Taking Action

Youth impact in global development: Reframing Equality & Inclusion

Posted by
Julie Ojiambo
Julie Ojiambo
on
Jul 2, 2021

Dear Diary,

I have been struggling with an eating disorder for the past few years. I am afraid to eat and afraid I will gain weight. The fear is unjustified as I was never overweight. I have weighed the same since I was 12 years old, and I am currently nearing my 25th birthday. Yet, when I see my reflection, I see somebody who is much larger than reality.

I told my therapist that I thought I was fat. She said it was 'body dysmorphia'.
She explained this as a mental health condition where a person is apprehensive about their appearance and suggested I visit a nutritionist. She also told me that this condition was associated with other anxiety disorders and eating disorders. I did not understand what she was saying as I was in denial; I had a problem, to begin with. I wanted a solution without having to address my issues.

Upon visiting my nutritionist, he conducted an in-body scan and told me my body weight was dangerously low.

I disagreed with him.

I felt he was speaking about a different person than the person I saw in the mirror. I felt like the elephant in the room- both literally and figuratively. He then made the simple but revolutionary suggestion to keep a food diary to track what I was eating.

This was a clever way for my nutritionist and me to be on the same page. By recording all my meals, drinks, and snacks, I was able to see what I was eating versus what I was supposed to be eating. Keeping a meal diary was a powerful and non-invasive way for my nutritionist to walk in my shoes for a specific time and understand my eating (and thinking) habits.

No other methodology would have allowed my nutritionist to capture so much contextual and behavioural information on my eating patterns other than a daily detailed food diary.
However, by using a paper and pen, I often forgot (or intentionally did not enter my food entries) as I felt guilty reading what I had eaten or that I had eaten at all.

I also did not have the visual flexibility to express myself through using photos, videos, voice recordings, and screen recordings. The usage of multiple media sources would have allowed my nutritionist to observe my behaviour in real-time and gain a holistic view of my physical and emotional needs.

I confessed to my therapist my deliberate dishonesty in completing the physical food diary and why I had been reluctant to participate in the exercise. My therapist then suggested to my nutritionist and me to transition to a mobile diary study.

Whilst I used a physical diary (paper and pen), a mobile diary study app would have helped my nutritionist and me reach a common ground (and to be on the same page) sooner rather than later.

As a millennial, I wanted to feel like journaling was as easy as Tweeting or posting a picture on Instagram. But at the same time, I wanted to know that the information I  provided in a digital diary would be as safe and private as it would have been as my handwritten diary locked in my bedroom cabinet.

Further, a digital food diary study platform with push notifications would have served as a constant reminder to log in my food entries as I constantly check my phone. It would have also made the task of writing a food diary less momentous by transforming my journaling into micro-journaling by allowing me to enter one bite at a time rather than the whole day's worth of meals at once.

Mainly, the digital food diary could help collect the evidence that I was not the elephant in the room, but rather that the elephant in the room was my denied eating disorder.

Sincerely,
The elephant in the room

I first gained exposure to international development organisations as a high school student when I worked for the South-South and Triangular cooperation unit as an intern of a multilateral agency stationed in New York, USA.

As fate would have it, years later but in a different capacity, I would work for the same entity on issues concerning Governance—this time, stationed in Monrovia, Liberia. 

The years in between these saw me gain vast and rich experience in development work, from working for a regional body stationed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to simulating a United Nations delegation in Geneva, Switzerland.

These exposures allowed me to meet other young brilliant people. Leaders in their own right determined to create change in their communities. They were, furthermore, determined to make a change in the world. United by a common belief that the key to a prosperous future is in youth empowerment and youth leadership.


Global Commitments

The last decade witnessed a rise in global commitments and affirmations that sought to ensure that the development needs of all are addressed.      

As a young development practitioner, my work has often led me to encounter commitments such as  #LeaveNoOneBehind to #ReachTheFurthestBehindFirst. Governments and other stakeholders have symbolically used these commitments as a reminder to act on their obligations towards reducing inequalities amongst individuals. 

These commitments are grounded in international frameworks such as the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to regional instruments such as the African Union Agenda 2063. They have been used as a blueprint to guide States in securing equal rights, equal representation and equal participation.    

Against this backdrop, this piece seeks to pose the question; has development as guided by these frameworks at a practical level been equal for all? I aim to examine this by analysing the state of youth participation in public and political life, with a particular bearing on youth empowerment in the work of international organisations.

