Youth Leaders’ Take on Power Differentials within Development Work
Youth and adult development practitioners from around the globe convened at the YouthPower2 Symposium November 9-10, 2021, to exchange insights and promising youth development program strategies. The opening session on “Decolonizing Development,” led by the USAID-funded Youth Excel program, kicked off the Symposium with a provocative discussion among youth leaders on youth-adult power differentials. The Youth Excel representatives emphasized the importance of acknowledging how hierarchies within our societies are based on differences in power and this often involves power differences between adults and youth. These carry over into development work, particularly in research, where youth input is often devalued. Quite often, as development practitioners, youth are not considered to be credible sources of knowledge as they are viewed to be lacking in experience, judgment, and capacity as credible conveyors of information. Intersectional youth—with overlapping identities based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or class—face further exclusions.
Youth Excel focuses on tackling this specific problem by building the capacity of youth-led and youth-serving organizations to conduct implementation research—research which focuses on data collection in real time during the implementation of a program in order to apply data to improve the programming. This approach to research not only helps to strengthen development programs by adapting them to meet the context in which they are implemented and applying a Do No Harm approach, but also provides a channel to shift decision-making power to youth.
Additionally, in facilitating greater inclusion of youth-led data in implementation research activities, Youth Excel strives to ensure that its youth-centered consortium partners maintain ownership over their data and decision-making. Still, technical assistance and capacity-building efforts are not nearly enough to fully change these power dynamics. Young leaders at the Symposium recognized these elements as crucial to the conversation around decolonizing the adult-led and adult-centered international development space, but called for more intentionality around those with whom Youth Excel works in order to enable youth to have more meaningful roles within development work.
How to Identify the Intersectionalities of Power
Youth speakers also spotlighted the use of intersectionality, or the recognition of multiple, overlapping identities, as a framework for understanding how our individual identities contribute to overall power dynamics not only within development work, but also within our own communities. They placed an emphasis on using this identity framework within development work to create space for questions around the decision-making process. A few of the questions presented include:
- Who makes the decisions?
- Who is affected by these decisions?
- What information is being considered in the decision-making process?
- Whose voices are being left out and why?
By recognizing our own identities and privileges and being conscious of what power our identities might allow us to hold within our work and communities, we aim to ensure that power differentials are not perpetuated through discrimination, exclusion, and marginalization.
In wrapping up the conversation, attendees were able to learn more about Youth Excel’s youth-centered implementation research and learning approach (toolkit on this topic is forthcoming in 2022) and how it differs from more traditional approaches in its aim to shift decision-making power, knowledge production, and leadership to youth leaders and local development practitioners. Both youth and adult development practitioners were able to engage in fruitful discussions around ways knowledge production and dissemination within development work can be more inclusive and accessible to the local communities which they aim to engage.
Presenters from Youth Excel challenged USAID and adult-led implementing organizations to rethink how they design and apply research and to take into greater consideration issues of power and bias that limit youth’s roles in development. As USAID and other donors strive to increase local and youth-driven development, Youth Excel offers new approaches and strategies for making this a reality.