“My life has been a great challenge and opportunity as it’s made me flexible to what is constant in the world – change. Change is something that we young people know a lot about – when we reach a certain age our bodies experience many turns and turbulences, some which we can’t explain and at most times no one wants to explain to us.”

This was the opening line to my TEDxYouth@CapeTown talk on youth development and meaningful engagement. When we think about development we think of the re-imaging or rejuvenating of a place or situation for the better through a certain process. When it comes to youth development, per Eastern Kentucky University, it is “the process by which young people acquire competencies and positive connections to self, others and the larger community and all the people, places, supports, opportunities and services they need to be healthy, happy and successful.”

These definitions, although accurate in describing the process, also outline the crippling problem that hinders this work. Youth development is seen and conducted by many organizations without interaction or participation with the youth themselves. Currently, politicians and policy makers tend to talk about young people in three linked ways – as thugs, users and victims:

“As thugs, they steal cars, vandalize estates, attack older (and sometimes, younger) people and disrupt classrooms. As users, they take drugs, drink and smoke to excess, get pregnant to jump the housing queue and, hedonistically, care only for themselves. As victims, they can’t find work, receive poor schooling and are brought up in dysfunctional families.”


Youth are external entities to their own development and are often seen as the “situations” or “issues” they deal with. There have been several examples of the effectiveness of collaboration through multi sector approaches through development. These prove how much is accomplished when youth participate in civil society and in changing their communities, yet this approach has been ignored by many youth development strategies.

The first thing to change in this approach is to identify youth. “Youth” is 1.8 billion people, comprising of individuals who face many similar issues ranging from access to relevant education, health services, poverty and unemployment. Yet this is also a population with varied contexts of struggle, characteristics, and challenges faced in their communities and even households. Knowing this, the approach to driving change in youth issues cannot be uniform and cannot only be informed by external studies into what could, should and would work, but by an organic process of engagement, collaboration and consistency with the affected community itself.


Development is a gradual process and as such it should be based on a strong foundation designed to offer sustainability and allow for innovation and change when parts of the system become redundant. Of course with uniform or standardized approaches, the results have not yielded much leeway in transforming the situations of many young people.

For example, in South Africa the youth unemployment rate has increased from 50.3% in July 2013 to 53.7% in July 2016. This increase has occurred despite the numerous interventions which have included creating hubs for social enterprise incubators in townships, lenient policies toward youth start-ups/small business enterprises and more government funding incentives schemes for companies employing youth. Although the structure is there, the lack of involvement and participation of youth in crafting solutions for their issues and helping society understand their issues is hindering progress.

As one South African HIV/AIDS activist Lebohang Motshumi says “I am not HIV and HIV is not me.” We are not our issues and we should not be treated as such, as the problem; youth need to be catalysts for solutions and driving development. We can not only be seen as beneficiaries.

Some organizations have realized the need to involve youth and provide them with a space to not only voice and express their issues but to also facilitate the process of fixing them. In 2013, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon stablished the Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth and appointed Mr. Ahmad Alhendawi of Jordan as his first-ever Envoy on Youth and as the youngest senior official in the history of the organization. This was to address 4 priorities he identified as key to realizing the Global Development Agenda including:

  1. Increasing accessibility to the UN for youth
  2. Promoting stronger youth participation and international awareness on youth issues
  3. Engaging member states, private sector, media, academic institutions and civil society on UN youth led programs
  4. Enhancing the coordination and harmonization of youth programming in UN agencies.

Development should be used as a tool of engagement and community/nation building and with youth it should be designed to be a system of empowerment and building capacity   so youth learn to understand their issues, gain from the experiences of their peers and create ways to ensure that the same experiences are not repeated. Sustainable youth development is a process of simplifying policy and information and practicing authentic meaningful engagement through dialogue and consistency through monitoring.

It should be approached as one would look at a chemical reaction in science – for chemical change to happen there needs to be chemical bonding. This bonding should be in communication and collaboration between sectors, government and youth. In chemistry, this bonding happens faster when the surface of the element is exposed or broken down as much as possible. For development, this means simplification, access to platforms and transparency in processes. With this, chemical change will happen after the reaction passes the equilibrium of opportunity creation and the sharing of power and accountability on both sides. That is the chemistry of meaningful youth engagement, and how we can rethink youth development.



Bhongolwethu is passionate about youth and community engagement with a keen interest in human rights, SRHR, CSE and population development. He is a member of the UNFPA’s Youth Advisory Panel, the ACTIVATE! Change Drivers network and the Commonwealth Youth Peace Ambassadors Network. He also serves roles as a Planting & Sustainability Coordinator for Greenpop and as a Relationships & Development Director for Mjoli Connect. Feel free to connect with him on
Twitter: @bhongolwethu_
Instagram: Bhongolwethu
Linkedin: www.linkedin.com/in/bsonti
or by Email: bhongos@mjoliconnect.co.za
Additional Images: “Anxiety” / Image Source; UNFPA

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