Development Issues

Critical Thinking about the World’s Development

Foundations and Youth in Local Development

The Hague, 01/Nov/2006 | By Rui Mesquita Cordeiro |

The Role of a Private Foundation in Helping Communities to Engage Youth in Processes of Local Sustainable Development


(Or the role of a private foundation in helping youth to engage communities in processes of local sustainable development?)


Private foundations have many roles actually. Their especial condition, of being among the more autonomous and independent types of non-profit organizations nowadays, makes of them very special and unique. Furthermore, foundations are organizations that usually gather very special kinds of leadership, like servant leaders (Greenleaf and Spears 2002), what turn them to be natural servant organizations (Greenleaf 1977). To explore this uniqueness in relation to youth and development, let us start in the beginning of the development thinking.

Since the 1950s, development researchers and practitioners have been focusing very much on finding and understanding ways to overcame poverty and promote justice in our unfair world scenario. Along the process, many obvious actors and issues have been identified as crucial for development, such as the women and the environment. Youth comes along such process, mostly as a perceived issue, but also as social actors. As an issue, the youth is seen as target of development, an age-group that must be protected and prepared for a healthy and productive adult life; as actors, the youth uses its agency to promote its political agenda and interests within society, from youth’s own understanding about development.

The uniqueness of working with the youth for development ends, is that youth is the only character that crosscut the whole society [image 1] and change of “category”; all those who are young today will, under normal conditions of life, become adults tomorrow. Other actors live their uniqueness stuck in lesser changeable conditions (even though, not frozen for sure), being it of gender, ethnicity, culture or whatever. This more changeable condition makes the youth a segment that is very important to transmit changes (from local to structural ones) throughout generations, once those who experience high levels of empowerment while young, will certainly pay more attention to the youth-adult relationship in the coming generations. Another important factor still is that along the time, poverty [like wealth] is passed on from parents to offspring, creating an intergenerational poverty circle (Morán and Aldaz-Carroll 2001; Morán 2004; WKKF 2005a; Thompson 2006a) that must be broken in order to stop poverty and recover development. Once again, the transitory condition of being young is perceived here as an essential mean to fight poverty and achieve fair and just levels of development.

Furthermore, the role of youth in development seems to be changing rapidly. After feminism (1950s and 1960s), environmentalism (1960s and 1970s), democracy (1980s and 1990s) and security (2000s), youth seems to be the brand new issue blossoming in development practices and studies in the 2000s. Some evidences are found within a large spectrum, from our global governance system to grassroots. For instance, after big conferences and festivals about youth and development held in Senegal, Portugal and Panama, in April 2005 the United Nations launches its report “Youth and the Millennium Development Goals” (UN 2005b), followed, just six months latter, by its “World Youth Report 2005: Young people today and in 2015” (UN 2005a). Soon after, in September 2006, it is the World Bank that launches its World Development Report 2007, entitled “Development and the Next Generation” (WB 2006), completely focused on youth’s education, employment, health, families and citizenship. Apart of those big inter-governmental organizations, more independent developmental NGOs are also paying more attention to the youth in society, like the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and its youth partnership program in Latin America (Tancredi 2005; Thompson 2006b), and Oxfam Australia with its International Youth Parliament (Oxfam 2000/2003), among some others. Yet, international academic institutions are now recognizing the importance of the field of youth and development. In the Netherlands, for instance, the Institute of Social Studies (, together with other institutions, had already created an “International Centre for Child and Youth Studies”; moreover, it is now launching its brand new master program in “Children and Youth Studies”. Even though mixing children and youth issues, it is already a clear indicative of the raising public interest about youth and development.

When analyzing these new approaches, an important difference arises especially between inter-governmental organizations and developmental NGOs: the first group is still focusing primarily on youth as a targeted group to be transformed and protected by society; while, the second one seems to be investing in youth as a real actor capable of positively transform society. Furthermore, together with the first group, we can easily add governments and their public policies towards the youth, which only target youth as a age group, not taking into account youth politics, a distinction we will make clearer latter on in this essay.

It is key to clarify here that such conclusion comes from the analysis of WKKF and Oxfam Australia only, two quite more independent organizations; therefore, it cannot be generalized for all developmental NGOs. Indeed, many are still treating youth as target groups only or even do not see any need to work with/for the youth at all, especially those more dependent of government aid money to exist. It is important to stress that this may represent a natural clear signal of the differential role that more independent organizations, such like private foundations, may have in the field of youth and development: the way it perceives and tend to relate with the youth, as a partner actor within society [image 2].

