Integrated Youth Policies: The Ultimate Multisectoral Challenge

By: Jay Gribble and Katy Vickland

Multisectoral actions are designed to bring together multiple stakeholders and sectors to collaborate on advancing complex policy solutions. One complex challenge that all countries face is empowering young people as they transition from adolescence to adulthood — engaging with them to build supportive and empowering institutions, experiences, relationships, skills, and assets so they can undertake the roles, responsibilities, and obligations that come with that transition. When thinking about the sectoral engagement, coordination, and resources needed to advance integrated youth development, we can’t just wing it; decades of research on this topic have resulted in volumes of evidence, experience, and expertise. While progress has been made on identifying what best constitutes a youth development program that brings together job opportunities, education, health, and citizenship, the question of what is ideal is far from resolved. A strong youth development program must be flexible to ensure the right program inputs, proactive youth engagement, and an enabling environment that is responsive to the broad diversity of youth, an array of alternative pathways to success, and everchanging social, political, and economic contexts as results emerge.

Why Invest in Youth?

While youth development programs are structured in many ways, among the key reasons for advancing and implementing youth policies are so that youth can access economic and social opportunities, participate in democratic and development processes, and have a stronger voice and be better served by local and national institutions. Youth policies and programs also stem involvement in youth gangs, criminal networks, and insurgent organizations. When youth have been systematically ignored and see no path for opportunity, it can lead to civil upheaval as during the Arab Spring of the 2010s. In other words, a key goal of many youth development policies and programs is to prepare youth to contribute to society and the economy.

How National Governments Address Youth Policy Issues

As of 2018, 82 percent of countries have put explicit youth policies in place. A quick review of these national youth development policies shows that at least in theory, policymakers advance the idea of integrated youth development recognizing that a multisectoral approach is critical to helping youth achieve their potential and maximize their contributions to society. As seen with a variety of policy issues, having an integrated national youth policy does not mean that youth development efforts are a priority, and similarly, the absence of such a policy does not mean that youth issues are ignored. For example, South Africa’s youth policy (2020–2030) addresses five key areas: (1) quality education, skills, and second chance, (2) economic transformation, entrepreneurship, and job creation, (3) physical and mental health promotion, including issues around COVID-19, (4) social cohesion and nation-building, and (5) effective and responsive youth development machinery. The policy recognizes that effective youth development cannot be siloed; rather, it must approach the individual young person as the focus of the programmatic context. It also recognizes that youth are a diverse population — based on age, context, and personal goals. In contrast, Mali does not have a national youth policy but has had a youth employment policy since 2003; it also has a Ministry of Youth and Citizenship Building. Progressive Iceland does not have an integrated national youth policy but has a 2007 Youth Act that covers specific types of activities for youth ages 6 to 26, including education, funding for youth activities, work environment, and research.

Why They Are Often Not Successful

One of the challenges of these large, comprehensive youth policies is that they are implemented through sector-specific programs. They tend to treat youth as recipients of training, capacity inputs, and segmented efforts. While there is growing recognition that youth need to be meaningfully engaged in developing programs for youth, even when they are engaged, the efforts tend to be sector focused. Such an approach misses opportunities to link across sectors that reinforce that youth development — like life itself — is complex, integrated, and without clean boundaries. Geographic priorities, funding priorities, and inconsistent political commitment can result in youth policies being implemented in a hit-or-miss way. Employment may be prioritized for a while, then a new administration focuses on citizenship, and some parts of a comprehensive policy never get any attention or funding.

A Popular Framework for Integrated Youth Development

Positive Youth Development (PYD) is a popular framework, based on decades of evidence, for bringing together stakeholders from various sectors to focus their efforts on helping youth achieve their potential. It conceptualizes youth development as linking youth needs with appropriate resources so that youth thrive. Instead of focusing on developing specific skills for success, PYD addresses building individual youth assets and agency — a combination of soft and life skills — and the confidence to apply them — through activities within individual, family, peer, and community settings. It focuses on encouraging youth to engage and contribute to an issue, while also recognizing that a strong enabling environment — that includes bonding, belonging, positive norms, safe space, among other features — is critical to reinforcing the efforts to empower youth to thrive. Positive youth development policies and programs don’t happen “to youth,” but rather “with youth.”

Rethinking Investments

While government policies may be implemented in a fragmented way, a quick review of USAID-supported youth development programs in Ethiopia found a shift in the way relevant investments are being made. Previously, separate projects for economic, agriculture, and resilience activities; a variety of health programs; and democracy and governance were implemented in an uncoordinated way. A new USAID-supported integrated youth development program in Ethiopia offers more ambitious and comprehensive ways to engage youth. Not only does it create and strengthen youth groups to promote resilience and economic, civic, and social development. It also equips communities with funds to develop local development solutions, engages youth in policy dialogue, works with higher education to address youth challenges, and expands access to family planning and other essential and youth-friendly health services. Framed as an integrated approach building on positive youth development, this vision of youth programming has the opportunity to build youth assets and agency, engage youth in the program’s design and execution, and foster the enabling environment that allows young people to thrive.

Updating and Aligning

But where is the connection between government policies and donor investments? Ethiopia’s youth policy was adopted in 2004 and does not appear to have been updated since then. If we think of policies as laying out government priorities, benchmarks for progress, and mechanisms for coordination to ensure progress is made, then it is critical that governments update policies in general — especially one that is as forward-looking as how to support youth transition to adulthood. Policies may call for a monitoring and evaluation strategy to be developed, an intergovernmental office to lead policy initiatives, and other initiatives to ensure successful implementation. However, with the availability of technology, stronger policy evidence, and changes in governments, an updated youth policy that aligns with new thinking and lays out stronger program initiatives and funding needs could help align donor-supported initiatives with the policy environment. Ensuring that donor programs align with national policies and youth priorities is critical to ensuring needed political commitment and achieving ongoing support and relevance. Program co-design involving youth, business, government, civil society, and donors builds a shared understanding of priorities and how to measure success, which can lead to long-term, scalable youth programming. Applying the principles of collective impact, key actors (first and foremost youth themselves) across sectors need to identify shared problems and goals to craft solutions to work together toward a common agenda.

Moving Forward, Integrate Private Sector Partners

Integrated youth development is challenging because it is inherently multisectoral — empowering youth to succeed in education and jobs, have healthy lifestyles, and be effective citizens — to mention a few key areas. Responsibility for youth empowerment extends beyond the purview of the public sector. There is a key role for the private sector to play in creating jobs, strengthening capacity, and fostering an entrepreneurial spirit. Positive youth development is a complex approach with many moving parts. But, just because something is difficult doesn’t mean that we should shy away from it, especially when it is as important as empowering young people to achieve their full potential. Years of programs and research have taught us about what doesn’t work as well as what does work. Key to what does work is sustained political commitment, multisectoral coordination, and perhaps most important, empowering young people to engage in a meaningful way in the policies and programs that shape their future.

Jay Gribble is a senior director in Palladium’s health practice leadership team and deputy director for family planning and reproductive health on the USAID-funded Health Policy Plus project. Katy Vickland is technical director for youth and workforce development in Palladium’s economic growth and governance practice.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Health Policy Plus

USAID-funded project strengthening and advancing health policy priorities in family planning/reproductive health, HIV, and maternal health