Former Program Director, Capacity Building
Youth leaders are increasingly calling for inclusion through meaningful engagement and more equitable partnerships in their work in the international development community. This is driven, part, by power differentials between international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) and local partners, which can be amplified by age differences. In their collaborations with youth leaders and youth-led organizations (YLOs), non-youth-led organizations and partnerships are encouraged to adhere to principles and values of respect, inclusion, resource sharing, and mutual learning, as embodied in the Global Consensus Statement on Meaningful Adolescent and Youth Engagement and the We Trust You(th) Initiative.
In its nearly seven years supporting evidence-based policy, advocacy, and communication for population and reproductive health, PRB’s PACE project worked to foster respectful and mutually beneficial partnerships with youth leaders and youth-led organizations (YLOs) that honored their unique priorities while also exploring new approaches, reflecting on learnings, and applying lessons to collaborate with youth in more equitable, intentional ways. In response, PACE’s approach to program implementation evolved into one that prioritized questioning traditional strategies, shifting power dynamics, learning from partners and other projects, and capitalizing on the diverse skills and strengths of partners. As the project ends, PACE shares the following experiences and insights for other INGOs aiming to deepen their partnerships with youth and YLOs.
Extending Opportunities to Apply Skills and Advance Dialogue
In all of PACE’s work, strengthening the capacity of partners to effectively use data in their communication and advocacy has been a central mandate. Many of PACE’s activities with young people launched with this purpose, then grew into multi-year partnerships as PACE and youth jointly created opportunities to apply their skills to advance their priorities—whether youth-focused or not. What began as isolated activities to strengthen youth capacity were given space and trust to shift in response to the skills, needs, and priorities voiced by youth participants.
For example, PACE enlisted YLO stakeholders as key collaborators for its policy brief on youth contraceptive discontinuation, compensating them for their time. As PACE prepared to launch the brief, the youth partners requested skills-building activities to help them reach decisionmakers with the brief’s key messages. In response, PACE worked with them to create targeted training and resources to bolster their policy communication skills, including a PowerPoint-based advocacy tool and training and grant opportunities. The project hired one of these youth leaders as a consultant to help organize a policy dialogue with regional decisionmakers, and provided grants and technical support to three YLOs to use the brief to advance their advocacy goals.
PACE similarly expanded the training program for the inaugural West Africa Policy Fellows activity, supporting youth Ph.D. candidates to use the recommendations from the same policy brief to conduct a new, youth-led assessment of national policy and program contexts for sustaining youth contraceptive use in Ouagadougou Partnership countries. Following the success of these (and similar) activities, PACE’s skills-building activities with youth now consistently include financial support for participants to implement policy advocacy and communication activities using their skills while drawing support and mentorship from PACE as needed.
Co-Creating Activities and Sharing Leadership With Youth Partners
As activities blossomed into shared partnerships, PACE’s willingness to trust youth partners and share leadership was critical to success. Bridge Connect Africa Initiative (BCAI), a YLO based in northern Nigeria, co-led PACE’s Youth Multimedia Fellowship alongside PRB starting in 2019, following their standout participation in the first year of the program. Drawing on their own expertise and experience in advocacy and sharing decision-making power and financial resource management with PACE, BCAI helped adapt the fellowship training curricula and materials, supported the selection of new participants, facilitated half of the weekly training sessions, and coached new fellows on foundational concepts. Building on the success of this co-leadership model, USAID/Nigeria supported the production of a podcast and radio series through PACE, with BCAI receiving half of the award funding.
From the start of our partnership with PACE until now, we are treated as experts who bring much experience to the table and [are] trusted to lead programs with adequate and timely resources. We have played central roles in decision making throughout….This has resulted in BCAI’s exponential growth and expertise…and…built our confidence working and negotiating with other partners outside the PACE project….This proactive and forward-thinking energy by PACE to ensure BCAI succeed[s] with all the tools it will need going forward is the best definition of meaningful youth engagement you would find anywhere across the globe.” —Sani Muhammad, BCAI executive director
At the start of each year of the Youth Multimedia Fellows program, PACE conducted a needs assessment with incoming fellows to identify which skills they desired to build through the fellowship. Using these expressed needs, PACE and BCAI provided each fellow with targeted resources and guidance to help them meet their goals. By trusting youth in this way, PACE supported each fellow in developing a comprehensive advocacy campaign, including a targeted multimedia advocacy tool, before the end of the fellowship.
PACE’s experience working across countries and BCAI’s mentorship created space for the youth fellows to discuss solutions to common challenges across contexts. As BCAI and the multimedia fellows continued their advocacy activities, the fellowship fostered peer-to-peer learning, creating a cycle of growth that strengthened each organization’s activities. Likewise, PACE’s partnerships with BCAI and YLOs helped PACE strengthen its youth- and partner-led programming by listening to organizations’ needs and priorities and maintaining flexibility to adapt approaches in response.
Bolstering the Organizational Capacity of Youth-Led Organizations
Many young leaders who partnered with PACE identified specific organizational capacity needs that would enhance their family planning policy, advocacy, and communication efforts. In some instances, PACE finance and administration (F&A) staff mentored and supported partners directly. In others, PACE funded YLOs to hire consultants with expertise in specific areas, such as human resources. PACE’s support of organizational capacity encouraged YLOs to build and formalize their organizations. For example, PACE helped some YLOs work through the process of defining their wage structures and setting overhead rates—both as an organizational best practice and to ensure the YLOs are fairly compensated for work performed through contracts or within partnerships.
PACE also adapted standard application and contract approaches to better respond to the needs and capacity of YLOs. PACE lowered administrative barriers to application and partnership for smaller organizations and sought approval to pay out larger shares of contracts in advance, supporting YLOs with insufficient funds to cover expenses before reimbursement.
As PACE’s relationships with youth-led partner organizations expanded, the project connected organizations who could share experiences, even while working in different countries or contexts. After partnering with SERAC in Bangladesh, PACE invited the established YLO to share their approaches and experiences in formalizing organizational systems (such as F&A) with other PACE YLO partners whose organizations were more nascent. PACE’s investments in building the capacity of YLOs helped them to network and learn from each other, participate fully with INGO partners, and meet donor requirements, ultimately contributing to their policy advocacy successes.
Supporting Youth to Advance Proven Approaches Toward Greater Achievements: Lessons Learned
Over the life of the project, PACE’s approach to listening to and meaningfully supporting youth partners’ goals developed into an intentional model. The foundations of PACE’s approach included:
- Establishing official structures during activity implementation, including subaward scopes of work, that share leadership and decision-making with YLOs.
- Trusting youth to understand their own context and identify their own advocacy needs and goals, and working with them as partners to co-create responsive activities.
- Meeting a commitment to shared leadership by providing financial resources at the level of need identified by partners.
- Incorporating intentional components, such as trainings and mentorship, to strengthen partners’ organizational capacity and self-identified priorities, investing in the future and sustainability of youth as leaders in their space.
By committing to flexibility to adapt activities, investing in building trust and long-term relationships, and sharing leadership, the international development community can promote more equitable, inclusive, and meaningful—and, ultimately, impactful—partnerships with youth leaders.