January 25, 2021 Whitney van Schyndel

How to Create Meaningful Youth Engagement

Co-authored by: Irene Sleven, Jessica Kempner & Whitney van Schyndel

Too often, solutions are designed for youth, without involving youth. This happens across development projects, including in private sector-led initiatives, such as those funded by the Challenge Fund for Youth Employment (CFYE). Programmes end up with solutions based merely on assumptions about what youth want. This is a risky approach. It can even negatively affect a company’s profits and growth, with major investments in training going to waste through high youth employee turnover rates (Carnevale et al, 2015).  

Increasingly, our sector is realising the importance of youth engagement, empowerment and resilience, and taking active steps to include and amplify youth voicesThe most ambitious are even striving to shift the balance of power, giving youth the space to be their own agents of change (Development Alternative, 2019)Take the recent Youth@Heart virtual forumorganized by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for example. The conference brought together a hive-mind of practitioners, businesses, donors, and most importantly, young people, to brainstorm ideas and solutions for improving youth prospects across Africa and the Middle East.  

We all agreed that listening to the real ambitions of young people is critical to making progress. But the conference inspired us to dig deeper and ask ourselves how we can turn words into actions. How can we really put youth at the heart of youth employment programming?  

CFYE believes that businesses need to prioritise a youth-centric focus for youth employment creation to be successful and sustainable.  

This meansfirst and foremost, identifying youth aspirations for employmentand the main barriers they face in achieving them. Once known, these considerations should be integrated into the design of a company’s business case. CFYE is not only interested in understanding what youth’s barriers to employment are: we want to see how an intervention addresses some of these barriers and aligns with young people’s stated aspirations.  

Yet as a Fund, we realised that despite believing wholeheartedly in the principleof youth inclusion and empowermentwe were not engaging youth meaningfully enough in our own Challenge Formulation processes. We needed to critically review our approach to youth engagement at scoping stage.  

Our internal stock-take revealed that we needed to make changes at three levels: 

  1. Rethink the purpose and the potential of the youth engagement sessions 
  2. Adapt our methodology to reflect this thinking  
  3. Define new entry points to test youth engagement strategies, examine evidence, and scale the model if proven to work   

Eight main lessons we have learnt so far

  • Youth want to contribute to programs/projects that are designed for them, they want to partner in the process of development; 
  • It is important the process involving youth is purposeful, that the objective of the engagement is clear and that the sessions are held in a safe space in which all youth feel welcome and included; 
  • Involving youth in the design process creates ownership and contributes to their personal development; 
  • Storytelling by youth is not only important for shaping our Calls for Solutions but also helps to bring people together. More specifically: youth can connect by sharing their aspirations, dreams, stories. It also makes people feel less alone, especially in times of COVID-19 when many youths feel disconnected; 
  • Although it takes more time and effort, ensuring that diverse groups of youth are consulted strengthens the content of the research;
  • Youth themselves can play a key role in reaching their peers through existing networks and by using social media;
  • Increasing the level of youth engagement/ownership from consulted and informed to youth initiated and directed is a process that requires a learning attitude of constant reflection and looking for improvements. It is also a process of incremental innovation;
  • Companies are very open to discussing possible solutions with young employees in the concept note stage (once their attention has been raised to the benefits of this approach). 

1. Rethinking purpose and potential  

Looking back on our first three problem identification studies in Uganda, Egypt and Nigeriawe realised our role went further than simply extracting information from youth panels.  Defining and building youth aspirations is a process that can provide learning opportunities not just for us as the funder, but for young people too 

In our youth sessions, we often heard from young people setting career ambitions that were either too high or too low –, meaning unrealistic for the labour market, or overly cautious, the latter particularly true of young womenThis reflects a pattern detected in the literature on youth aspirations, which shows that young people’s immediate socio-economic environment largely determines what they believe to be acceptable and achievableFor poor young people in particular, this can lead to a ‘failure of aspirations’, meaning they do not develop actionable aspirations that would lift them out of their current standard of living (See Appadurai, 2004; Ray, 2002; Serneels and Dercon, 2014; Boateng and Lowe, 2018). 

