Let’s truly invest in the power of youth

What are the actions we must take to shift power for youth-led change? Banner image: Young people participating in an Ashanti Perú workshop. Photo Credit: Estrella Vivanco-Stevenson

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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Join youth leaders, funders and international organisations to celebrate International Youth Day at the virtual event Reimagining the Future of Funding for Youth Action on Monday, 9 August, 2021, at 11:00AM EDT/3:00PM GMT. The event, hosted by Global Fund for Children, CIVICUS and Restless Development, will explore innovative solutions to overcome challenges to embolden youth-led action. Learn more and register.

Join youth leaders, funders and international organisations to celebrate International Youth Day at the virtual event Reimagining the Future of Funding for Youth Action on Monday, 9 August, 2021, at 11:00AM EDT/3:00PM GMT

Global Fund for Children (GFC) disbursed our first emergency grant during the COVID-19 pandemic to Ashanti Perú, a youth-led network of Afro-Peruvians that made history in 2017 by successfully advocating for race to be included in Peru’s national census. But in 2020, instead of focusing on its mission to empower Afro-Peruvian youth to participate in local and national decision-making, Ashanti Perú found itself mobilising to distribute hygiene kits in communities facing extreme poverty.

Over the course of the pandemic, young people around the world have organised their families and communities to ensure basic needs are met. Many have become providers or caretakers. School closures and limited opportunities to connect with peers or gather in civic spaces have shaken some of the ways youth draw strength to engage in social change. Yet despite these barriers, young people have not lost their creativity and resilience while coping with isolation, fear and loss.

Read more about Ashanti Perú's story empowering youth and providing coronavirus relief

An Ashanti Perú youth volunteer delivers food and hygiene supplies in Lima. Photo: Ashanti Perú

We owe young people more than a return to normal as the world takes steps to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Youth have been an essential part of pandemic response and recovery efforts, and should play a key role in building more resilient societies. If we listen to youth voices, let youth visions guide us and invest in youth-led change, we can build not only a better normal but also a future that disrupts deep-rooted inequalities.

To get there, we must first reckon with the inequalities facing youth-led civil society groups in philanthropy and global development; even before the pandemic, they faced significant barriers. The Development Alternative’s 2019 State of Youth Civil Society report described youth civil society as fragile, with the norm being short-term, non-continuous funding for youth-led organisations. Over the past year, the situation has only gotten worse. In a 2020 survey, GFC’s local partners, who include many youth-led groups, identified financial uncertainty as a major concern, with 38% reporting a significant reduction in funding. The Global Resilience Fund, a pop-up feminist fund created during the pandemic to resource girl activists throughout the crisis, found that the vast majority of groups seeking support were informal or unregistered. 

Now, more than ever, it is time for global development and philanthropy to champion young people to boldly lead change in the post-pandemic world.

Read the report: "Youth and COVID-19: Response, recovery and resilience" and visit the OECD's COVID-19 Hub to browse hundreds of policy responses

Visit the OECD's COVID-19 Hub

Here are five actions to take to shift power for youth-led change:

Get to the grassroots and the margins

The youth-led groups closest to communities in need are often the most informal and face the greatest challenges in accessing funding. Requirements like legal registration, a bank account, a minimum budget size and financial audits are barriers to funding that we can eliminate. We can re-examine our processes and notion of risk to support groups on their terms. We can be proactive in reaching adolescents and youth, especially girls, in communities facing marginalisation. These young people are, and should be accountable to their fellow community members, rather than to donors.

Fund flexibly  

Now is the time to increase flexible funding to youth-led organisations. Flexible funds create space to invest in core operations, develop teams, adapt to community needs and innovate as opportunities arise. Youth can design their own initiatives—not just implement external projects as subgrantees—while also becoming more financially stable with multi-year funding.

Read more on the Forum Network: "Can we avoid a "pandemic scar" on youth?" by Flavia Colonnese, Policy and Advocacy Manager, European Youth Forum

    Read more on the Forum Network: "Can we avoid a "pandemic scar" on youth?" by Flavia Colonnese, Policy and Advocacy Manager, European Youth ForumRead more on the Forum Network: "Can we avoid a "pandemic scar" on youth?" by Flavia Colonnese, Policy and Advocacy Manager, European Youth Forum

Foster holistic partnerships

Funding relationships can be vibrant spaces for mutual growth and learning. By developing relationships built on trust, listening and open communication, funders can be stronger allies to youth civil society. Donors can create and support opportunities for capacity development, collaboration and collective care in which young people envision their goals and learn with peers. Far too often, our sector clings to a notion of an ideal NGO or a checklist of best practices instead of embracing different structures and approaches that reflect the diversity of lived experience.

Start with trust and keep going

To shift power to youth civil society, we must trust youth-led change. Fundamentally, that means honoring new ways of organising embraced by some youth leaders, like horizontal leadership, intersectionality, inclusive language, restorative justice, and healing. It means checking our professionalism bias and adultcentrism as well as increasing our awareness of our relationships with risk, urgency, the written word and perfectionism. Acknowledging our biases and listening to young people are steps towards transformational, trust-based relationships.

Create spaces for meaningful participation

Youth must be at the table as philanthropy and global development organisations determine their priorities and actions. They should be given real decision-making power. From advisory councils to participatory grantmaking, employment and board roles, we must continue to make space in our institutions to share power with young people.

Read more about the Kenya-based Youth Saftey Awareness Initiative working alongside youth to inform, reform & transform

Read more about the Kenya-based Youth Saftey Awareness Initiative working alongside youth to inform, reform & transform

Youth from Global Fund for Children partner Youth Safety Awareness Initiative in Kenya participating in a campaign to educate their community about the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Youth Safety Awareness Initiative

Youth have played a leading role in the most significant modern social movements. They are often the first to take to the streets to defend human rights and democracy, and they feel deeply the urgency of reducing social inequalities and poverty. We need their courage and visions to help shape post-pandemic society towards greater democracy and inclusion.

Ashanti Perú is just one shining example of youth-led change. In the midst of the pandemic, the organisation also founded EscuelAfro, the first leadership programme for Afro-descendant youth in Latin America and the Caribbean. More than 60 young people from 18 countries came together virtually to strengthen their human rights leadership and work to end inequality and structural racism in the region.

The future of youth civil society does not need to remain uncertain. Let’s truly invest in the power of youth and amplify youth-led change.

Read the report: "Weathering the Storm: Resourcing Girls and Young Activists through a pandemic" providing the Global Resilience Fund's first-hand reflections to organise in and beyond a pandemic

Read the report: "Weathering the Storm: Resourcing Girls and Young Activists through a pandemic"

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John Hecklinger

President and CEO, Global Fund for Children

John Hecklinger leads Global Fund for Children’s work to help children and youth worldwide reach their full potential and advance their rights. John joined GFC in 2017 after more than two decades of experience in global philanthropy and the private sector. Prior to joining GFC, John served in a series of roles at GlobalGiving, driving the growth of the world’s first crowdfunding marketplace for global causes. Long ago, he served as a Peace Corps Volunteer, teaching at the University of Bangui, Central African Republic.