Young people are able to formulate realistic expectations as to what NGOs can and cannot do for them. Their needs and experiences, rather than generic proposals for employment and income generation, could be a productive starting point for NGO programming.
What can you do?
A useful starting point for programming is to think in terms of concrete bottlenecks that young people experience and that get in the way of their ambitions. First, listen to what young people in the specific setting where you work have to say, and, second, rethink what your organization may have to offer.
What does experience show?
Although young people have greater dreams, they adjust their ambitions to the opportunities that are feasible given the context. They do not expect NGOs to offer secure and well-paid jobs at any significant scale. They value the assistance received not because it provides economic independence, but because it might be a first critical step towards it. They hope that capital or skills training will give them the edge needed to start generating (more) income.
They also appreciate the non-economic outcomes. Engaging in a programme offers something to do, provides a social setting, forms a basis for collective undertakings and keeps alive the hope that something better might come in the future.
However, young people are also aware of the limitations of NGO programmes.
Often programmes stop before the much desired boost of opportunities has materialized.
The achieved effects tend to dissipate over time. Or what seemed a step forward at first, leads to disappointing results. Micro-businesses are established but end up in stiff competition with each other, and the margins remain low.
MORE EVIDENCE FROM OUR RESEARCH
The research found that young people formulate realistic expectations as to what NGOs can and cannot do for them. They differentiate between immediate, practical challenges and challenges of a more systemic nature.
Such broader challenges include political or ethnic exclusion, insecurity, displacement, or cultural practices that stand in the way of young people’s development (e.g. social pressure to prioritize marriage over education). The young people interviewed mostly considered these challenges to be beyond the scope of NGOs.
Rather, young people expect NGOs to help them overcome the more immediate challenges they face. They mostly define these challenges on an individual level, such as individual access to skills or capital.
Where programmes and needs (dis)connect
Young people enrolled in NGO programmes mostly expressed appreciation. Programmes offer the capital or skills needed to at least make a start towards developing economically. Collective savings groups for example, provide young people access to capital that allows them to start small shops ‘on the side’ or invest in other productive means such as agricultural inputs. Alternatively, access to capital might be just what is needed to continue to pursue (higher) education or help siblings to do so.
Skills training also helps some young people engage in new income generating activities.
“The girls learned trades, some continued their trades after the end of the project but others left the neighbourhood, it is not known if they could continue their activities. There are not many changes but girls continue their jobs without going to the fields, which is probably an alternative to agricultural activities”
[young man, Bujumbura, Burundi].
Economic interventions also offer non-economic returns. These too are appreciated, even when the economic returns are modest.
"Although the economic impact might not be durable, we get something more out of it that people who are not in the project do not have. We don’t have time to hang around on the streets and do bad things”
[young woman, Cibitoke, Burundi].
In this case, participating in an NGO activity helps counteract the stigmatization of youth as “idle”.
Interviewees expressed their concern, however, that positive effects would not last. Programmes were often terminated before they could have really made a difference.
“We did not appreciate that the projects we presented for funding were not funded by the organization, it was these projects which were to help us to maintain our cohesion by working together. If not the young people risk to join their camps [political sides], there is no longer any activity that unites us”
[young man, Cibitoke, Burundi].
Economic opportunity interventions mostly fall short of meeting young people’s desire to become economically independent. Reason for this includes stiff competition from similar businesses and a lack of spending power among intended clientele.
“Often we lack customers. When we engage in small trading, we wait for customers, but they do not come. In the city we used to sell more, but now that we are displaced to Kinama, people do not buy much”
[young woman, Kinama, Burundi].
Micro-businesses are not likely to expand. If they do not shut down completely, at most they will provide just a little extra income.
Getting by or getting ahead?
“You can see that somebody who is earning little money [as a result of TVET] is the same like somebody who is not earning anything at all”
[duty bearer, Rumbek, South Sudan].
We found a strong tendency amongst interviewees to downscale their ambitions to what they might reasonably expect from NGOs. Young people want – and need – to get ahead. NGO programmes mostly just help them get by. The young people interviewed feel this discrepancy, but are NGOs aware of it?