One way or another, the importance of youth in development appears to be changing rapidly, but through the hand of non-youth actors. If the youth itself wants to have some agency or influence in this scenario, it will need to dig more into it. Some possible explanations for this change may lay in different reasons; among many others, we can allude to these: The current demographic “youth bulge” is one of the possible reasons: “today, 1.5 billion people are ages 12-24 worldwide, 1.3 billion of them in developing countries, the most ever in history” (WB 2006:4); as over 86% of the youth population is located in developing countries, as from the above numbers, the intergenerational poverty trap/circle (Morán and Aldaz-Carroll 2001; Morán 2004; WKKF 2005b; Thompson 2006a) is almost certainly to persist; a considerable number of incidents have been unfairly and generally attributed to young people in the recent years, like for instance: the last French youth upraise in October/November 2005 (Cordeiro 2005a); the stereotype of young male Muslims as primary suspects of terrorism (Sullivan and Partlow 2006); and in November 2005, in Recife, the youth upraise against the increased city’s public transport fare (Silva 2005); the increasing number of youth-led organizations (Queiroz 2004), and the changes in the political behavior of the youth (Abramo and Venturi 2000; IBASE and Pólis 2005; Tommasi and Brandão 2006); and the realization of the youth as a potential actors to promote positive change and to address both youth issues and the development of society as a whole (Oxfam 2000/2003; Rocha et al. 2005; Tancredi 2005).

This difference of perceiving youth as target group, and not as actors in society, may camouflage another important distinction within the field of youth and development: youth policy vs. youth politics. On the one hand, youth policies tend to target young people, either within a needs based approach or a rights based approach. This is observed not only in governmental youth policies, but also in civil society policies towards the youth. On the other hand, the political agenda of youth-led actors goes far beyond youth policies and usually privileges societal issues and problems, instead of youth related issues and problems only. This is due to the fact that youth, as a clear actor in society, is far from being self interested in their on youth issues. Their condition of being changing categories (from youth to adulthood), make them to worry about much broader and societal issues, like the environment, peace, economical processes, politics in general and so forth (Cordeiro 2006b). That is why youth-led movements always need a complement for their names, like: youth movements for peace, youth movements for the environment, even youth movements for the youth, and so on.

To make it even clearer, let us distinguish now between pro-youth movement and youth-led movement. The first one is composed by any (young or not) person or any (youth-led or not) organization that share the common objective of fighting for pro-youth policies and for youth rights, while the second one is composed by young people (as individuals) and youth-led organizations that fight for a variety of issues in society. The youth-led movement is diverse in its own essence; its nature and political agenda is equally diverse, but also complementary; and it is somehow engaged in a bigger claim for change from local to global societies (Cordeiro 2005b). The constituency of the youth-led movement has its basis on young activists, and on youth-led groups, organizations and networks. Furthermore, the spontaneous appearances of youth-led movements are means the youth has found to build up its own empowerment as actors in society [image 3]; apart of this, only participation approaches have been attempted by non-youth-led actors to try to empower the youth.

The dichotomy between empowerment and participation is brought to illustrate the difference between the society’s approaches towards the youth and the youth’s approaches towards society. In Brazil youth protagonism (Costa 2001; Costa and Vieira 2006) is the principal strategy used by non-youth-led civil society actors to implement youth right based approaches; although, still focusing on youth as target of their educative actions. Their final outcome is to change their targeted youngsters into protagonists of their own lives in society; being this an end in itself. Youth participation, hence, has been used as one of the most important tools for young people to become protagonists. As a result, many NGOs and even governments are opening more and more spaces, with their own agenda, and inviting young people to participate on them; mostly to discuss youth issues like education, health, employment, sexuality, family related problem and so forth. Many times, even well intentioned, such invited spaces become mere spaces of consultation, and sometimes of unintended tokenism and manipulation, as one can see observing two, among many, ladders of participation [image 4 and 5].

On the contrary, higher levels of youth participation in society are observed when empowerment comes first; youth-led actors – especially the more organized ones – are not necessarily willing to attend such invitations to participate in other one’s agendas; neither they are focusing on being targeted by other actors or on discussing youth related issues only. Their concerns aim the way society is structured, especially the communities and neighborhoods they live in (Cordeiro 2006b). In contradiction, youth-led actors prefer to create their own spaces of empowerment, to discuss their own political agenda towards society, rather than accepting external invitation to participate in spaces to discuss other one’s agendas (ibid.). For them, restlessness and associativism are revealed as the main baseline strategy to build up their empowerment (ibid.); furthermore, this is the way they find to actively participate in society’s life upon equal power relation with other actors in society [image 3].

Restlessness is the main characteristic demonstrated by many young individuals. The main source for such individual agitation lay especially on their concerns against the deprived social, economical and political situation of themselves, their families and neighbors. Naturally, it generates a strong impetus for doing something within those individuals, specifically against the abstract and constructed image of what for them represents the system behind the Brazilian social order: an apparent set of institutions and power holders that are able to take decision that affect their very lives, predominantly represented by big private companies and governments in general (Cordeiro 2006b). When they realize they are not alone, youth-led groups are created, above all spontaneously with no external actor facilitating the process (ibid.). These groups are linked by friendship and/or identity ties, and when they achieve more clear objectives and proposals, in a seek for more organization, they cross the blurred borderline into a youth-led organization (Rocha 2006).

