Partnerships for change: what if every voice mattered the same?

“No major operation of any kind should be mounted without young people out in front. They are the great change-makers and the great risk-takers. Seeing the world for the first time brings a special insight, just as seeing it for the umpteenth time brings a particular wisdom. The two go well together.”

Hugo Slim, quoted from “Reflections of a humanitarian bureaucrat”

Hugo Slim is the Head of Policy and Humanitarian Diplomacy at the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva. The excerpt above is part of a blog in which he examines the bureaucratisation of humanitarian action as “the single biggest change in the sector since the 1980s”. With a humouristic and hard look, Slim talks about joining Save the Children UK in 1983 when “as an enthusiastic 22-year-old theology graduate, setting off to Morocco with a suitcase, typewriter and guitar, the humanitarian sector was still small and led by a few striking individuals.” He then goes on identifying some of the key features that characterise bureaucracy in many humanitarian organisations today and exploring how to encourage simpler and more dynamic forms of humanitarian action. One of his suggestions is to put young talent at the forefront of such organisations and celebrate the charisma and dynamism of young people.

How can humanitarian organisations embrace dynamism?

In the last months, I was on a mission for CHOICE for Youth and Sexuality, a Dutch youth-led (1) organisation specialised in giving young people a voice in developing programs and strengthening youth-led initiatives.

CHOICE is part of major SRHR alliance that works towards young people’s sexual and reproductive health and rights in Africa, the middle-east and, and South-East Asia, through programs such as ‘Get Up Speak Out – for youth rights’ (GUSO), and ‘Yes I Do!’ (2). During the implementation of these programs, organisations have created spaces to think about how to engage with young people. One of their strategies has been to build Youth-Adult Partnerships (YAPs). A Youth-Adult Partnership is a type of partnership in which both young people and adults are equally involved and share power.

Youth-Adult Partnerships (YAP) have become a phenomenon of interest to both practitioners and researchers in recent decades (3), who offer various interpretations of what YAP is. There are different types of Youth-Adult Partnerships with varying degrees of youth and adult control. But there are a few ingredients considered essential. For instance, according to CHOICE’s, in a YAP young people and adults should draw on consensus and participatory decision making: both youth and adults can and should bring their perspectives, experiences, expertise and networks. Additionally, youth should be given decision-making power in and be integrated into all aspects of youth programs (4).

While it was broadly understood that there were challenges with the implementation of these partnerships, CHOICE and I were interested in learning more about the young people and adults who were involved in YAPs: What are the opportunities and challenges they face? What are their ideas for improvement?

To answer these questions, I visited a dozen inspiring organisations in the beautiful countries of Malawi and Kenya, and talked with young people and adults about how they could better support each other achieve remarkable outcomes in Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) projects. Here’s a collage of bits and pieces taken from our conversations:

Snapshots of the findings: what conversations with young people and adults are telling us

To hear youth voices (5), I conducted a total of nine interviews with young people in Malawi and Kenya. I also organised a focus discussion with youth clubs in Malawi and participated in a Youth Council meeting in Kenya. Additionally to these personal meetings, I analysed the responses of 34 young people and young adults (up to the age of 30) to the survey ‘we are all ears’ (6). These young people, while working in geographically and culturally diverse contexts, were increasingly finding ways to engage their voices and talents in SRHR organisations and projects at different levels. From the results of the survey and during field research in December 2019, I identified significant roles for youth in Youth-Adult Partnerships in SRHR projects. YAPs have empowered young people to assume the roles of youth advocates, community educators, advisors to SRHR organisations, non-profit chairs, and direct youth service providers. They shared about their experiences working with adults in YAPs, as well as reflect on their challenges and ideas to build these partnerships.

Decision-making power through community-based structures and youth advisory groups

Access to decision-making cuts to the core of the challenges many young people face in their efforts to work as partners with adults in this research.  Youth advisory groups were found particularly successful, as avenues for ensuring young people’s voices are considered in decision-making. The Youth Council in Kenya, for instance, was founded in 2018 as an advisory board committed to building a network of young people and SHRH advocates. Its members are young people only. However, its Chair and Vice-Chair seat at the decision-making table with adults and vote on decisions to be made by the Kenya Country Alliance.

Another example of a lateral initiative from youth to become more influential in decision making is the Ugunja Youth Parliament (22) in Kisumu, Kenya. This is a parliament formed by young people to discuss issues that affect them in their communities. Like any other parliament, they have clerk officers who take minutes, speakers, and ministers. Local officials and policymakers took notice of this initiative and started consulting young people before they make key decisions or plans. This is a link to their Facebook page:

Negotiating boundaries and letting young people be in charge

Adults in this research also expressed facing a range of challenges that arise when working with young people and youth-led organisations. To bring the voices of adults into the research, I conducted a total of seven interviews with adults in Malawi and Kenya. Additionally to these personal meetings, I analysed the responses of six adults to the survey ‘we are all ears’.

A common challenge for the adults in this research was finding the balance between giving input to youth and stepping back to allow them to take the lead. One adult staff explained how she worried about getting the right outcome or wanted to make sure everything ended up as she predicted it:

“I sometimes get torn. Because NGO world is full of bureaucracy, as much as we don’t say it so you have to account for how things went and nobody wants to say things went wrong because we put an experienced young person in the driving seat. But at the same time, you do see that you were once a young person and you got where you are because of opportunities.”

Adult staff, based in The Netherlands

Moving beyond stereotypes of being young and old

Even though the very definition of YAP emphasises a partnership between youth and adults, some informants (of all ages) felt as if the use of these two universal categories wasn’t helpful. They would rather see people in terms of their skills and individual potential to contribute to the partnership. 

