July 9, 2024

Making development accountable to youth

Can youth be more engaged in accountability?

World Bank Youth Summit 2024

Photo: World Bank Youth Summit 2024 

By Rabi Thapa

“Educate yourself, train others, teach us,” urged Anna Bjerde, Managing Director of Operations, at the World Bank Group’s Youth Summit 2024 in May this year. Her keynote speech was on artificial intelligence and its role in development, but the message was clear: youth are our future and we are taking them seriously.

With at least 50% of the world’s population under 30, this sentiment is hard to argue with. Throw technology into the mix, and there is every reason to believe that an empowered youth demographic can drive development forward. “We can’t be having conversations about development and not include youth,” says Iman Hamidaddin, Manager of the Youth Summit, which was themed Powering Progress: Youth Leading the Digital Transformation. “They are very involved in social issues and development issues, and we need to tap into that.”


Youth participation for accountability

The question is whether youth are actually being enabled to participate in the issues that affect them, and hold development actors accountable. Participation is inextricably linked to accountability. As far back as 1995, the World Programme of Action for Youth on Participation (A/RES/50/81), adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, called for the “Full and effective participation of youth in the life of society and in decision-making”. 

Effective participation of youth leads naturally to accountability. Restless Development, a not-for-profit organization that works to empower young people, defines youth-led accountability as “The enabling of young people to hold decision-makers accountable for the commitments they have made towards sustainable development, through increased capacity, access and agency.” 

The World Bank Accountability Mechanism (WB-AM) seeks to provide accountability for communities that believe they have been, or may be, harmed by World Bank-funded projects. AM Secretary Orsolya Székely explains how youth are brought into accountability processses under both compliance and dispute resolution functions: “We try to ensure that youth are part of our consultations from the very beginning, and that they have the opportunity to engage in both compliance and mediation processes. This helps improve the effectiveness of development projects while imbuing youth and their communities with a sense of empowerment and trust that their interests are being considered. This is a good basis for accountability in development.”

The WB-AM works in parallel to two other levels of accountability at the Bank—the project-level grievance mechanisms that borrowing governments are required to put in place, and the World Bank Grievance Redress Service, a corporate-level complaint-handling mechanism. However, it seems clear that these formal mechanisms are less than adequate. For instance, less than a third of complaints received by independent accountability mechanisms (IAMs) globally progress to more substantive compliance or dispute resolution stages. It is perhaps not surprising that youth feel excluded from development processes. A 2012 survey of 13,000 respondents from 186 countries by the UN Inter-Agency Network on Youth Development found that the main challenges for youth were “limited opportunities for effective participation in decision-making processes”.

In a recent podcast series by Restless Development, Global Voice and Democracy Manager Caleb Masusu defined youth engagement as “being able to meaningfully participate beyond tokenistic roles … this can include involving young people in project design and implementation and also providing opportunities for youth to share their perspectives and ideas beyond traditional stages that have been used in the past.”

Moving beyond “traditional” modes of participation could be key to engaging youth. According to the World Youth Report for 2016, civic engagement of young people may be limited by “adultism,” or the “tendency of adults to control the nature and content of youth civic engagement.” Youth participation often replicates the structure of adult democratic institutions. 


Technology and youth to catalyze accountability networks

Youth are defined by their potential. To successfully direct their energy and creativity toward ensuring that development is working as it should, young people need to have access to the tools and skills they are best suited to deploy, through approaches they can relate to.

World Bank Youth Summit 2024
Photo: World Bank Youth Summit 2024
Bright Simons, a Ghanaian social innovator, entrepreneur, and commentator, says that the average citizen finds it difficult to understand how development works across project lifecycles. However, young people are also now more educated. They are also much more digitally savvy, and as evidenced by their use of social media platforms such as TikTok and Instagram, increasingly video-based in how they analyze and present information. This creates a real opportunity, according to Simons, to change how “development literacy” works. He says: “A lot of the Bank’s text-based reporting allows critical information to fall through the cracks. If part of the M&E were audiovisual, then you would be connecting with a larger number of people who are sending information and expressing their concerns. This is much more effective in giving you a real sense of how the Bank’s projects affect ordinary people.” He adds: “There is often a gulf between what the community perceives and what the rest of the technocratic elite think is going on. That can be bridged by young freelancers using audiovisual technology to capture data on the ground.”

Yoshiko Ogushi, Junior Professional Officer with the WB-AM, believes that IAMs are keen to find ways to make their work more accessible, and that youth are key to reaching more marginalized communities: “Youth, with their relative ease of technology uptake, can not only better inform their peers and elders about projects, they can also help them navigate the complicated and long process of registering and processing a complaint, for example through AI tools.”

Simons has a vision of a network of young development vloggers providing dynamic and long-term ground-level truthing of projects as a basis for accountability. He also believes that such evaluations could stand as an independent network rating of the World Bank’s projects to be consulted by all stakeholders. He asks: “Why can’t we put a little bit of the money we’re getting from the Bank to resource a community accountability platform that then increases the trust that everybody has in the project?”

Serah Makka, Executive Director for Africa with the ONE Campaign, has spoken with organizations like CommCare and Kwerty from the BudgIT platform to bring this vision to life. The ONE Campaign is looking to develop technology tools that young people—“an army of accountability and transparency activists”—can use to investigate projects. The ONE Campaign has already recruited its first 100 activists. Makka reports: “We want to unleash people onto their communities as investigative journalists. It’s not just good for the end product. It’s good to enhance the capacity and culture of looking out for accountability and transparency across villages and communities.”


