Letter from El Salvador: Voice of youth gets us all thinkingPosted by Nigel Chapman, Plan Chief Executive Officer
29 May 2012: I am half way through a whistle-stop trip to Central America, currently with Plan Nicaragua - but for the first part with Plan El Salvador, and the team there led by Rodrigo Busto.
Plan El Salvador may be the smallest Plan country geographically in Central America but its programmes pack a punch, which belies the size of the operation and the budget. Whether it is work with children and youth being persuaded out of a life with criminal gangs or their pioneering work with youth economic empowerment, there is a mood of excitement and innovation about Plan El Salvador.
This is also a country where the resource mobilisation team has established a unique partnership with HSBC in San Salvador, which has involved raising funds both from employees and HSBC customers. The marketing of this opportunity has involved an amazing coalition of media groups, who have given their creativity and airtime for free to the partnership.
Youths speak out
A thread which runs through the programme is the participation of youth. It helps that many of the programmes on issues like sexual health and skills for life are targeted at them. But wherever we go, we are met by articulate youth groups, set up with Plan’s assistance, who are working with us to define priorities and engage in a wider political discourse with local mayors, local municipalities and other powerful groups.
And everyone seems to be joining in: at one session, they persuaded the local police chief to take part in an ice-breaker and break into a dance. It was quite a sight.
Benefits to society
Roland Angerer, the regional director (who is travelling with me) and I have spent some time on planes and in the car mulling over the benefits and some of the pitfalls of organised youth participation.
Clearly, it fits with Plan’s values where we believe the beneficiaries of our programmes need to shape the design and the priority setting. Then there is the "tangible when you see it", but "hard to measure" sense of self worth and self esteem that becoming articulate and confident as a young public speaker brings with it.
It seems to Roland and myself we need to strike a delicate balance – we facilitate but we cannot determine the content or the coherence of the discussions. I imagine it is possible as a Plan facilitator to get frustrated if the groups lose a focus or become too unwieldy in the complex partnerships with other groups, which seem to be a feature of the set up in Central America.
For some participants as they head off to college, sometimes supported by Plan-funded scholarships, they have benefited hugely from their involvement on a personal level. And no-one is saying that is not important in itself.
But what about the benefits to the wider society, other than paying their taxes from a better-paid job? If we have helped incubate strong advocates, then surely long term "success" would entail these groups becoming active in the local municipal debates, as an organised group speaking up for young people and ensuring their issues are not ignored, after Plan’s involvement is over.
Local politicians would find it hard to ignore them if they wanted support from the 18-25 generation.
Roland and I think one way forward is to help them set up their own non-governmental organisations so they can earn a living from continuing their work. Otherwise they have to opt for a bread-winning job in something else. This way, they could continue to advocate for child and youth rights and social development and earn a living too. And we leave a legacy of a much stronger local civil society.
Imagine tracking the lives of one of these groups over time to see what becomes of them. That could provide us with powerful evidence of the changes these groups helped bring about long term.
Who knows, one day the next external affairs minister we meet in El Salvador could be both a former sponsored child and the chair of a Plan-facilitated youth group, who’s set up their own organisation and become a well regarded civil society leader. Now that you could argue really would be "success".
Find out more about Plan’s work in El Salvador
Learn about Plan’s global child and youth participation work