Youth Representation is Vital to Development

August 5, 2016

I became affiliated with Plan International while working in Peru on a children's rights and sanitation project in 2013. Since that time, I have had the privilege of representing Plan as a youth advocate and advisory board member at a number of events and have contributed to some of Plan’s high-profile gender and girl-centered programming and advocacy. 


Given my work with Plan and my areas of focus within the global development community, it was beyond inspiring to see the sheer amount of attention FHI 360’s Gender 360 Summit received this year. As an official side event of the White House’s United State of Women Conference and with over 1,100 registered attendees, it’s increasingly apparent that gender-focused conferences like this one are gaining an unprecedented amount of steam within the U.S. international development community.

The rich and challenging discussions surrounding adolescents and gender-based violence pushed my thinking of this timely issue and no doubt the thinking of many other attendees. As one of the youth attending this year, I was heartened that the Summit placed intentional emphasis on including and showcasing the voices of young people throughout the conference agenda.

International development, at its core, is about representation through action and progress. In considering this goal, it’s challenging to argue that representation – and genuine representation – is not at the core of effective decision-making. Conferences and summits, as an extension of the decision-making and goal-setting that occurs at an organizational level, act as platforms to shape, focus, and direct the efforts of organizations. These events, then, call for the same standard of inclusivity that we would expect when making major decisions that affect any one of the populations with which we work.

As we, development organizations, measure and evaluate our impact, we know that truly successful programming depends on bringing young people to the decision-making table. This is why their participation in conferences and events like the Gender 360 Summit is a global imperative. So in surveying the room, I wondered, how can we include even more young voices at events like this? How can we ensure that young people from all over the world are heard?

It can be extremely cost prohibitive to bring young people from program areas to domestic conferences, not to mention the logistics and expertise that are required to accommodate those young people once they arrive in cities like Washington DC and New York. And that aside, being away from school too long is detrimental to their education.  However, there are many options for remote participation that organizations can employ, such as Skype, Google Hangouts, and livestreaming with write-in questions. Inclusion of youth in development work and – more recently – conferences, has become more popular over the past decade, and technology gives us the mediums to grow these opportunities even more.  Genuine youth engagement is not only beneficial, but necessary in our sector, and using and improving technology platforms can make conferences and events like the Gender 360 Summit even more successful and influential.

The vast majority of development organizations deal with people between the ages of 0 and 30, yet very rarely are young people under the age of 25 equally represented at many events.  And when they are, they are representing an organization.  Plan International’s youth engagement strategy has done an extremely effective job of outlining the role of young people as advocates, not ambassadors, for our organization. This distinction, though subtle, is important. When youth are involved as advocates for themselves and their communities – not the organizations they represent – they carry with them a unique ability to challenge what we as professionals consider normative and foundational in the way we design policy, programs, and research. When young people are advocates, they challenge the way we use language and consider complex topics such as gender-based violence and discrimination. In essence, young people, when represented adequately at events like the Gender 360 Summit, make our conversations and decision-making more directed and efficient.

Given this increasing demand for organizations to work with young people in a way that incorporates their stories and opinions at all levels of governance and field work, it seems both appropriate and ethical to build capacity and construct mechanisms that incorporate the voices of young people from many different backgrounds at the core of our agendas and messages, all the while respecting that those voices do not belong to the organizations that provide them a platform.

This approach requires delicate, yet comprehensive, infrastructure because these voices must remain, necessarily, unbridled. That is how we generate meaningful critique of our norms and practices. The incorporation of youth as advocates for themselves and their relationship with an organization’s work is what reveals a clearer image of our work and progress. These young voices reveal truth. Though those truths may not look the best on billboards or web advertisements, they are raw and honest.

 Raw honesty and positive criticism from those whom development efforts impact the most, different from any grant or partnership, is what helps to direct the very compass of development work.

 Development work is a multigenerational effort passed on to emerging and energized torchbearers. Take this, then, as a call to action to improve and strengthen our partnerships with young advocates for change. Not only does the fate of our sector depend direly on it, the fate of communities and countries everywhere is.