Want development impact? Engage youth to create leaders of tomorrow

Plan International CEO Nigel Chapman meets with some of the organization’s youth ambassadors in Sierra Leone. Photo by: Plan International

Development organizations are sometimes criticized for talking about carrying out an education project here, or a sanitation project there, without taking the long-term view on what will happen to their target communities once the project runs its course, the funds dry up and the aid workers leave.

That’s why Plan International CEO Nigel Chapman claims he is often much more excited about what his organization is doing to help nurture the future leaders of tomorrow.

“I’ve seen far more impact in taking young women and girls and getting them to present the case for education, than I could ever do with the current leaders in their own societies. It’s hard to resist that,” he told Devex in an exclusive interview in Brussels earlier this month.

Read on for more insights from Chapman about how Plan views youth civic engagement, is doing its part to help empower young leaders, and is committed to encouraging youth to learn how to solve not only their own problems, but future challenges for their communities.

From Plan’s perspective, what’s the most important thing that you would encourage youth to do to empower them to be more influential in setting the global development agenda?

It’s obviously very important for the youth to go to school, and to end up with as good a quality education as they can. We’ve always argued that girls, in particular, need nine years of continuous education. But the bigger thing for me are the side effects of investment and development. Some see development as “it’s a water project, or a health project, or an education project,” but what I get most excited about is the leaders of tomorrow. Who in the end is going to hold governments to account for their actions? That's what makes things change, in the end.

To stand as candidates in elections, you need young people coming through who are articulate, well-informed, who can organize themselves, who can engage in the political process at a community level, maybe on a more formal level. It’s crucial that they are part of that, and that they do not feel ostracized, left out and on the margins.

I sometimes think some of the best work we do is helping to create those leaders of the future, who will be more accountable to the people. We talk about intervention and aid, but in the end people have to hold leaders to account for things. If they don't have the wherewithal, if they don't have the experience, they can't articulate that — and then the leaders get away with it.

Is the role of international nongovernmental organizations then to lead a push toward stronger engagement and leadership for youth?

It’s about engaging with them in your work so they become advocates for causes, themes or areas that an international NGO wants to work with them on. Mobilizing their voices is sometimes far more powerful than development projects.

“I've seen far more impact in taking young women and girls and getting them to present the case for education than I could ever do with the current leaders in their own societies.”

— Nigel Chapman, CEO of Plan International

I've seen far more impact in taking young women and girls and getting them to present the case for education than I could ever do with the current leaders in their own societies. It’s hard to resist that. Maybe if you're a political leader running for an election you've got to think about your political base. You can be cavalier in the beginning, but you can't be by the end — I think that's really how change happens.

We're very much a facilitator of amplifying that community voice or making that community voice happen in the first place. ... Young people aged 12 to 20 in particular have got the energy and the time to mobilize and have a profound impact on the priorities of leaders both at the local and the national levels. We must enable them to have the weapons and the confidence to do just that.

What are the obstacles in the current way of “doing development” in order to empower youth as a crosscutting theme?

It takes time and engagement and has the risk that if you have a very time-limited grant — let’s say two or three years — that may not be enough time to build the capacity inside a community so that it can articulate its wishes and its demands, and hold leaders accountable for their actions.

One of the highlights of Plan's funding model — a mix of institutional funds, corporate funds and high levels of public support — is you get the funding in order to do that. You can stay the course and deliver that cadre of leaders for the future — and I think that's fantastic.

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

  • Richard Jones

    In his role as Editorial Director Richard oversees content for digital series, reports and events, leading a talented team of writers and editors, conducting high-level video interviews and moderating panels at events. Previously partnerships editor and an associate editor at Devex, Richard brings to bear 15 years of experience as an editor in institutional communications, public affairs and international development. Based in Barcelona, his development experience includes stints in the Dominican Republic, Argentina and Ecuador, as well as extensive work travel in Africa and Asia.