Participation & Governance

Gaps, Gapes and Gulfs: Data (or the lack thereof) on how youth participate around the world

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What happens when you want to know if a campaign to increase youth volunteerism is effective, but then you realise you’re missing some key information: how many young people are volunteers to begin with? While seemingly simple, this piece of basic data is the essential to understanding if interventions are making any impact. The following looks at the limited state of youth participation data, and one Mexican organization’s quest to change that.

Data in the youth sector is a mixed bag, being both comprehensive in some areas and almost completely absent in others. International research agencies such as WHO and UNESCO maintain fairly comprehensive youth-specific statistics on health and education indicators (respectively), including tobacco usage rates, prevalence of HIV, net enrollment rates and literacy rates.[1]

Other areas, most notably youth participation and engagement, have next to no measurements or associated statistics. This is despite the emphasis that many youth policy frameworks place on participation. In fact, foundational youth framework documents, such as the UN WPAY and General Assembly Resolution A/RES/58/133 internationally, and the European Council Resolution 2009/C311/01, the African Union Youth Charter and Iberoamerican Convention on Rights of Youth regionally, all emphasise the promotion of youth participation - both in policy-making and in society as a whole. However very little reliable and comparable data is collected on youth participation, particularly at a global level.

This is no better demonstrated than in the two recently debuted global-level youth indicators: Youth Development Index (YDI) and the Youth Wellbeing Index (YWI).[2] Both are composite indexes covering a multitude of domains, including health, education and employment/economic opportunity. Both also include a “participation” component. The YDI has two domains: “Political Participation” and “Civic Participation”, the YWI has one domain: “Citizen Participation”.

Both indexes include indicators that attempt to measure what can be called facilitating environments for youth participation: for example, both indexes use “existence of a youth policy” as an indicator. The YDI has an indicator for the existence of youth voter education. The YWI also includes a value for candidacy age, and the Democracy Index value in its calculations.

In regards to how youth participate, and in what numbers, the YDI uses three behavioural indicators (detailing whether youth have expressed political views, volunteered, or helped a stranger), all based on data from the Gallup World Poll. The YWI uses TRU Survey data for its three indicators, relating specifically to how youth participate (their frequency of volunteering, the extent to which they feel valued by society, and the extent to which they feel served by government).

Indicators on how youth participate, YDI & YWI

Index Youth Development Index[3] Youth Wellbeing Index[4]
Indicator 1 Express political views: Have you done any of the following in the past month? How about voiced your opinion to a public official? (15-24) How often do you do the following? (Volunteer work) (Few times a month)
Indicator 2 Volunteering: Have you done any of the following in the past month? How about volunteered your time to an organisation? (15-24) I don’t believe young people are respected enough (agree net)
Indicator 3 Helped a Stranger: Have you done any of the following in the past month? How about helped a stranger or someone you didn’t know who needed help? (15-24) My government cares about my wants and needs (agree net)
Source Gallup World Poll (15-24 age group responses only) TRU Survey

While the indicators do give some insight into how young people participate in society, they are limited in their conception of youth participation. Neither probes participation at the level of youth as active agents, speaking only broadly to “volunteering” (and in the case of YDI, even more vaguely “helping a stranger”). Even in regards to volunteering, neither provides context as to where young people volunteer, or what they are doing. Interestingly, neither index incorporates the more “traditional” forms of youth participation, such as youth voting rates, or numbers of young people in elected positions (however, YDI does look at the related indicator, “youth voter education”). Rather than reflecting a limitation of the indexes themselves, this tells us something else important: this data simply does not exist at a worldwide scale.

Moreover, both indicators use proprietary data sets: both Gallup and The Futures Company (the company behind the TRU Survey) are private consulting companies whose datasets can only be accessed for a fee or by subscription. That no other data on youth participation is being collected on a worldwide scale for the purposes of public or social research is a severe limitation.

Taking Initiative on Data: The National Youth Participation Index (INPJ) for Mexico

At a domestic level, this data shortage had prompted a group of young people to act. Ollin, a youth civil society organisation in Mexico, was founded in 2011 with the overall aim to empower young people through promoting youth participation. However, they found that one main obstacles to doing this: the lack of basic research on if and how young people are participating in their current situations.[5]

For example, before they could design and promote strategies for youth participation in society, they found themselves confronted with questions as basic as: how many young people are involved in policy-making? How many young people are creating businesses? How many participate in their educational institutions? Are they involved in civil society?

In Mexico, other youth data exists, primarily generated by the National Youth Survey conducted every two years by the governmental youth agency, Mexican Youth Institute. However this survey relies mostly on youth perceptions, for example - if a young person is optimistic about their future (or not). As this data did not provide an accurate picture of how many young people are participating, and in what ways, Ollin did not consider this data alone to be sufficient to guide policy-makers.