     

My trip down memory lane: my journey and lessons learned

I fondly look back on my short but very insightful and rigorous years in the development space. These last years of navigating the space have been filled with numerous lessons and experiences. To sum it up briefly, as a young professional, I have learned and lived the reality of many young persons looking to gain an inroad into international (and) multilateral development organisations.     

As I have learned along the way, entry into these organisations is not for personal gain for many young people. This is contrary to what many may think, given the prestigious status often assumed one benefits by working for such institutions. 

However, many young persons working in the development space envision their entry into these organisations as a platform through which they can contribute and fight for various development causes. Causes that they are passionate about and are held dear to them. This, while of course and rightly so looking to earn a living out of their life callings and professions.     

In my short but very insightful exposure to a few of these organisations, I have learned many lessons, and they are as follows.     

Firstly, the spaces within these organisations are indeed few for young professionals. However, as a young person looking to contribute to development through these institutions, one must be resilient and must strive to continually work to secure an entry.

Even when you have secured entry in, you must remember that you are in a system where you are marginally represented. As such, you must continually show your worthiness and prove your suitability for the task.

Young people must put in twice the effort. In their work and personal presentation, young persons must be bold and confident. They must unapologetically earn and own their space. At other times, they must create that space! Young people must be willing to sacrifice their comfort. They must be versatile to the new and challenging situations they will encounter along the way. 

While reading this, many would remark, well, this is indeed a process of life that is not peculiar to many. This is the process you must encounter as a young professional venturing into development work. Or generally the steps you must go through as a young person in any professional space.     

Many have been through the same process after all? Why would anyone be against this? Why should today’s young people be an exception?

Along my journey, I often asked these questions and even agreed with some of the sentiments. 

Indeed, I am grateful for the skills learned and the life lessons taught in my professional journey. However, a deeper personal analysis on the issue reveals that, while on paper, many of these entities seek to equally and fully realise the plight of young people at an institutional level, in practice, this is not the case.

     

The burning questions around youth underrepresentation 

The following questions bring the situation to light:

  • Why are the spaces so few, yet there are so many qualified young persons out there who are keen to meaningfully contribute to developing their nations and the globe as a whole?
  • Why must young people sacrifice their vast professional experience and ultimately take up positions that they are seemingly overqualified for just to ensure that they have a leg within these institutions?
  • Why is it that a particular demographic of youth is represented in such organisations? While, at the same time, there is an evident need for the representation of another segment of the demographic?
  • We often hear global leaders affirm that young people are the leaders of today and tomorrow. If this is true, why is it a hurdle to have young persons represented at these tables? 
There is a lack of will at a multilateral and institutional level to ensure the participation of the youth as equal development partners in the work of international organisations. 

While commendably, international organisations are making efforts to have the youth present, these efforts remain marginal.

As such, it is time to re-examine these strategies. 


Youth immersion programs are not enough

While volunteer programmes, graduate schemes, fellowships, internships, short immersions, and junior professional programmes allow young people exposure to these institutions’ work often for one to two years, this is not enough.

I have been a beneficiary of similar programmes at a regional and international level. I can firmly attest to the level of professional transformation these exposures equipped me with. They allowed me to learn and network with other talented and skilled professionals, both junior and senior. While importantly providing me with a platform to contribute to development.

Additionally, these short immersions have given me a springboard to compete for space at the table proactively. I often see myself at a better advantage given the time I have spent as an “insider” learning the ropes of these organisations.  

However, this is not enough.      

One would ask, are these programmes tailored with the intention of meaningfully and sustainably engaging young persons in tailoring solutions to the world’s developmental challenges?  Or are they simply a check box ticked to meet organisations’ short-term development interventions as concerns the youth.

The answers to this may vary, and (or) we may not know. However, this piece is but a reflection of a few of the concerns of young people in the space. 

We may come off as an entitled lot; some would remark. Stop searching for instant gratification and trust the process. You will eventually end up where you ought to be. Indeed, all these sentiments are true. However, we must not be blind to the structures in place (or their lack thereof) that serve as constraints in equally, fully and meaningfully engaging young persons as equal partners in development work.


3 ways to accelerate youth empowerment in global development

 

1. Put some financial skin in the game

Firstly, in their annual contributions to these organisations, States should apportion an amount of funds towards the empowerment and representation of their young nationals at an institutional level in these organisations.

The UN JPO programme has seen various States (Donor Countries) sponsor technical positions for their nationals and sometimes developing countries (as a form of development aid) into technical positions at the UN.

If indeed young people are today’s leaders and tomorrow, surely this should be every nation’s commitment.

