Four Best Practices for Equitable Partnership With Youth-Led Organizations to Advance Health and Development

We can learn a lot from the young people who work in our sector—and perhaps make more progress toward our goals—with some adjustments in our approach.

As coordinator of the PACE Youth Multimedia Fellowship, I have met, learned from, and grown alongside teens and 20-somethings in Africa and Asia committed to making positive changes in their communities. Sadly, these young leaders have shared many stories of partnerships with governments, donor agencies, and international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) that left them feeling marginalized or tokenized.

As part of our end-of-project activities, PACE cohosted an online, intergenerational dialogue for youth and non-youth leaders to share experiences and lessons to help address the unhealthy power dynamics that can hurt earnest efforts at collaboration. From our discussion, we propose four best practices for INGOs, donors, and government agencies seeking to effectively and equitably partner with youth and youth-led organizations.


1. Recognize and value what young people bring to the table

Many INGOs, donors, and government agencies claim to value their youth partners, but rather than meaningfully include them in decision-making processes, expect them to simply affirm their choices. While youth may be invited to provide input, suggestions contrary to the established plan are often dismissed on the (unspoken) belief that young people aren’t real experts. This is not only unfair–it is also incorrect. Although youth-led organizations are typically less formalized and may have weaker systems than other groups, their skills and expertise are equally valuable.

Joy Munthali of Green Girls Platform in Malawi (and co-founder of the We Trust You(th) Initiative) discussed in her opening remarks at the dialogue how she and her colleagues have felt “compromised or exploited” by well-meaning organizations. A solution, she explained, is to recognize and integrate the unique strengths of each partner.

“We can take our lived experiences together with the experience that [donors, INGOs, and governments] have, and we can come up with something great,” Munthali said. “We can come up with collaborative strategies that work for young people and the government.”

Young people often have a deep understanding of their environment and close community connections that can make health and development programs more effective. These are valuable assets, and as such, youth partners should be treated like experts and paid fairly for their work and time.

INGOs, donors, and government agencies should also consult with their youth partners on the capacity building or training opportunities that would best help them achieve their goals, rather than assuming or focusing exclusively on project-specific skill-building. It can be helpful to have these discussions at the beginning of any partnership.

2. Ensure language and processes are accessible to all

“We cannot understate the importance of increasing FP accessibility in LMICs, eradicating NCDs and PMTCT to achieve the demographic dividend and, ultimately, the SDGs.”

Sound familiar? In international development and global health, we love our acronyms and jargon. While it sometimes works as helpful shorthand, this sort of language can make it difficult for youth and partners from other sectors to follow the conversation and provide meaningful input.

“I have been in meetings where I didn’t understand anything. I was just required to be there to show that young people were part of the process,” Munthali shared at the dialogue. Sani Muhammad, executive director of Bridge Connect Africa Initiative (BCAI) in Nigeria, explained that similar experiences early in his career left him feeling confused and frustrated.

INGOs, donors, and government agencies must reconsider the words we use and the norms we follow, lowering the barriers to entry for shared spaces. We should also work to understand and respect the constraints facing youth partners, including family and school responsibilities, physical and/or mental health challenges, and limitations on movement and accessing services (including the internet). We may need to adjust our expectations of a reasonable email response time, or how quickly a meeting can be called.

3. Share power and communicate openly

This point is simple yet important. Treat youth-led organizations like any other organization you want to work with. Set expectations at the beginning. Ask young people what they want and need out of the partnership and explain what you are looking for. Re-examine your expectations and if they are not being met, consider if they are realistic.

During the dialogue, BCAI’s Sani Muhammad recounted his admiration for PACE’s recruiting approach for the Youth Multimedia Fellowship, which focused more on applicants’ understanding of their advocacy issue and openness to feedback than their credentials or multimedia experience. “They did not require any serious technical [qualifications] to be on the fellowship. That is what opportunity is like for young people, that is what meaningful partnership is like.”

It is important to also acknowledge that power dynamics are real, and they will not simply disappear if we work hard enough to be inclusive. We should work with youth partners to find ways to minimize or work around these dynamics, so the playing field can be as level as possible. Consider creating anonymous feedback mechanisms or selecting one person to act as liaison between the different groups, listening and negotiating solutions to challenges that arise. Have regular check-ins to discuss what is working and what is not and decide on a way forward together. Be willing to compromise and adapt.

4. Leave something that lasts

All good things must come to an end, and partnerships tied to specific projects and workstreams tend to dissolve when funding dries up. Will your youth partners be better off than when you met them, or will they be back to square one?

Invest in systems, equipment, and connections that will provide value in the months and years to come. Youth Multimedia Fellowship participants used their subaward funds to purchase laptops, cameras, and other equipment to support their multimedia advocacy goals. PACE and youth leaders at BCAI, a longtime partner organization, worked together to identify accounting software that would meet BCAI’s needs, as well as link them to resources to guide them in creating their first-ever annual budget. Ask youth partners what they need, and support however you can.

Remember, if we are seeking nontraditional thinking to solve persistent problems, we must incorporate nontraditional perspectives. Young people can be enthusiastic fonts of knowledge and experience—if only we engage them fairly and with true openness to their perspectives and priorities.