Foundation and UN-Habitat to explore the power that youth around the globe hold to change their own futures and those of their peers.

About the author

  • Gabriella Jóźwiak

    Gabriella Jóźwiak is an award-winning journalist based in London. Her work on issues and policies affecting children and young people in developing countries and the U.K. has been published in national newspapers and magazines. Having worked in-house for domestic and international development charities, Jóźwiak has a keen interest in organizational development, and has worked as a journalist in several countries across West Africa and South America.