The UN budget, for example, caters to peacekeeping issues, supporting UN reforms, UN structure and agencies, etc. For instance, within the thematic area of UN structure and agencies, a certain amount of member states’ contributions can be used to ensure youth from across the globe are supported by their states to contribute to development through the work of the UN. This method can then be replicated across other similar organisations of international and regional stature.

Some regional organisations have taken up the cue; however, they need to invest a lot more.

     

2. Decentralise youth entry points

Domesticate the work and interventions of international organisations at regional and local levels. Having a “field” presence would be beneficial in involving young persons in the work of these organisations. While a field presence would entail having physical structures in various localities, it would also mean effectively replicating interventions and programmes across all regions.  These interventions will give young people a feeling of what it means to target beneficiaries, programme resources and monitor interventions at local levels. These experiences add up to provide the substance for a policy engagement.     

For example, African youth should not have to seek positions at global headquarters such as New York to feel what it means to work as technicians on policy issues for a multilateral agency. The same work or the extent of these policy engagements should be replicated across the regions and linked to programme positions. 

Having decentralised entry points will provide career progression pathways.

While it may be easier to get a feel of this type of work in global headquarters, where the nature of the work demands a focus on “paper” with a combination of high-level engagements, versatile organisations should provide a feel of this for this all within the organisations. This would benefit all and not just young professionals.  

A closer collaboration should be made with governments through a top-down approach to ensure that the work being done at an international level is being effectively replicated at a local level. This would be done by working closely through the relevant Government ministries, NGOs and community organisations. Such interventions might already exist; however, when all governments fund young professionals, they would then be keen to deploy them on completion of exposure within their domestic settings.

     

3. Prioritise education and capacity building

Lastly and importantly, empower and educate young persons about the work of these organisations.

Empower them in a way that is relevant to their realities.

How can we #HarnessTheDemographicDividend if those that constitute the most significant demographic share do not know how to contribute as development partners effectively. Education and empowerment are essential.

There is an overreliance on international experts and consultants hired for work that local youth can already do or perfectly learn to do. 

These international consultants may be fundamental for project implementation in contexts with a lack of local expertise. However, the projects’ dependency on international’s amplifies the lack of exposure for young local talent.

We must invest in capacity building through seeking opportunities to mentor, coach and educate young local talent. This is by giving them space and time to grow as resourceful young professionals.

     

Conclusion

Let us walk the talk.

Let us truly #LeaveNoOneBehind. The voices and the presence of the youth are meaningful in charting ways to many of the global development challenges that face the world today. Change does not happen instantly. However, let us progressively work towards equally and inclusively engaging the youth as partners in development work.

Brainstorming session with senior UNDP colleagues.

Let us endeavour to provide young professionals with the opportunity to gain hands-on experience in global development efforts. The youth ought to be equal agents in contributing to the advancement and furtherance of international organisation’s mandates, especially regarding the #SustainableDevelopmentGoals. 

We all stand to benefit from enhancing youth participation in the work of international organisations. 

They are the leaders of today and tomorrow. 

Let us realise our commitments to them. Let us empower them. Let us invest in them. 

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Dear Digital Diary,

I realized that there is an unquestionable comfort in being misunderstood. For to be understood, one must peel off all the emotional layers and be exposed.

This requires both vulnerability and strength. I guess by using a physical diary (a paper and a pen), I never felt like what I was saying was analyzed or judged. But I also never thought I was understood.

Paper does not talk back.Using a daily digital diary has required emotional strength. It has required the need to trust and the need to provide information to be helped and understood.

Using a daily diary has needed less time and effort than a physical diary as I am prompted to interact through mobile notifications. I also no longer relay information from memory, but rather the medical or personal insights I enter are real-time behaviours and experiences.

The interaction is more organic. I also must confess this technology has allowed me to see patterns in my behaviour that I would have otherwise never noticed. I trust that the data I enter is safe as it is password protected. I also trust that I am safe because my doctor and nutritionist can view my records in real-time.

Also, with the data entered being more objective and diverse through pictures and voice recordings, my treatment plan has been better suited to my needs.

Sincerely,
No more elephants in this room

Julie Ojiambo

Julie Ojiambo

Julie Ojiambo is a certified Project Manager and Development Professional with a forte in Governance. She recently served as a Governance and Strategic Engagement Analyst with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Liberia providing support across topics such as Decentralisation, Civil Society Engagement and Socio-Economic Impact Assessment. She was part of the inaugural cohort of a 16-month fellowship titled the African Young Women Leaders of UNDP. She is eager to continue contributing to governance and policies issues for Africa, with a particular interest on the issues that concern girls and women.

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