Encouraging the “unlikely” to reach young people

IAMs are all too aware of the challenges in making communities aware of the support they can provide, and often rely on civil society organizations (CSOs) to not only take their message to the people, but also help potential complainants follow through on complaints. But awareness of IAMs and their accountability processes is limited even among CSOs: at a recent series of workshops in South America, a survey indicated that 50 percent of participants were not familiar with the WB-AM’s constituent parts, the Inspection Panel and the Dispute Resolution Service. IAMs have responded with numerous outreach events, including joint Massive Open Outreach Seminars and a recent in-person outreach event in Nairobi, Kenya.

World Bank Youth Summit 2024
Photo: World Bank Youth Summit 2024

“Young people are very interested in networking, for a range of reasons,” points out Ogushi. “So outreach attempts should make use of youth networks—the Accountability Mechanism operated an information booth at the World Bank Youth Summit for this purpose.”

This underlines the need for young people to join in with these outreach efforts. As Makka says, “Given the tools that they use, whether it’s WhatsApp or social media, as soon as young people know it exists, you will be flooded. But if the tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, if there is silence around the channel, then does it really exist in their world?”

“We have to reach young people where they are,” says Blair Glencorse, Founder and Co-CEO of Accountability Lab, “rather than trying to engage with them in ways that we want.” Accountability Lab is a global network whose initiatives include the Integrity Icon program, which uses positive storytelling to inspire youth and change the narrative around corruption. So far, 500+ Integrity Icons, often role models in government, have been identified. 

As a means of showing young people that there are people in government who are working to strengthen accountability, and expanding their zone of influence, Integrity Icon is similar to the more recent Accountability in Action award set up by the Independent Recourse Mechanism of the African Development Bank. But much more needs to be done if IAMs are to increase awareness of their work. 

To reach young people, Glencorse recommends that the Bank undertake “creative approaches, unlikely networks, and climate action.” By “creative approaches,” he means those that “tap into things, places, tools, media that young people are already using.” The music industry, Glencorse explains, “has an amazing ability to shift norms, and part of what we’re trying to do here is shift understandings and expected behaviors in societies.” Accountability Lab runs Voice to Represent (“Voice2Rep”), a music competition that aims to unearth talent that advocates for greater representation, participation, and accountability across Nigeria, Liberia, and Zimbabwe. This goes hand in hand with “unlikely networks.” Glencorse highlights the fact that Bank work is often technical and difficult to understand: “So how do we move beyond the usual suspects and build unlikely networks of people that can provide perspective and support implementation in ways that could be different?” In his view, creatives of all stripes—as well as honest government officials—can all join youth to expand the zone of accountability. 


Green accountability

The World Bank intends to allocate 45 percent of annual financing to climate-related projects for FY2025. This aligns with the priorities of young people today. But how can the Bank make the best use of the energy and passion of young people to ensure that climate finance flows and the initiatives they fund are effective and accountable?

Aly Rahim, Program Manager at the Global Program for Social Accountability (GPSA) at the World Bank, says, “Young people will be at the forefront of ensuring that the principles that the climate justice movement has been pursuing are now being reflected in the delivery models we build.” He explains: “The climate challenge, at heart, isn’t just a technical challenge. It’s a collective action challenge. Young people have a higher degree of systems thinking, especially around the climate issue. We need to bring technical solutions to bear, but these things will only work if you have broad accountability and broad participation.”

As Glencorse says, climate action is where many young people are. He acknowledges that the World Bank is investing heavily in climate projects now, but asks: “Is it tapping into some of the energy that young people bring to this topic? If we are talking about large projects that are providing climate finance, how are communities being engaged in the development and oversight of those efforts?” The GPSA is funding an initiative called Green Accountability. It includes, in partnership with the Global Youth Leadership Center, a program to support youth climate advocates scale up their efforts through engagement with government, investors, and multilateral institutions like the World Bank. According to Rahim, this program aims to “marry what youth do well in terms of advocacy and organization with technical knowledge.” The GPSA itself will be succeeded by a civil society and social innovation facility, which will include as a key component a dedicated youth platform. Here, too, youth impact on accountability will be catalyzed by digital tools, which, Rahim says, “can amplify the visibility of what’s going on on the ground, and build networks.”


Building a culture of accountability 

We can conclude that youth are well equipped to contribute to accountability if they are supported with access to technology and platforms through which they can develop networks. But the larger picture may be viewing, as Glencorse suggests, “Accountability as a process and a value rather than an outcome. This means appealing to youth values and their own agency and their own ability to build accountability from themselves outward, which closes the gap that often exists between technical rules on paper and practice.” Accountability should be something that youth do, not something that is done to them.

World Bank Youth Summit 2024
Photo: World Bank Youth Summit 2024

Furthermore, a system that provides recourse in response to specific complaints, like that which exists under IAMs, cannot stand by itself—it has to be part of what Rahim calls an “accountability ecosystem.” In such a system, broader youth networks promoting participation, inclusion, and transparency will lead to better development that, ultimately, reduces the need for communities to reach out to IAMs for recourse.

“There is an opportunity now with the World Bank Evolution Roadmap to look at the larger picture for accountability,” says WB-AM Secretary Székely. “We need to look beyond how an accountability mechanism works, as a last resort for people with grievances, to how their concerns can be brought into operations and planning of projects at an early stage. In fact, we need to learn lessons from cases so we can feed into this larger picture, to the extent that we create a cultural environment where accountability is considered normal. Young people, especially when linked in networks, are primed to take up this challenge.” 

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