Youth participation: Is its impact measurable?

Is the impact of youth participation measurable? This was one of the questions posed at a conference on youth participation in international decision-making, which I attended in London during May. My first reaction was, is it possible? But even if it were how could it be ascertained that ‘the impact’ was a result of their involvement in a particular decision-making process and not due to other factors like schooling, experience from regular paid work or their everyday interactions with others in their environment?

Youth participation can be viewed from a range of lenses: as a research method, as youth action in social, economic and political arenas, or youth involvement in policy process. The discussion at this conference took the ‘policy process’ view of young people’s active involvement in framing the decisions on matters that affect them internationally. Concepts such as inclusion, engagement, empowerment and voice are variously used in connection with, in place of and sometimes in contrast to participation.

The concept of participation has also elicited debates and book volumes which either hail its usefulness or caution against its widespread use. An important debate in relation to children and youth participation focuses on what level of involvement represents participation. There are suggestions that this should include stages from the conceptualisation, design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies. But there are several constraints to this proposition, one being the role youth can be allowed to or realistically play in the complex bureaucratic processes within international and national institutions. The widely quoted Hart’s ‘ladder’ of participation provides a framework for understanding the levels of participation, clarifying actions that represent participation and those that do not, but even this has been widely critiqued.

Despite the challenges associated with defining ‘meaningful’ youth participation, one can argue that, it should genuinely recognise young people’s capacity to contribute to such processes and take on board their contributions and opinions. Such processes provide benefits for both youth and their societies in short and long terms. For example, it is adduced that youth participation facilitates intergenerational learning, cooperation and partnerships between young people and adults; enhances the understanding of and eventual design of better policies to meet young people’s needs, enhances young people’s long-term commitment to the values of citizenship and the enhances young people’s cognitive, moral and spiritual development. These benefits could provide useful indicators to measure the impact of youth participation.

However, these claims appear to be based on the assumption that young people always know what is good for them. But some scholars argue that this may not necessarily be the case because poverty, long term unemployment or illiteracy could affect young people’s perceptions of what is good. It is argued that certain conditions can impair young people’s ability to conceive of what is good for them beyond their immediate circumstances. In addition to these concerns have also been raised by researchers on the ecological factors such as the norms in a young person’s environment. Traditional norms regarding young people’s place in society affect how they present their needs in the presence of adults. A particular example could be how they demand sexuality related services.

Nevertheless, I think the advantages of trying to measure the benefits of youth participation outweigh the disadvantages, so why not give it a shot? A good starting point could be an attempt at understanding how to measure the impact of young people’s participation. But I must note that while the benefits of participation for young people and policy outcomes could be assessed, I am very sceptical about the ease of ‘measuring impact.’ In order to proceed at all, we need to identify appropriate indicators to enable us ascertain what learning and changes have taken place. Perhaps a ‘before and after’ experimental study can be a useful step to look at learning outcomes for youth who have ‘participated’ and those who have not.

Another possibility could be a longitudinal study looking at learning, leadership and other similar attributes over time. Whatever indicators are chosen, ‘proving’ that the outcomes are a result of youth participation will remain a long shot and require rigorous interdisciplinary research over time.