In 2012, Ollin began the task of building the first-ever National Youth Participation Index (El Índice Nacional de Participación Juvenil - INPJ). The index aims to:

  • Create clarity on the situation of young people in Mexico in the political, economic and social spheres
  • Analyse the way in which they participate at the institutional level
  • Compare current levels to previous levels of youth participation (INPJ has been completed for 2012, 2013 and 2014)
  • Generate proposals for the creation of public policies on youth

Ollin defines participation broadly as: the active involvement of young people (15-29 years) in the institutions belonging to spheres of activity which, in the opinion of Ollin, have significant impact on Mexican society on the political, economic and social levels. These include:

  • Government
  • Political parties
  • Private initiatives
  • Higher education institutions
  • Civil society organisations

Their methodology involves questionnaires designed by Ollin, sent to various institutions in the spheres above. Data from existing national questionnaires, such as the National Occupation and Employment Survey (ENOE), are also used. For the 2014 index, interviews were additionally conducted with youth leaders of political parties.

The following data points were collected:

  1. Global youth participation: proportion of young people who perform some form of work in the organisation (ex. employees, trainees, volunteers), versus the total number of people at the organisation.
  2. Access to the formal organisation structure: proportion of young people who perform paid work as employees in the organisation, versus the total number of employees.
  3. Youth participation in decision-making: proportion of young people who are in decision-making roles in the organisation, versus the total number of decision-makers.

For 2013 National Youth Participation Index (INPJ) executive summary in English or the 2014 National Youth Participation Index (INPJ) full report in Spanish

Scaling Up, Out, and Onwards

Ollin’s INPJ example showcases the need for more baseline data on youth, and the role in which youth civil society organisations can play in promoting this. It is an impressive first attempt at understanding how many young people are participating in Mexico.

Naturally, some limitations exist with Ollin’s approach, many of which they discuss in the methodology section of the INPJ report. The INPJ relies on the interest of participating institutions to fill out the surveys (which are voluntary) as well as the limitations within institutions that may not keep track of the ages of people who make up their organisation.

While the INPJ disaggregates data by gender, showing differences in participation according to male and female, it may be additionally interesting to disaggregate data by more factors, such as type of organisation or ministry (ex. faith-based vs. advocacy-based CSOs), region, or sub-youth categories (ex. minors 15-18 years, post-high school transition 19-22 years). Additional data points such as these can easily be integrated into a survey methodology, if not already there, and would add further context in the analysis.

An additional piece of research that could be undertaken (but perhaps is outside of the scope of the INPJ) would be to zero in further on types youth participation, beyond the categorisation above. Areas that could be explored include the level of decision-making powers, wage levels of young people, types of contracts (ex. temporary vs. permanent) and years of engagement in that organisation. This could lead to further discussions on the potential quality of youth engagement: are most young people on temporary contracts? Do their wages reflect their responsibilities?

Moreover, while the INPJ focuses on institutional engagement, participation in non-formal structures, including youth movements and protests, is also an important area for exploration. As explained bythis article, which explores (and critiques) current approaches to youth participation, perhaps our typical conceptions of “participation” are too limiting:

“The term of ‘participation’ is possibly not that useful. Broadly speaking, participation is mostly focused on the inclusion of young people in decision-making processes, such as within government, organisations, public services, judicial proceedings, and a multiple levels of governance from the local to the global arenas. But when participation can mean the attendance at the World Bank’s Youth Summit, marching on the streets of Cairo, or deciding which parent to live with in a divorce case, can this really all be reconciled under one term? When young people are tweeting about a global issue, taking cheap flights to stand with activists on foreign streets, and still advocating for local sexual health services in their community, we need to better understand how young people are participating in the world.”

While more nebulous in nature, and therefore much more difficult to research and measure, these alternate types of participation are nonetheless influential, relevant, and consequential. Taking Mexico again as an example, the 2014 protests in support of the 43 missing students in Mexico show how some of the most powerful forms of participation are those that are spontaneous and outside of formal structures.

For now, the INPJ provides a useful model that could easily be replicated in other country contexts. Its simple and straightforward methodology provides a template for how other civil society (or state) organisations can move forward in uncovering the basic data needed to better understand youth participation.

[1] Our Youth Policy Fact Sheets were a useful exercise in finding out which useful youth data there is out there, and how much is not. Read more here:

[2] For more information on the release of the YDI, read and the YWI

[3] Commonwealth Youth Programme, (2013), Commonwealth Youth Development Index Methodology Report: April 2013,

[4] Center for Strategic & International Studies and International Youth Foundation, (2014), The Global Youth Wellbeing Index Methodology Report,

[5] For more context on the founding of Ollin, read this article by its founder, Greta Rios (in Spanish):

Featured image:ahblairon flickr, used under Creative Commons License Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Edited by John Muirand Emilia Griffin

This article has been translated into Spanish by Ollin:“Brechas, abismos y golfos: información (o la falta de ésta) sobre cómo participan los jóvenes alrededor del mundo.”