Match Words with Action: Dramatic Shift Needed in Funding and Partnerships with Youth-led Organizations

Group of african medical students posed outdoor.

By Emily Sullivan and Sofia Heffernan, FP2020

On International Youth Day, there will be  a lot of talk about meaningful youth engagement (MYE) – a shorthand way of referring to all the steps needed to achieve equitable partnerships with young people. The fact that many donors, iNGOs, and other decision makers are identifying meaningful youth engagement as a priority for their organizations is one sign of progress. However, many partners in the FP2020 community, especially youth partners, are asking: Is there depth to these discussions? Is there real action toward making young people equitable partners in their work?

More than 200 organizations signed the Global Consensus Statement on Adolescents & Youth Engagement, a pledge co-authored by FP2020, International Youth Alliance for Family Planning (IYAFP), and the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (PMNCH) to assert meaningful youth engagement as a priority in their work. The statement also includes a checklist for groups to implement MYE. It is just one tool MYE advocates have used to try to hold organizations accountable when they state MYE as a priority. Other groups like IYAFP are tracking progress through annual surveys – another critical tool for accountability.

Despite these markers of progress, many organizations led by seasoned family planning advocates are still out of step with the needs of their youth partners — even if they believe they’re working to include young people as equitable partners. For example, in conversations I’ve had with youth focal points and other youth leaders over the past couple of years, I’ve heard:

  • “My hotel room at this conference is more than my monthly organizational budget.”
  • “I need support to develop a strong organization. Not a toolkit produced without my input.”
  • “If I get one more survey asking about my needs, with no follow up, I will scream.”
  • “My youth-led organization is the subcontractor for this grant. Yet, we are doing the vast majority of the critical work, for a fraction of what the lead iNGO is getting.”

In addition to these divergent frustrations, youth-led organizations (YLOs) and the young people leading them are exasperated by what they’re expected to achieve with very limited funding or organizational support. COVID-19 has only created new obstacles that require increased and intentional funding and support to YLOs. Stay at home orders, reassigned health workers, new funding needs and challenges, have all impacted YLOs — many of which have much smaller budgets than organizations led by seasoned advocates.

Although FP2020 is not a donor, we’ve funded YLOs through our small-grants program, the Rapid Response Mechanism. While we were successful in having one of the only grant mechanisms funding youth-led organizations, we learned our systems and processes were not designed with the flexibility needed to fund most YLOs. The RRM also only funds discrete projects, not long term programs, which isn’t always the type of funding YLOs need. Through extensive consultation with Youth Focal Points and other youth partners, we are actively documenting and making adjustments that will be considered in the new iteration of the partnership, and in our recommendations to donors.

Through these consultations, the FP2020 Secretariat has recognized that while the global family planning community tries to get youth engagement right — by signing the Global Consensus Statement, by providing discrete funding opportunities, and by ensuring young people are included in key meetings and events, for example — these efforts have not yet translated to meaningful engagement. Thankfully, many partners are ready to develop transparent lines of communication, stronger funding streams, and equitable partnerships between YLOs and key decision-makers, empowering YLOs and youth leaders to directly represent and implement their own concerns, interests, and ideas.

We propose a new way of investing in youth-led efforts and supporting youth leaders to spearhead these shifts. In particular, youth partners have said that to dramatically improve funding and partnerships, NGOs, donors, and other partners must:

  1. Recognize the uniqueness of youth leaders, youth-led organizations, networks, coalitions, and movements. These are all distinct categories with different goals and ways of operating. Each requires different types of support and funding.
  2. Expand the focus of funding and other support to include organizational support, not just technical capacity building and project funds. Moving beyond technical training to offer more substantive opportunities for the growth and development of YLOs will ensure their sustainability. When YLOs are resilient and can implement long-term initiatives (not just one-off projects), they can create needed changes in their communities. And when in crisis, as we all are now, these YLOs will be able to emerge with structures that allow for a sense of stability amidst chaos.
  3. Examine grant making, contracting (especially sub-contracting), and partnerships. YLOs can implement change that is aligned with the real needs of young people in their communities. No one knows these needs better than young people themselves. But funding these projects requires more collaborative and equitable relationships with youth partners, an acceptance of perceived “risk,” and a willingness by all parties to employ an iterative learning approach that embraces experimentation and failure.

The good news is there are youth leaders, youth allies, and donors ready to do the work to bring these ideas to life. Young people are more visible in the family planning community than ever before. Now, we’re working to make sure the organizations who want to implement MYE have the tools to do it effectively. And, FP2020 remains committed to strengthening our platform for dialogue and problem solving between young people and other advocates to ensure these extremely important shifts are realized, through the current partnership and beyond. We invite you to join us in making meaningful youth engagement a reality.