Getting Serious about Youth Participation in Development

Giving youth real decision-making power and leadership roles in development processes and programs is a challenge in practice. We know from both our practice and research efforts that effective youth development needs to put meaningful youth participation at the forefront. RTI International’s experience in working with youth globally in education, employment, health, and governance for the past 30 years informs our strategy in viewing youth as key partners in solving global development challenges. With that in mind, we, along with other members of the Alliance for International Youth Development (AIYD), strongly support the new USAID Youth in Development Policy released in early November.

The engagement of youth in development has been inconsistent.  There are cases where youth are consulted on their needs and expectations and are even invited to attend planning workshops or conferences. While these are important steps for youth participation, oftentimes they fall short of creating active roles in leadership. Even worse, they can provide the illusion that youth have a stake in the decision-making process.

The Arab Spring demonstrations in 2011 showed many governments the importance and impact that youth can play in civil society. This was clearly reflected in the passing of the new Moroccan constitution (July 2011) that emphasizes good governance, accountability and citizen input into government affairs.

Capitalizing on this unique context, RTI began working with commune councils and existing youth associations in the Moroccan cities of Safi, El Jadida, Séfrou, Sidi Harazem, and Ain Chgag to create seven Local Youth Councils that represent 134 youth associations in their cities.  RTI’s current implementation of the USAID Morocco Local Governance Program (LGP), A Platform for Dialogue between Citizens and their Commune, offers some lessons learned on giving youth a real voice in development.  LGP is taking an innovative approach in creating formal mechanisms for meaningful participation of youth in local affairs.

LGP is training young people in critical skills such as communications, participatory planning, and negotiation in order to participate in roundtable discussions with commune council members.  Together, they discuss civic participation, youth employment, education, and the communal charter.

The results are encouraging. Youth are engaged in local governance and are better organized as an important political constituency. Youth discuss and advocate their priorities to elected officials. However, youth are also expressing that they want to see this heightened dialogue translate into concrete changes such as different decision-making patterns and results on youth issues.

A real opportunity for enhanced youth leadership and decision-making is before the Youth Councils and the Moroccan government. The new Moroccan constitution calls for the formation of an institutionalized Consultative Council for Youth and Community Work to play an advisory role to the government on youth policies. This past May, youth leaders from the LGP-formed Youth Councils hosted a forum with civil society experts, local government representatives, and Parliament officials to provide concrete recommendations on how the Consultative Council should be created, what it should be implementing, and how it can represent young people in the democratic process.

According to a youth leader from Safi, “Our proposals for the new Consultative Council are based on real discussion among youth leaders. Nobody told us what to do or what not to do. We do not want this to be just something that is designed in the capital. Instead, it should represent the vision of the youth across the country.”

An important focus for LGP in the next two years is helping the Youth Councils continue to work to influence the formation and agenda of the new Consultative Council and to consolidate the existing seven (soon to be ten) youth councils into an institutionalized political structure to sustain it beyond USAID-funding support.

RTI has learned that forming Youth Councils and training youth in the leadership skills they need to affect change takes significant time and resources. Often, the fruition of these efforts - marked by transformation into formal decision-making power and active leadership - is difficult to achieve in typical three to five year programmatic cycles.

Over the next few years, it will be critical to take a long-term perspective in achieving a real youth voice in Arab Spring countries, as well as other developing countries. This means sustaining youth dialogue and participation mechanisms from one program cycle into the next and institutionalizing youth bodies into formal political structures.

We are optimistic that the release of the Youth in Development Policy will encourage more Missions, especially in countries with large and growing youth populations, to prioritize greater youth participation in development. RTI and the other AIYD members are committed to helping fulfill the Policy’s goal of equipping local youth leaders with skills and tools to create their own solutions and to institutionalize their efforts in their countries’ development processes.