How can development professionals working with young people make sure that young people’s voices are heard in their communities, particularly in poor or violent societies?
Matt Streng, senior adviser for youth development at Mercy Corps — an international development organization that helps people around the world survive and thrive after conflict, crisis and natural disaster — spoke to Devex in London, sharing his tips on how to engage young people in civic activity.
1. Create the demand at higher levels for meaningful youth participation.
Programs that train young people to communicate their issues to leaders and understand how governance structures work are valuable. But only if after receiving training young people are actually able to put those skills into practice. Streng pointed out that development organizations need to deliver these programs alongside engaging with political leaders to create openings for young people’s voices to be heard.
“What’s not obvious, and what needs to happen, is that we — as an international organization — and our peer agencies need to work more on how to create the demand at higher levels for meaningful youth participation,” he said. “Without that opening of opportunities, you’ll continue to have this latent desire among young people — and it will be expressed in ways that won’t create reciprocal or meaningful opportunities at higher levels. That creates the potential for impasse and conflict.”
Streng suggested the global development community needs to move away from the “supply side” and create demand for young people by engaging leaders at multiple levels.
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“How do we facilitate their relationship with their local leaders and encourage some meaningful dialogue at that level that will open up opportunities for that participation to continue?” he asked.
Streng warned that if this approach is not taken, programs will create a “false sense of opportunity to influence change” among the young people involved.
2. Make sure you engage women and girls.
Research published by Mercy Corps on civic engagement in the Middle East and North Africa has shown men and boys are more active in civic life than women and girls. Streng asserted that agencies and donors need to invest extra time and effort in targeting this latter group.
And how can this be achieved? By engaging “gatekeepers,” Streng recommended.
“These are typically parents or caregivers,” he explained. “We have to help them see value in a young girl or older female youth participating actively in their communities.”
Streng noted that having “honest and transparent conversations” with these gatekeepers will take time and resources. But he also shared that with time, the hope is that “there will be a recognition that young girls and female youth will add value to that conversation and dialogue — and that their voices will be heard.”
3. Don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach.
The grievances of young people living in cities, compared with those in rural settings, are not the same. Streng warned that all too often the participation of young people is spoken about in catch-all terms.
“When we talk about youth participation, we need to be a bit more specific and segment by rural or urban, by gender, and that we detail those concerns at that level so we’re not making a blanket statement — it’s more nuanced than that,” he said.
Mercy Corps is currently working to segment its youth population in more detail, and Streng suggested that other organizations do the same.
4. Learn lessons along the way, keeping the bigger picture in mind.
Development professionals should constantly evaluate the desired outcomes of civic engagement programs, Streng advised. He highlighted Mercy Corps’ experiences in Somalia, where its research revealed that young people who were more engaged in civic life were also more likely to have participated in violence.
“If we continue to throw donor dollars and our own time and resources toward civic participation programming without a really good sense of what we want that outcome to be, we run the risk of not using that funding effectively,” he warned. “If the Somalia findings continue to be reinforced, we could potentially be setting up young people for a situation where they’re more likely to participate in violence if we’re not clear and sensitive to some of the conflict dynamics in those countries.”
To remedy this, Streng recommended incorporating other activities into civic engagement programs, such as conflict resolution or economic development.
“Civic participation programming in and of itself doesn’t always achieve the outcomes we might hope they would,” he said.
How can global development professionals better engage young people in civic activity? Share your tips 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.