Meaningful youth Participation in post-2015 Development Agenda: Beyond a youth focused approach

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Sri Lanka will be hosting the World Conference on Youth (WCY) in Colombo from 6th to 10th May 2014. The conference is expected to be a platform for expanding youth participation and strengthening the voices of youth in matters that concern them most. Internationally, the WCY is expected to look at a new post-2015 Agenda for Development and Sustainable Development Goals.

Ensuring meaningful youth participation in post-2015 remains and will continue to remain the key challenge at present and of the years to come. What is meant by meaningful youth participation? I recall a discussion of a group of young people on the same topic in 2007/8 where it was understood either as a collective bargaining tool for special privileges or as being part of consultative decision making processes to a better overall outcome for the young people. To explain this explicitly, we demanded to include more young people when the governments design policies or make decisions which affect young people. We claimed that young people have a right to be part of the decision-making on youth programs. As a youth activist few years ago, I understood meaningful youth participation as above and I see no significant difference in the discourse since then. In fact, re-thinking of what is meaningful youth participation for the post-2015 development, I strongly feel our continued youth-focused approach has to move to the next level: it need to be  based on  a relational approach to ensure meaningful youth participation.

A relational approach with regard to youth participation in a theoretical perspective is expected to see behaviour as functional, communicative and meaningful. It seeks to identify and understand the direct and hidden needs, see young people as voluntarily participating in a shared endeavour and promote personal responsibility, with high levels of accountability and support. It is broader and moves away from equating youth participation to consulting young people in policy making or in programmes, it examines the interplay between youth and other identity makers, such as gender, age, social class, sexuality, disability, ethnic or religious background, urban/rural setting.  It is vital at least to make WYC 2014 the platform for this discussion to move beyond the generic perceptions of youth participation as consultation, which is often an attempt by those who hold power to get their programmes and plans endorsed rather than a genuine opportunity to be involved in the design and shaping of the same.

Relational approach does not limit youth participation in policies which only affects young people, but their participation as key stakeholders in the society as a whole. Young people therefore should be able to provide input in all areas of policy formulation and often they can get passionate about issues that they see as unjust or wrong on an overall societal level rather than being overly concerned about youth specific issues or policies.  This approach although requires better researched interventions it can lead to more effective outcomes and make youth participation more meaningful.

Meaningful youth participation in a post 2015 development agenda should therefore focus on the following principles:

  1. Understanding the role of young people in the post 2015 development agenda: Every programme and policy on development requires the investment of time and resources to understand the background context to such an initiative. Understanding the role of young people as explained above will help  policy makers and others who are involved in developing programmes in identifying key stakeholders in a more appropriate way. In that regard, policy makers will understand the background and relations within that context to ensure meaningful participation of young people. Youth participation will become even more meaningful by comprehending how roles and relations of young people work in each particular context, how they influence a society, and to what  extend they make an impact. One also need to understand opportunities are needed to bring the change youth aspire for.


  1. Broad range of possible interventions by young people: This novel approach to youth participation not only enables us to identify the roles of young people but also of the society as a whole, particularly to identify the attitudes and practices that need to be changed and to design effective interventions. This allows policies and programmes to be more precisely targeted and thus more effectively implemented and evaluated. Most importantly, youth participation would not be limited to interventions that affects only young people, but it suggests a more meaningful participation of young people in initiatives that affect the society as a whole. This includes programmes to address other vulnerabilities (i.e. gender, disability) or societal attitudes that need to be changed, including attitudes towards young people. Universally, young people are viewed as the duty bearers of violent conflict, hence with more pro-violent attitudes. One may argue this is due to generational misunderstandings or that young people are anyway more aggressive due to lack of maturity or various other reasoning. In fact, moving beyond the youth focused approach would pave the way to understand and iron out these attitudes to ensure effective contribution of the future generation in today’s policy making that affects the society as a whole.


  1. Inclusivity, dialogue and empowerment: Rethinking the currently practiced approach towards youth means understanding how societal relations and identities of young people influence policy in a given context and facilitating transformational change based on that understanding. A positive transformation is possible through inclusivity, dialogue and empowerment. Inclusivity will ensure the participation not only of young people, but also women and men, old and middle aged, powerful and powerless, marginalised and empowered, urban and rural. This will capture a wide range of perspectives and knowledge where dialogue is used as the key methodology in designing, managing or implementing programmes. An inclusive dialogue with the participation of all key stakeholders in society, including young people at all spheres, will not only generate  effective policies but will also empower youth to become active citizenry. Sustainable change towards the post 2015 development will indeed strike out from there eventually assuring the efficiency of the implementation of such policies.

This World Conference on Youth in Sri Lanka is expected to be the ideal platform to commence such dialogue as outlined above and will ensure a  meaningful youth participation in formulating a sustainable post-2015 development agenda. It is time to step beyond tokenism and consultation of young people and to make efforts of ensuring a more meaningful youth participation. Stepping beyond the youth focused approach and embracing them as the key stakeholders of the future in all sector with a broader understanding of their relations and identities is the only way forward.

Novelty or the change of existing state of affairs has been eternally resisted most of the time and will continue to be so. Hence, let’s make the World Conference on Youth the platform to give a serious thought about that human rationality and to propel such a resistance of novelty. Let’s rethink meaningful youth participation in the post-2015 development agenda beyond the youth focused approach !


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