In light of the ICPD Global Youth Conference held in Bali in December 2012, one of the key issues identified was the need for genuine youth participation within development discussions, policies and projects. As a young person who also manages a youth engagement project, here are some reflections on what youth participation means, and some guidelines to making sure youth have a voice, and are not just a tick in a box.
What is youth participation?
Youth participation means young people have a role in the structure of an organisation (or project, etc.). It can appear in many different forms, but essentially means consultation, decision-making, and representation which value the role of young people.
Youth participation ensures that programs and services are relevant, engaging, and responsive to young people’s needs. For the young person, it gives them the opportunity to have a say about what is important to them, to take control of decisions that affect their lives, to increase their skills, and to build their confidence and connections to their community. For the organisation, it means campaigns and programs are more effective in reaching young people, attracting their interest and representing their views and needs. It helps to ensure effectiveness, emphasises strengths rather than weaknesses, and can help to raise the profile of the organisation within the community. It has also been linked to national democratic, social and economic development.
Climbing the ladder of participation
Unfortunately, however, many organisations and programs do not ‘do participation’ well. Often participation policies are cursory, with the young person having little if any real voice in discussions and decision making. Hart’s Ladder of Participation can be a useful guide to assess the different levels of participation. But, what can we do to ensure that young people’s participation is indeed genuine and not tokenistic?
A critical theme that cross-cuts the idea of participation is ensuring that young people’s voices are heard, that they are taken seriously, and that young people are given real opportunities to direct each stage of a project, from planning, to implementation and through to the evaluation phase.
One Youth to represent them all
Many organisations have begun to create spaces for youth representatives. However, young people are individuals; representatives cannot represent all youth or other specific subgroups (see here for a lengthier discussion on the myths and challenges of youth participation).
Thus, it is important to ensure that the youth voice within organisations is representative of the various populations affected by the project. This can be achieved by actively seeking out marginalised and less visible youth to participate, rather than relying solely on the high achievers. It is important to facilitate young people’s participation by offering some level of compensation for their time, transportation and other expenses (often just food and a bus ticket will be sufficient!).
Youth are a heterogeneous group, and so projects ought to use multiple forms of communication to reach the widest possible audience (social media, radio, TV, local newspapers and magazines, word of mouth, etc.). It is also important to be flexible, with different levels of engagement, at different times and in different formats, to enable youths to participate in a form that suits with their time, cultural and other social commitments. Training and support should be provided to the young people engaged in the project to assist them to engage other young people, with different organisations, and with the community in general.
Adult supervision required?
Another key step is to promote positive and productive partnerships between young people and adults. Adults need to be aware not only of the purpose and role of youth participation, but also of their important role as a guide and a mentor. Though not essential (and often not practical due to budget constraints), it can often help to have a particular staff member identified as a youth engagement worker who can provide support and training to both young people and other employees. As can be seen in Hart’s Ladder, it is the partnership between young people and adults that leads to the best results. Adults need to adapt to youth participation processes at least as much as young people do. Therefore, it is important to recognise the importance of ongoing training and development for adults as well as young people.
Negative perceptions of youth, age separation, and negative or overly romantic stereotypes hinder youth participation within organisations (see this article about different pathways to inclusive participation for youth). It is imperative to improve the image of youth, both amongst themselves, within the community, and within society in general. Public celebrations of successes, ongoing communication with the community through media and events, and focusing on young people’s strengths are key activities to improve the perception of young people.
Finally, the spaces, structures and institutions in which youth participation occurs must be youth-friendly, actively supporting the unique talents and strengths of young people. Structural barriers often hinder youth participation; facilitative structures, protocols and policies at all levels of the organisation will help to ensure young people have a genuine voice.
Increased recognition of the skills and talents of young people, and improved ways to incorporate their perspectives and ideas into organisations and program will greatly improve results at an individual, community, national and international level. Youth participation is increasingly recognised as a vital part of any organisation, and particularly those working with marginalised or disadvantaged groups. Young people know best their own needs, and are in the best position to know what solutions will be effective. Our role is to provide the environment for them to have an active say in the decisions that affect them.