Challenging Our Assumptions on How Best to Engage Youth
In 2016, I visited northern Uganda to assess the impact on youth of the Resiliency through Wealth, Agriculture, and Nutrition (RWANU) project, funded by USAID’s Office of Food for Peace and implemented by ACDI/VOCA. I often work on assessments like this as the regional gender and youth advisor for ACDI/VOCA. But this assignment caught my eye because I knew that young, local staff in Uganda drove the project.
Uganda has one of the largest youth populations in the world, with 77 percent of Ugandans under the age of 30, so I expected to find that RWANU contributed to the improved livelihoods of young people. The assessment involved an inward look at institutions, practices, and systems and how they have targeted and engaged youth in agriculture.
What I found surprised me, most of all, because of the assumptions I had made. I assumed that young, educated staff knew how to reach and meet the needs of rural youth because of their shared ages. I assumed that young staff didn’t need special training or soft skills to know how to reach other youth in agriculture, and that they could communicate and support them easily.
I realized our staff could have benefited from training on how to target and engage youth – just like they benefited from training on how to integrate gender into their activities. The project could have more intentionally targeted youth who are interested in agriculture but lack assets, such as land or equipment. Semi-literate youth who wanted to start their own agricultural enterprises could have benefited from more support. Staff also needed guidance on how to create safe, enabling environments for young people to develop self-worth and confidence and create relationships with adult mentors and positive role models.
The team also needed analytical tools to assess the needs of the youth before they designed project activities or awarded grants, much like the tools we use for gender or market analysis. A dedicated staff member could have driven positive youth development, just as our gender manager does in their role.
RWANU collected age-disaggregated data, but would have benefited from youth-specific indicators. Going deeper and asking what participation meant for young people would allow the project to understand the impact on youth. Further disaggregation by sex would have also let RWANU staff better understand the impact on young women versus young men and design activities to address gaps.
RWANU made great strides in promoting youth by hiring young staff members. These young people brought passion and creativity to the project. At the same time, they needed mentoring and coaching from experienced staff to apply their skills in a meaningful way. All project staff need tools to help them meet the needs of all beneficiaries, including the young, old, male, female, differently-abled, non-literate, and others. As ACDI/VOCA develops these tools—in this case, to promote positive youth development in agricultural market systems—we know there’s still a lot to learn.
How have you learned to positively engage young people in your programs?
Lydia Mbevi is based in Kenya and has fifteen years of development experience in Africa, Middle East and Asia. She has a Master’s in gender and development and is currently the Regional Gender and Youth Advisor for ACDI/VOCA. Lydia’s youth passion comes from holding leadership positions as a teenager in her community, and being a change agent trusted with raising thousands of other youth. She has continued to engage youth in agricultural development and humanitarian crises in different countries and contexts.