Networking is the following natural step, with other youth-led organizations working in very different subjects, but still with a complementary role to come together in more strong ties of collective action. It is important to mention that all this observed process is followed by two crosscutting processes, the development of their political agenda towards society and the strengthening of their technical capacity building to act upon society with effectiveness and concrete results. Nevertheless, even with a quite clear political agenda and technical capacity for action; usually youth-led actors are still focusing to provoke change in their communities of origin, as a step for their own strengthening. A good strategy in which a private foundation could be helping this youth process is through supporting youth forums, which are usually defined as youth-led spaces to discuss the political aspects of the societies and communities they live in, in which youth may act upon to exercise some influence for the good will of the whole community/society. Youth forums may gather all kinds of youth actors together, from individuals to movements, for them to discuss their agenda towards society. Complementarily, they can also trigger the process of spontaneous youth associativism, where there is an absence of it. Ultimately, it can also achieve some desired results of this youth-led process: youth empowerment, youth participation and a youth agenda for the development of local communities.

In my view, this may represent a much more legitimate, effective and appropriated way of liking youth and development, because its main source of action lays on the restlessness of young actors that use their agency to bring about renewal to civil society as whole; moreover, it is a spontaneous processes that contribute to the political and technical development of all those involved, as a real exercise of citizenship and political attitude towards society. Furthermore, it is grounded in collective action and aims to social movement action, a needed force for the checks and balances between societies and governments. At last, but not at least, it represents the legitimate and empowered way that youth may participate in society, helping to break vicious problems circles that are lasting throughout generations in Latin America (Morán and Aldaz-Carroll 2001; Morán 2004), from the old and well known poverty and inequality gaps to the new phenomena of political apathy and disillusionment.

But it is not enough. Alone, the youth cannot be charged of solving the problems of society because their unique transitory condition. Partnerships are strongly needed, especially here intergenerational ones; otherwise, unwanted conflicts may emerge. On the one hand, intergenerational partnerships have been by far more proposed by non-youth-led actors, according to their own agenda, usually aiming the youth. On the other hand, conflicts become an unwanted resultant of this relationship, when there is little space for youth-led actors to carry on their own agenda aiming society. To avoid it and to build more youth trust towards non-youth actors, we can try to build more partnerships based on youth’s agendas. In the end, equilibrium between both agendas is needed and necessary, but it is time now to balance this equation [image 6], and non-youth actors have a decisive role for this.

On the youth-led actors’ side, if they want to provoke real structural change in their society, they will certainly need to partner with non-youth-led actors. I am pretty sure you have heard already this famous and public catchphrase “think globally, act locally”. The youth has proven to me its natural, legitimate and unique power to invert this catchphrase equation. From local to global, from micro to macro; youth-led actors may contribute to change it into something like think locally, act globally. For that, youth-led actors should use their spontaneous associativism, together with community networking and youth forums to create local intergenerational pacts proposed by youth-led actors to exercise influence over both micro and macro structures, wherever lays the main root-causes of their local community problems, and build up a new and sustainable present [image 7].

Back to the role of private foundations I strongly believe, due to their unique conditions of being servant and more independent and autonomous organizations, a private foundation that address development should seriously pay attention to the changing role of youth for development, and to context specific youth politics. As a consequence, they should not only help communities to engage youth in processes of local sustainable development, but further and beyond, they should also help the youth to engage their communities in these processes. As a consequence, this equilibrium of roles may culminate in distinctive and long-term intergenerational partnerships between such unique actors, a servant and autonomous foundation and the empowered youth, in cooperation for the sustainable future of their communities. Furthermore, due to the numerous progressist governments currently in power in northeastern Brazilian states after the general elections in October 2006, there seems to be a positive political momentum that, at a first glance, seems to be opening space to politically overcome the condition of young people as a target group into a real social actors (UFF 2006a, 2006b). Time will tell, of course, but any help from independent private foundations will be of great importance to trigger it, through supporting youth associativism and local development. Altogether, I believe these are all essential conditions to break our generational poverty circles in Latin America.



Image 1 – Possible representation of society and the youth (Cordeiro 2006a, 2006b)




Image 2 – Trends in the way one deals with the youth (Cordeiro 2006b)




Image 3 – The challengeable way of creating legitimate youth empowerment (Cordeiro 2006b)












Image 4 – The ladder of citizen participation (Arnstein 1969)



Image 5 – The ladder of youth participation (Hart 1992; Marx et al. 2005)



Image 6 – Trends of agenda setting flow in intergenerational partnerships (Cordeiro 2006b)



Image 7 – “Poltergeist youth theory towards society” (Cordeiro 2006b)




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1 November, 2006 - Posted by | Youth

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