At HCDExchange, we drive learning through an active Community of Practice that brings insights from the fields of HCD and ASRH, as well as the niche where these two intersect. One pertinent question on the minds of those who work with young people is around how youth can be integrated meaningfully into programmes. Funders, implementers, and evaluators are increasingly focusing on Meaningful Youth Engagement (MYE), and seeking ways to get it right. The process is understandably complex, given the comprehensive and multifaceted definition of MYE within international development.
Before delving into how we might champion MYE, it might be helpful to first really understand what MYE is in the HCD+ASRH context so that we can set reasonable expectations of our programmes and identify pathways to achieving it. Meaningful youth engagement is simply the holistic and intentional inclusion of young people in shaping the strategy and execution of ASRH programmes that are targeted at them.
We know that MYE is important for creating the best fit between youth needs and programme elements, but how might we actually achieve it?
In my view, Human-centred design (HCD) can be a strong catalyst for accelerating meaningful youth engagement through its emphasis on placing the motivations and needs of users, in this case, young people, at the centre.
Here are three ways HCD is well positioned to drive MYE:
1/HCD helps us to treat MYE as a process, not a single milestone
In the process of pitching, funding, and executing new youth-centered initiatives, we must be clear that the main goal we are working towards still continues to be around improved ASRH outcomes for youth. “Achieving” MYE is both too ambitious and misguided, as MYE is not the ultimate outcome but rather a means to achieving a larger outcome.
HCD, by definition, ensures that the focus is on the “human” so that better solutions can be sought in consultation with them. A lack of this focus may derail our efforts into short-term and unsustainable impact at best, and tokenism at worst. However, through an intentional centering of young people in design, we are able to springboard into asking more significant questions around the identities of the young people engaged, the nature of the engagement, and how we might establish sustained engagements that add value.
2/HCD helps us to begin to share power and agency with youth
Engaging young people meaningfully is an iterative process — one that requires constant learning and adaptation. It compels us to acknowledge that current systems, including the system that many ASRH programme teams work within, are built on hierarchies of age, experience, and other power dynamics. Leveraging existing structures to create spaces where young people might exercise agency requires totally reimagining the way we work with young people and how we frame their role in the process.
A rich inspiration phase in the HCD process can enable us to perceive young people as agents rather than beneficiaries, while an iterative prototyping phase can help transfer some agency to young people in innovative ways. HCD also makes room for experimenting with different styles of engagement until we can find one that works for the context of the intervention.
3/HCD encourages better listening, which is core to advancing MYE
Complex as it may seem, MYE can begin with the simple task of listening to young people. Listening to what young people want and what can help them create better ASRH outcomes is actually MYE in action.
It seems intuitive then that a process like HCD, which begins with an inspiration phase is built on listening, can be a powerful starting point for meaningful youth engagement. Listening allows us to avoid prescribed notions of how young people act and shift the focus to what they need, and what an enabling environment for them to achieve the best ASRH outcomes might look like. This listening, when done well, can provide us with a strong foundation to closely align programmes with the genuine needs of youth and ultimately strengthen outcomes within ASRH.
Where do we go from here?
The aforementioned principles offer a starting point for developing a suitable mindset for engaging youth meaningfully, but many practical challenges follow. Questions around resources, stakeholder commitment, and collective capacity to propel MYE all pose significant challenges to the process.
At the same time, there is an exciting opportunity to collaborate as a community to begin to chart a way forward for advancing meaningful youth integration across the breadth of the HCD+ASRH programme cycle. At HCDExchange, we strive to create that space by enabling multi-stakeholder dialogue where we can all ask the critical and often difficult questions of ourselves and the processes we use when engaging youth. Our recent community call focused on MYE provided such a space. Sustained dialogue like this, with as many young people at the table, can help us find creative solutions to accelerating youth engagement in the field.
Ipsa Agnani is the Youth Engagement Officer at HCDExchange
Want to learn more about this topic? Check out our March 2021 community call.