As Published on the CrowdOutAIDS Blog, 19th November 2011
By: Robert T. Kasenene
Youth engagement, Youth Participation, Youth Involvement and Youth Adult Partnership. These are terminologies that have been used time and again to mean young people are taking part in their own development; making decisions, informing policy, designing, implementing, monitoring and evaluating programmes. This is what I know it means, but with these terms used interchangeably so many times, how can we be sure we are all saying and meaning the same thing? How can we say we are all aspiring towards ensuring young people are truly defining and shaping their own development?
When this equation is examined, the key issue emerging is “decision making.” Regardless of how many young people come to your activities or are part of committees, their presence at programme level will not make any sense if they do not get to make any decisions. Perhaps one thing that ties these terms together is decision making; decisions in policy, program design and focus, priority targets and much more.
Young people are part of development work today at many levels and are making decisions. From running youth organizations, holding advisory roles in prominent international institutions, leading consultative processes and taking government positions. These are but a few ways youth are taking initiative and making decisions at some levels. But I would argue that their engagement and opportunities for decision making can be broader. Current structures and systems need to change and or improve to allow for greater youth engagement.
The main challenge to attaining higher levels and quality youth engagement and decision making is that “young people are not taken serious.” Because of age and limited experience, their contributions are perceived of being insufficient to the issues at hand. Their ideas are perceived as being too ambitions, unrealistic and untested.
Other challenges lie with young people themselves. We see the same young people engaging in almost everything. Climate change, HIV, entrepreneurship development and poverty; you find all of these in one person’s resume. It is difficult to be taken serious when you have an opinion or want to be involved in everything.
Better Youth Engagement
How can young people be engaged better? Can we get more from the system now than we already have? The answer is obviously yes, because as aforementioned, the extent to which young people are given the opportunity to make decisions about their development can very much improve. This is at the core of youth engagement; hence this is where the focus should be.
I will offer thinking on how we can do this at two levels; (a) instilling confidence among the youth that their engagement actually yields results. Show them the process, confirm and commit what the results will be used for and let young people take the lead in delivering the results, and (b) make it simple for young people to navigate the complex decision making and power structures.
Give young people the confidence to also take initiative and engage in their own development. The only way to do that is to show them that their engagement will actually make a difference. It is often the feeling among young people that their contributions will not have any impact, hence their engagement is not inspired by the difference they can make but rather the experience. We need to show them by showing clearly what their involvement means; CrowdOutAIDS is an excellent example. As a result of the Political Declaration on HIV/AIDS, UNAIDS needs a new strategy to work with and engage the youth. This strategy will form the basis for advocacy and partnership in UNAIDS work with young people. To do that, it has put the process of developing the strategy in the hands of young people.
Governments, UN agencies and other institutions can pick this rather simple but compelling example. There are countless examples of countries developing youth development policy without effective youth engagement and now are challenged with coordination of youth development work because the core sectors are competing in their focus on young people.
For smaller institutions, it may not be difficult. But for Government, Inter-governmental agencies, regional integration bodies, UN agencies etc – youth engagement is subjective. For these, the real decisions are made behind the scenes and youth engagement remains at minimal levels. For there to be better youth engagement here, the political, structure and power ceiling has to be broken.
There are many ways to do it. The basic aspects to this can include the following;
a) Secure a decision from the structure at hand to accord a position for young people in the decision making process. The entire system has to have common conviction and desire to secure input from young people and to have them as part of the decision making process,
b) Ensure the young people who will be part of the process are adequately oriented on the process and structures. This is important for two reasons; to ensure they have ample time to prepare for their participation because they have the right information, they develop a clear agenda. The second is for them to understand the system with which they will engage. The aim is not to re-write procedures or formalities but to know how to work with them.
c) Support young people with skills building and adequate information that is free terminologies that often impede access for many. Also orient and support adults with information and orientation on working with young people and ensure there is ample opportunity to talk, exchange ideas and experiences – to bridge the gap between the adults and young people in the organization.