Sarah Lewis, 1 March 2019

Civil society is a powerful driver of change, yet many programmes delivered or funded by international development organisations fail to ensure that power lies with communities and Southern civil society partners, compromising sustainability. Too often, communities are not involved in programme design and delivery, accountability is one-sided, and impact is pre-defined. Young people offer huge potential – they are ready to take action to tackle big development challenges but are frequently excluded from and unable to influence solutions.  

INTRAC is part of a new consortium led by Restless Development called The Development Alternative, which is working with youth-centred and youth-led civil society to design approaches to development that ensure young people and their communities define, lead, and own solutions to the problems they face. Together we will create and test a youth-led model for development that can be implemented at scale – across a range of development challenges, and in different country contexts. The Development Alternative has been running since September 2018 and is in a co-creation phase until April 2019. 

We kick started the process by engaging with the most important actors – youth civil society – through a global online survey (completed by 198 respondents from over 30 countries) and seven focus group discussions in Iraq, Lebanon, Madagascar, Palestine, and Uganda.* We asked civil society organisations (CSOs) working with youth what success looks like outside the current parameters set by Northern NGOs and donors, and their opinion on what needs to change if they are to achieve success in their work. Alongside this, INTRAC commissioned Recrear to undertake a rapid evidence review of the barriers and enablers to youth civil society effectiveness.

In February 2019, I spent three days in London with colleagues from across the consortium exploring the findings and assessing what we can do to respond together. We heard insights from focus group discussion facilitators from DOT Lebanon, YMCA East Jerusalem, War Child Iraq and Restless Development Uganda, plus youth civil society experts from Zimbabwe, Chile, and Europe. Participants brought different experiences into the room – from leading or volunteering for youth organisations, to having an accountability or civil society focus. Having a variety of perspectives added to the richness of discussions and helped to ensure that we didn’t lose sight of context and realities in country. 

Five key messages about youth civil society effectiveness that I’ve taken away from the process so far are: 

1. Identity: We shouldn’t assume that youth CSOs are always able to define their role vis-à-vis the state and society. In one country, focus group discussions highlighted that CSOs are seen as businesses, existing to deliver services. In another, CSOs lacked understanding of their role linked to their lack of power in comparison to the church and private sector. This raises questions as to how we can support youth civil society to understand its strategic identity and fulfil its purpose/ mission in a given context.  

2. Vision: Youth CSOs are often short of human resources, capacity, time and space for longer-term visioning and strategic thinking. In focus group discussions, there were differences in the extent to which the respondents were able to imagine alternatives to the current development system, including being autonomous and independent. This led us to question how CSOs can be supported to think outside of the box and realise their vision.  

3. Leadership: It can be difficult for young people to be taken seriously in leadership roles, so how can we increase legitimacy, credibility, and trust of young people in the eyes of their constituents and potential funders? Part of this may be ensuring that youth civil society leadership is truly representative, going beyond the ‘urban-elite’. Another question is how youth civil society can retain knowledge as leaders ‘age out’ (getting to 28-30 and moving on). 

4. Collaboration: Youth civil society actors want to work together, establishing relationships on their own terms. However, they are often in competition, following the money. How can we encouraging sharing and collaboration in a space of competition? There is a need for new or improved coordinating mechanisms, platforms and networks. Technology and digital offer opportunities to bring youth civil society together, but there is still a need for ‘offline’ engagement as not everyone has access.  

5. Funding: The structure of development funding (short-term, restricted, via intermediaries, based on donor interests rather than needs on the ground) creates challenges for youth CSOs, including competition and a lack of long-term planning. There are calls for more flexible and core funding. Building up the evidence base on resourcing of youth civil society, and facilitating better communication and partnership between donors and youth CSOs, could help to encourage them to rethink their practices (recognising that many are already aware of the need for change). 

Other points that struck me were: the need to support youth civil society in its diversity (registered and non-registered, formal and informal); a lack of investment in organisational capacity, including policies and procedures, resource mobilisation and the use of technology; and the gaps in evidence from the global South on the effectiveness of youth civil society, and how we can be more creative in accessing knowledge that does exist. 

For those working with and for civil society, many of these issues aren’t new and resonate with long-standing, and more recent, debates around partnership, exit and sustainability. We know what needs to change. Now, through The Development Alternative, we have an exciting opportunity to tackle these challenges with a youth focus, harnessing the appetite amongst youth civil society to go beyond just surviving to planning for long-term change and shifting power to young people and communities. 

What next?

In the coming months, we will share the findings from the consultation, evidence review and workshop in a report for the wider sector. We will continue to engage with, and learn from, youth civil society to co-design a package of support to youth organisations, networks and movements, and a model for change that ensures young people are leading the development of their own communities and countries. The model will be tested initially in Iraq, Madagascar and Uganda and rolled out in the Central African Republic, Lebanon, Occupied Palestine Territories, Zimbabwe and Zambia. 

Stay tuned for updates!

The Development Alternative is funded by the UK Department for International Development’s Aid Connect Civil Society Effectiveness stream. The members of the consortium are Restless Development, Accountable Now, dot.Lebanon, Integrity Action, INTRAC, Keep Your Shoes Dirty, United Purpose, War Child, Y Care International. INTRAC is leading on the monitoring, evaluation and learning of the programme and providing input into the co-design process.

*Sally Hartley, independent consultant, led the design and analysis of the consultation.