Youth Engagement and the Sustainable Development Goals

What's the evidence? Youth Engagement and the Sustainable Development Goals
14 January 2019

This study represents an encouraging body of evidence, both primary and secondary, which will inform future practice and policymaking with regard to young women and men’s contributions towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The learnings from this study provide important insight that will support the design and implementation of youth programming. It examines five programs across three youth-focused or youth-led organisations: Plan International UK, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), and AIESEC.

The study addressed three research questions:

  1. Understanding roles: What meaningful roles do young people identify with in order to help achieve the SDGs? To what extent are these roles influenced by gender or any other identity?
  2. Capturing “value add”: What evidence can we find to demonstrate how young people “add value”—or their efficacy —and contribute towards achieving the SDGs? To what extent is this mediated by gender or any other identity?
  3. Recommendations: What are the strategic recommendations that will enhance how young people can contribute towards the SDGs?

Actively listen, acknowledge and act

The findings show that the first step in effectively harnessing young women and men’s contributions is to actively listen, acknowledge and act upon information learned—supporting the roles that young people want to assume and cultivate. We found that initiatives often do not fully identify or support the emerging roles that young people selfdefine. While young women and men often want to be peer educators, some also express aspirations to go far beyond this. They may want to be educators; or leaders engaged in changing negative social norms; or citizens with status, striving to reduce inequality and social differences within their broader and intergenerational social networks, which may include parents, community leaders, project staff and governments. This means it is imperative to explore and acknowledge, at the start of any initiative, how young people want to contribute in terms, for example, of their roles and how these may be redefined over time.

We found that young people, parents, non-governmental organisation (NGO) staff, government officials, and decisionmakers use and understand the concept of “value” in several ways. While this may sometimes be consistent and overlapping, it is at other times divergent. We found that measuring these different aspects of “added value” remains challenging, especially given the absence of systematic methods to first identify and then track magnitude and direction of change. The challenge is compounded by difficulties in establishing a valid counterfactual case for comparison. This means that many important contributions that young people are making towards achieving the SDGs are undervalued, or not acknowledged at all

Executive Summary

How are young people contributing to the SDGs?

This research shows that young women and men are already contributing substantially towards the SDGs in the following ways:

  1. Helping deliver programs which are responsive and attuned to real needs and often in ways that benefit in terms of economy, efficiency, effectiveness, equity and sustainability. Yet much more needs to be done to track and monitor this, including purposively designed comparative studies. Marshalling hidden assets and sometimes unexpected contributions, including:
  2. The ability of young women and men to seek out partnerships, network and build alliances, both within and between generations. They identify with and act as connectors or “mobilisers”—in person, online and in public and private spheres. There is an untapped role that young people may identify with in terms of communicating the message of the SDGs, contributing towards their monitoring and holding governments to account, as well as mobilising others to contribute as active citizens. This has big implications for SDG 17 on Partnerships, as well as the “Leave no one behind” agenda.
  3. Their ability to influence their parents, their communities and local and national government. Young people don’t just want to be peer educators—they can be highly effective educators, advisors, and managers across generations. For example, in terms of achieving SDG 5 on Gender, young people are already influencing the views of their parents, their teachers, and the wider community. But this is not always acknowledged, let alone tracked.
  4. Their capabilities to contribute towards development policies or legislation that supports the achievement of all 17 SDGs—with particular regard to imagining what might happen in the future (Diagram 3) and envisioning how national policy development, implementation and tracking might be done differently.

As co-designers of initiatives and as “provocateurs” (in program design) across all 17 SDGs, but especially those directly impacting them such as education, gender and employment. By engaging youth in these underacknowledged and hidden roles much more directly, visibly and respectfully, the SDGs could receive a strong and much needed pulse of youthful energy towards their achievement.

The youth dividend

Where should governments and development partners invest to optimise the youth “dividend”?

Encourage innovation, creativity and risk taking. To really unleash the creativity and energy often cited as the key attributes of young people, agencies need to step up towards the “next practice”. In other words, up to the foresight or “outsight” level. The current “comfort level” seems to principally be to give young people a role in activities that are more-orless mapped out by the project in advance. This seems to be linked to perception of risk. But minimising risk can be counter-intuitive to “next practice”, so how can this be resolved? We suggest some further research and design of examples where there is less emphasis on defining the inputs or outputs expected from youth engagement and more “risk brokering” to help neutralise or reduce the risks for other stakeholders might liberate young people to take programming to the foresight and “outsight” levels and lead to some “next” level gains. (Diagram 2, Policy Analytics ladder)

Letting go of control also means making internal changes or developing the mechanisms to work with youth organisations or groups of young people as partners, not in a “service provider” or contributor basis. This would challenge ideas of hierarchy and top-down culture that is prevalent in big development organisations. Most youthled or youth organisations tend to have more horizontal, participative and less bureaucratic organisational structures.

  • Build the evidence base. Our research suggests that there is a lot of promising work that young people are already contributing to and in Smiles and hope. Emergency Assistance programs support young people following Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines. (Photo by ADB) xi some cases spear-heading, but that existing monitoring and evaluation learning systems are not always able to capture these contributions. There is a need for more targeted data to fully comprehend what works and what does not. This data should cover the areas identified in the “Building Blocks” text box in the conclusion of this report. There is also a need to critique and share experiences of both successful and less successful policies and programs, from local to national levels, as well as across countries.
  • Give young people a seat at spaces and places of influence. Our findings suggest that a very wide range of young people are ready, willing and able to be a part of bigger conversations about their lives and their futures. Achievement of the SDGs will be accelerated if there is a strong commitment to listen to, act upon and respect the voices of young women and men of different classes, ages, socio-economic conditions and abilities. This is especially so thanks to youth skills and capabilities in network and movement building, both within and between generations. Policymakers must therefore ensure that young women and men are brought within the inner circles of decision-making, including with governments, the private sector and civil society.
  • Strengthen programs that safeguard civic space and improve institutional good governance and accountability. Young people who participated in the research frequently cited violence in its many forms, including corruption and the misuse of power, as an issue of concern to them. Some, but not all, of the interventions in the study included an accountability component, however many of the young people we interviewed were clearly poised to take on a “bigger role” in relation to decision-making— with the caveat that they wanted support to do so.

For youth to be effective active citizens, they need to understand how political and economic decisions are made and recognise the huge part that they, individually and collectively, can play in contributing to improving accountability at all levels. By taking an informed and active role in accountability mechanisms, young people’s current mistrust of politics, private-sector operations and civic institutions can be reduced. Given the opportunity, young people—especially youth-led groups and organisations operating at the grassroots—can be a powerful force in safeguarding transparency and accountability. Such groups are more likely to be responsive to the needs of the youth cohort they represent and offer greater possibilities to unleash the creativity and innovation of youth. It’s time for forward thinking.

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