In Egypt, we listened to young people with a high level of education talk of their relatable aspirations to find a high-flying, high-paying job, straight out of university. The idea of investing in skills to reach these goals, by taking internships for example, was less common to hear. We also met with young women from lower socio-economic backgrounds, enrolled in technical secondary education courses. Their aspirations overwhelmingly did not ‘fit’ societal norms. Almost all wanted to continue working after having children. Many wanted to have technical jobs in factories or work as electrical engineers. One even wanted to become a body builder.  

 On the other hand, we met young women in Uganda from rural backgrounds, with lower educational levels, whose ambitions were limited to traditionally ‘female’ professions such as hairdressing, in their immediate locality.  We found that youth employment projects operating in the area also tend to lack gender ambition, offering training for traditional ‘female’ occupations, rather than transformative, norm-defying ones.  

Regardless of the direction of the discussion, the sessions established a common understanding among participants that they were all dealing with pushback from society in achieving their dreams. Participants then had the opportunity to discuss strategies on how they could overcome these barriers in their own situationsThe sessions became a sort of exchange, of sharing tips and tricks on how to deal with the pressure from all corners: from their communities, from their families, and from themselves.  

It became apparent that we (as a Fund and through our Implementing Partners) can trigger new ideas for what young people deem possible in their working lives. We heard directly from youth participants that our panel sessions gave them a unique and unprecedented opportunity to reflect on their career and life goalsWe therefore aspire for our youth panel sessions to go beyond building a richer picture of the youth employment challenges in a given country, important as this aim is for our study teams.  We also see an opportunity to inspire young people to (re)define their ambitions.  

2. Adapting methodology accordingly  

To reflect a wider cross-section of youth goals and ambitions, and capture and integrate these more strategically into our challenge formulations, we needed to make changes to our young engagement methodology. The main learnings from the first three challenge calls, which we have adapted for our latest calls for proposals were around timing and sampling.  

  • Timing – we noticed that we could be more effective if we involved youth at a later stage of the research. In the first three studies, youth aspiration sessions were held early in the process; this meant they turned into an open and rather general discussion on young participants’ dreams, hope and ambitions. For the most recent studies, we decided to involve youth when we were further along in shaping the call for solutions. Besides listening to their views on the barriers to youth employment and hearing more about their aspirations for workthis meant we could verify our latest study findings with them. In short, changing the timing of the youth engagement sessions allowed us tco-create, and actively involve youth in shaping the call for proposals.  
  • Sampling  In our first three studies in Uganda, Egypt and Nigeria, we used a small, inevitably self-selecting sample group of young peopleThis was largely due to lack of time to prepare, and lack of in-country teams and networks to extend our sample size. Such an approach made it difficult to draw any meaningful conclusions from these youth sessions. How could we know that these views were broadly representative, and how could we hear from less ‘easy-to-reach’ groups of youth? To engage a larger sample size of youth from more diverse backgroundsand in a less time-intensive way, we decided to use a combination of research methods. In the most recent studies, we increased our collaboration with local researchers and youth networks to ensure that we could reach more rural, excluded voices. Local teams have worked with smaller in-person groups, and we made sure to hold several training sessions beforehand to establish rules for data use and level of detailWe also increased the number of youth researchers – so for example, in Kenya, many researchers were youth volunteers and active youth network participants themselvesThese are the early efforts of a participatory research model we’re rolling out in future calls; an attempt to redress the unequal the power balance between researcher and researched. Beyond that we started to conduct online surveys, allowing us to reach a much greater number of youth, albeit ones with internet connection. We also used online meetings to connect with groups with higher levels of education, and with direct access and links to our in-country researchers. 

