International Youth Day is celebrated on August 12, a United Nations commemorative day to bring attention to issues affecting the world’s youth, to celebrate their potential as partners in an increasingly globalized world, and to recognize their future as leaders of tomorrow. To let the true potential of the world’s youth flourish, champions and allies of young people in the form of researchers are helping to fulfill their promise. This month’s celebratory feature will put a spotlight on some of RTAC’s development partner researchers who help advocate for policies and that bring about positive changes needed for young people to have the future they deserve. The different perspectives and experiences of these researchers showcase some of the challenges youth face in today’s ever-changing and complex world.
Jill Chanley, M.Sc.
Jill Chanley, M.Sc., is a Policy Advisor with Population Reference Bureau (PRB), specializing in youth and family planning and reproductive health.
Ms. Chanley’s work promotes family planning policies that respond to young people’s unique needs and helps increase the likelihood that they will use the services available to them. For her, “It is such a privilege to work every day with young people who are true agents of change, with fresh ideas and energy and the boldness to question the status quo.”
According to Ms. Chanley, “The period between ages 10 and 24 is critical to developing one’s identity and behaviors that impact their health; young people have the potential to flourish but are also uniquely vulnerable to the lifelong impacts of health inequalities.” It was this knowledge that inspired the PRB Policy Advisor to make a career of helping create and inform policies dedicated to family planning services that young people can trust. Ms. Chanley believes her work in partnership with youth researchers and advocates in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia helps shape impactful policies by putting youth at the forefront of issues that impact their lives, communities, and futures.
Ms. Chanley’s work has left a profound impact on her career, pushing her to focus on supporting youth-led policy advocacy and research that seeks to shift social norms and create an enabling environment for youth to access and use contraception. In her experience, she has found sexual and reproductive health services are often not adapted to meet young people’s specialized needs in many countries.
“In my research and work with youth advocates in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, I’ve consistently seen barriers that transcend borders and prevent young people from accessing the contraceptives they need. Many of these obstacles stem from social and gender norms that reinforce stigma around youth sexuality and disproportionately harm young girls. For example, service provider attitudes at health facilities are often biased, judgmental, or hostile towards young people. They often restrict access to contraceptives for youth by deciding which methods to offer based on their personal observations of a client’s age, marital status, and existing family size. Young people often lack privacy and confidentiality when they seek services and information,” said Ms. Chanley.
When asked how the goals of International Youth Day can be achieved, she pointed to the need for researchers, program implementers, policymakers, and donors to recognize that young people are experts on their own needs and commit to working with them as equal partners. Ms. Chanley continues:
“Global actors must challenge themselves to consciously shift power dynamics between adults, adolescents, and youth to share power in a way that respects and values young people’s contributions and understands how their needs differ from adults. There’s no doubt that meaningfully engaging with young people can be hard—despite genuine intentions, I still find myself falling short at times. Imali Ngusale, a youth advocate from Kenya, suggests practical steps for engaging with young people: involve them on all issues that affect them, not just on youth issues; incorporate their feedback throughout decision-making processes; recognize that you may need to cover their costs and compensate them for their time – don’t expect them to volunteer. I believe making a conscious effort to reverse entrenched power structures is worth it to increase the next generation’s ownership in developing solutions for problems that impact us all.”
Alexandre Monnard is a Research Scientist with NORC at the University of Chicago and specializes in the evaluation of entrepreneurship, livelihood, and youth programs. His work has taken him throughout continental Africa, including projects in Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Tanzania, Morocco, and Senegal.
His interest in youth issues stems from his formative multicultural years growing up in Switzerland, Belgium, and the U.S. He noticed the different approaches these countries took to educating youth and the different paths available to them to become productive members of society.
This curiosity led Mr. Monnard to start working in program and policy evaluation as an analyst with the Small Business Administration’s Regional Innovations Clusters initiative. “This initiative fostered the participation of not only businesses, but also universities, community colleges and even high schools in a few cases. Learning more about the successes and challenges that cluster members faced in involving and hiring youth and in promoting entrepreneurship sparked a particular interest in the topic. Later, I evaluated a USAID program in Armenia promoting youth entrepreneurship and civic participation using the Junior Achievement model,” remarked Mr. Monnard. His experience working with these students and learning what they did left him fascinated cemented his interest in working with youth.
While Mr. Monnard enjoys his work, it can be particularly complex and at times difficult. “A few months after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, I met youth trying to overcome the shock of losing their family members and living in camps. Yet they were at work with a smile on their face. Their resilience and strength were truly inspiring,” recalls Mr. Monnard. His vivid memory of working in Eastern Senegal and meeting with undernourished children and young mothers in Eastern Senegal is something that will stay with him forever and had a large impact on his outlook concerning development work. “Globally, I see youth’s tremendous potential and aspirations [are] left largely unfulfilled and this is something we will have on our collective conscience for decades to come.”
To the young research scientist, assessing the needs of young people accurately and crafting programs that address them sustainably is challenging – especially when considering socio-economic factors, cultural considerations, and budgets. “Many such programs are now multi-sectoral and that makes them difficult to evaluate rigorously. Even when we think we know what works, transposing that learning to another country/context can be daunting, so there are many points of failure when it comes to youth policy and programming.”
When asked what is needed from leaders to see the full potential of the world’s youth, he responded:
“I think societies first need to seriously listen to youth voices. We are seeing them speak everywhere, whether on climate change, lack of economic and civic leadership opportunities, or governance and corruption issues. Yet the reaction from society at large is too often unfulfilled promises, outright dismissal, or even crackdowns, which all fosters their disengagement and disillusionment with society and can lead to alternative paths fraught with danger (e.g., extremism, irregular migration). Then we need to develop and reinforce pathways that allow them to undertake these “actions and initiatives”, including investment in their businesses, meaningful guidance from trusted and knowledgeable sources, and mechanisms to become civically engaged and reach leadership roles.”
Mr. Monnard stressed that societies need to better prepare youth for an increasingly complex future. “This means critical thinking to assess the torrent of information (and disinformation) they’re exposed to, skills around conflict resolution and constructive social interactions, financial literacy, and classroom and hands-on training in livelihoods that are economically viable today and tomorrow. All this must involve all corners of society, including government, the private sector, and CSOs, but [it] starts at the community level.”