I heard this idea for the first time from a young woman in Kenya. She offered what I thought was both a very cool and accurate observation. She said that young people and adults use the standard social constructs of what it means to be young or older, to point fingers at each other based on broad stereotypes. She used the words’ blame game’.

These are interesting reflections. YAPs create opportunities for young people to be involved in spaces usually dominated by adults, and these opportunities might not have been there if it wasn’t for paying attention to ageism in the first place. But broad interpretations of what a young and an older person are and can bring to YAPs, limit the type of roles and responsibilities they can take from the very beginning. For instance, it partially explains why young people are more often assigned more hands-on responsibilities instead of involved in strategic work.

Helping organisations Walk the Talk of YAPs

A look at the current state of YAPs in international development reveals that they are very different from one another in terms of purpose, programming, approach, challenges and opportunities. Young people and adults are working as partners within SRHR alliances and organisations in many different ways, some through direct work with local communities, and others by including young people in their operations, local programs and staff. There are also varying degrees of willingness and interest in YAPs, as well as different institutional and organisational capacities to embark on this kind of work. Due to this diversity, within organisations and across projects, it is difficult to generalise about SRHR organisations commitment to YAPs and their capacity to realise these commitments.

However, I observed very positive results in the work of a handful of organisations who are genuinely being reflexive about involving young people through partnerships with adults. This is a time when the importance of supporting young people is increasingly on the radar of many organisations, and the leadership and contributions of young people are more and more visible. Examples of progressive YAP approaches have gained strength in the last few years. They can be seen in co-leadership models such as the Youth-Country Coordinator/National Programme Coordinator model in the GUSO programme, as well as in the rise of youth-led advisory boards, who are progressively taking a bigger role in influencing decisions around SHRH programmes and policies.

My experience working alongside CHOICE, and young people and adults in this research, has been one of constant learning. Together, we reflected on key elements for success in YAPs, best practices and ideas to improve future partnerships. We recognise that every context is different, and the learnings and ideas from this research might not work the same way for different organisations. All the same, it is important to share them, both to support other organisations on their journey and to keep challenging organizational practices constructively.

Reach out to me or CHOICE if you would like to read the final report and learn more about the research findings and recommendations for making YAPs work. Happy explorations!

1. Youth-led: When a program, activity or organisation is youth-led, it means that youth have control over all aspects involved. Young people are in the driver’s seat: developing, implementing, monitoring and evaluating. Adults can participate when young people need expertise or experience, but their input is minimal.
2. Get Up Speak Out (GUSO) is a five-year program (2016-2020) developed by a consortium consisting of Rutgers (lead organisation), Aidsfonds, CHOICE for Youth and Sexuality, Dance4life, International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) and Simavi. ‘Yes I do’ (YID) is five-year program (2016-2020) developed by a consortium consisting of Plan International Netherlands (lead organisation), Amref Flying Doctors, Rutgers, KIT Royal Tropical Institute, and CHOICE for youth and sexuality. The GUSO programme continues what had been started by two other programmes (Access Knowledge and Services – ASK, and Unite for Body Rights – UfBR) in the same countries: actively involving young people to claim their sexual rights and right to participation at community, societal, institutional and political levels.
3. See e.g. Zeldin, S. , Christens, B. D. and Powers, J. L. (2013). The Psychology and Practice of Youth‐Adult Partnership: Bridging Generations for Youth Development and Community Change. + Villa-Torres, L. & Svanemyr, J. (2015). Ensuring Youth’s Right to Participation and Promotion of Youth Leadership in the Development of Sexual and Reproductive Health Policies and Programs.
4. The Flower of Participation is a tool that applies the metaphor of a blooming flower to describe how Meaningful Youth Participation can grow and flourish. It helps distinguish between different forms of youth participation and to explore whether they are meaningful or not. YAPs are one of the types of MYP in the Flower of Participation narrative. The tool also defines five core elements of Meaningful Youth Participation (the ‘roots of the flower’: freedom of choice, information, voice, responsibility, and decision-making power) and seven preconditions for MYP (the ‘water’ and the ‘sun’: capacity strengthening, commitment from adults, policies, financial means, safe space, youth friendliness, and flexibility).
5. Youth: The UN defines ‘young people’ as those between the ages of 10 and 24 years old. While most of the literature and programs reviewed in this report acknowledge the UN’s operational definition, as a starting point to address youth and monitor youth projects, they are cautious about contextual factors. Cultural, economic, social and political contexts shape what it means to be ‘young’ across societies. In this research, I considered youth as young people until 24 years old. I used the term young adult to talk about ages between 25-30, and adult for ages above 30.
6. As part of the methodology in this research, CHOICE and I invited young people and adults working together in partnerships to share their experiences working in YAPs through an online survey. The overall purpose of the survey was to assess the perceptions and experiences of youth and adults interacting together within Youth-Adult Partnerships development programs, activities and organisations.

Fieldnotes from Malawi

Prisca is 27 and she is an advocate for young people’s rights. She works for an NGO that runs several projects with youth and their sexual reproductive rights (think teenager pregnancy and HIV awareness). Malawi has one of the world’s highest rates of child marriage. Half of girls are married before the age of 18, many because their families are too poor to support them. Teen pregnancies contribute to 20-30 per cent of maternal deaths in the country, and the low share of girls, only about 45 per cent, remaining in school past the 8th grade (UN statistics from 2017). But Prisca is relentlessly hopeful for the young people of Malawi. Her laugh is contagious. She is a total hero. 

Prisca and me in Lilongwe.

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