We also recognised the value in some aspects of our initial approach and wanted to ensure these were kept upWe continue to reassess our approach to youth engagement whenever we enter a new country, to make sure it is tailored to the specific context, and fit-for-purpose within it (see a worked example of this from South Sudan below)While we wanted to build a more representative sample size of respondents, walso saw that focusing on personal stories, without hoping to present them as scientific analysis, can be a powerful communications tool. We really appreciated the anecdotes and quotes that these stories generated, and found they were useful in getting a message across in a pithy way. We felt our original approach of using participatory methods, such as flashcards, problem trees and visuals, was a very effective way of eliciting personal stories. 

And while we have recently begun to seek youth feedback on our research findings, we did not want to lose the focus on youth aspirations. This gave and continues to give us important insights into young people’s point of view and can be a useful implicit proxy for better understanding their barriers to decent employment.  

Ten practical tips to improve your Youth Empowerment, Engagement and Resilience (YEER) Approach

  • Increase collaboration with youth movements and organizations on the ground: They will serve as the first point of entry and will help you utilize existing networks in order to reach youth with different profiles and backgrounds. 
  • Analyse existing secondary data in addition to conducting primary research. Use your focus group sessions to validate existing data or findings. 
  • Make sure to capture key insights for later: they might prove to be useful in the next stages of the project/programme. Also, feed the key insights back to the youth movements and organisations to ensure accountability
  • Include specific and detailed questions to verify youth (employment) solutions and to shape your project/programme. 
  • Do not forget to triangulate: back the qualitative data from your focus group sessions with surveys and other quantitative data.
  • Also, make sure to have a diverse mix of channels you collect data from. While online (WhatsApp, automated surveys and social media) might work fast, you might need offline data collection to reach certain target groups.
  • Strive for fully representative samples of the youth population. A good way to start is to analyse populations form existing research and to group your sample(s) accordingly. 
  • Collect content during your scoping study. Quotes, profile pictures paired up with contact details (in order to follow up later) will be highly appreciated for communication purposes.
  • If youth are your primary beneficiaries, like for the Challenge Fund for Youth Employment, make sure to give them a central role in all your communication materials. A few ideas are: make videos with and about youth and include youth voices in your reports.
  • And last but not least: have a look at your internal team too. How many of them are youth? And how could young employees benefit your practices?

3. What next for our Youth Empowerment, Engagement and Resilience (YEER) approach?  

We see our YEER approach as constantly evolving. We’re always on the look-out for new methodologies to incorporate into our research, which could strengthen our ability to include and amplify youth voices. Take South-Sudan, the latest country we have entered, as an example.  

In South-Sudan, most young people drop out of education at primary school level, and therefore have difficulties reading and writing. With this in mind, we’ve decided to retain and strengthen the focus on visual  techniques in the discussion groups. We used storytelling, problem tree drawing, and other elements to make the sessions are useful and inclusive as possible. We will also continue to use a mix of data collection techniques, both qualitative as quantitative, to enrich our picture of the challenges faced by youth in finding decent work.  

We also see opportunities to trial some new approaches for engaging youth in South-Sudan.  

We expect report on our latest findings and to add to our lists of key learnings and recommendations later this year. Keep an eye on our website and social media channels to stay up to date.


Appadurai, A. (2004) The capacity to aspire: culture and the terms of recognitionCulture and Public Action 55(2): 59–84 (https://doi.org/10.1086/508722) 

Boateng, E., and Lowe, A., (2018).  Aspirations matter: what young people in Ghana think about workODI, London: UK.  

Carnevale, A., Strohl, J., Gulish, A., (2015). College Is Just the Beginning: Employers’ Role in the $1.1 Trillion Postsecondary Education and Training System. Georgetown University McCourt School of Public Policy. 

Development Alternative (2019).  Shifting the Power: What will it take to do development differently. (https://restlessdevelopment.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Shifting-the-Power-Development-Alternative.pdf) 

Ray, D. (2002) Aspirations, Poverty and Economic Change(www.researchgate.net/profile/Debraj_Ray/publication/251310600_Aspirations_Poverty_and_Economic_


Serneels, P. and Dercon, S. (2014) Aspirations, poverty and education: evidence from India. Young Lives Working Paper 125. Oxford: Young Lives, Oxford.

Featured Image Copyright ©: Andrea Piacquadio, Pexels.