How youth program design can meaningfully engage young people in Bangladesh

How youth program design can meaningfully engage young people in Bangladesh

Nina Oduro and Oduolayinka Osunloye


Two women presenters speak in front of canvas.

IREX and Save the Children co-led an event with diverse Bangladeshi youth leaders (ages 18 to 35) in Dhaka, Bangladesh with the aim of listening and centering their needs in program design and implementation. During the event, youth leaders shared their perspectives on the social and economic challenges young people face and discussed ways to engage youth in programs to address these challenges. 

Programs that support the positive development of youth are designed and implemented around the world, yet the level of meaningful engagement with these young people varies. To empower youth to reach their full potential and make positive changes in the communities and countries, donors and implementers must partner with them throughout the life of the program, from design to implementation and evaluation. Echoed in USAID’s Youth in Development Policy, “youth have the right to fully participate in decision-making as key partners,” which starts with the design of the programs they participate in.  

Bangladeshi Youth Are Ready to Partner in Program Design 

Youth in Bangladesh are one-third of the population and have the potential to shape positive outcomes for themselves and others throughout the country and beyond. According to the National Federation of Youth Organisations in Bangladesh (NFYOB), there are currently about 4000 youth organizations addressing youth issues such as unemployment, climate change, and sexual & reproductive health and rights. The sheer number of youth organizations is evidence that Bangladeshi youth are striving to ensure their voices are heard as they mobilize and innovate to address problems in their communities.

Incorporate Youth Perspectives on Social and Economic Challenges and Solutions

Engaging youth to lead in solving social and economic challenges in Bangladesh requires involving them in identifying these challenges and defining how they affect their lives. Youth leaders at the event provided insights on their current challenges and how they should be addressed in programs. Some of the challenges noted include: limited economic opportunities, insufficient education and training, mental health, social stigma, and gender inequality. Across the challenges, several key themes emerged, most notably the critical role of parents, guardians, and families, and the power imbalance between youth and adults. 

During the event, youth participants offered suggestions to address the challenges that youth face. It is critical that programs harness these ideas to ensure that young people’s needs are centered and to provide youth with ownership of the programs aiming to aid them.  They can be integrated into diverse programs across economic and social challenges and can be segmented into different stages of the program (before, during, and after).

  • Before Program: Provide access to information and resources, as well as opportunities for youth to lead in understanding economic and social challenges. For example, program designers can engage youth to map key youth and adult stakeholders in Bangladesh that are critical to a program's success.  
  • During Program: Provide resources, collaboration opportunities, support, such as dialogue with decision-makers or funding for youth-led organizations. For example, Bangladeshi youth leaders cited the value of co-developing toolkits with program implementers. As co-developers, youth-led organizations’ contributions will be recognized, and they can leverage the collaboration for future opportunities. For example, under USAID’s Youth Excel program implemented by IREX, youth leaders co-developed the Research to Change Toolkit which has been used by over 80 youth-led and youth-serving organizations in 12 countries to date.    
  • After Program: Continue to sustain partnerships with youth-led organizations and networks developed between youth and adults during programs.  For example, Bangladeshi youth leaders cited the importance of building sustainable mechanisms that enable the youth and adult stakeholders engaged in programs to continue networking as they continue to work on initiatives that address social and economic challenges.  

Considerations for Meaningfully Engaging Youth in Program Design

As donors and implementers determine ways to engage youth more meaningfully in program design in Bangladesh and beyond, our lessons from engaging youth in Dhaka can help shape activities. The following key considerations will help to meaningfully engage youth and ensure that their needs and ideas are incorporated in program design:

  1. Start with your team: Ensure that staff leading interventions for youth exhibit practices and behaviors that enable youth to not only be heard as participants, but ensure youth are partners. Make sure your staff team is diverse and includes youth in decision-making positions. Also, ensure your team has native language capabilities and is equipped to make reasonable accommodations so that all communication is understood and engagement is inclusive of those with diverse requirements.
  2. Focus on who is in the room: Identify diverse youth to participate and allow youth to nominate or bring others in their network. This helps expand the group beyond the youth that you already have in your network. In our intervention, some youth invited peers that would not only benefit from the discussion but also provide meaningful contributions. By embracing their network, we expand our network and support youth leadership by identifying additional peers for participation.  
  3. Create a safe space: Consider youth protection issues, ensure diverse youth can safely access consultations, and create a safe emotional space by addressing issues of gender, inclusion, and youth-adult power differentials.  
  4. Be transparent about the process: Share the details of how the intervention will contribute to program design and what outcomes youth leaders should expect after the intervention. This is important, because Bangladeshi youth leaders cited that youth-adult power differentials made them skeptical of whether their contributions would actually be taken into consideration.  
  5. Be flexible on time: Remember that asking youth to reflect on challenges and develop ideas can be daunting or tasking. Flexibility on the time allotted can help youth provide meaningful contributions and help engage youth with diverse needs. 
  6. Provide opportunities for review:  Provide space for youth to comment or provide clarity on the notes taken from the intervention. Ensuring that what is gathered is accurate is not only essential but is a demonstration of working with youth as partners. 
  7. Recognize youth contributors and compensate them appropriately: Name youth and their organizations in places where you use their ideas.  The recognition enables youth to build their reputation as they seek opportunities. Identify appropriate ways to compensate youth for their time and build this into your budgets and policies.
  8. Elevate their priorities and ideas throughout the program cycle: Along with using the information youth provided in design of a program, revisit their ideas as programs start and at different points during implementation and closing. Re-engage the youth along this process as their experiences and ideas evolve.  

See full youth insights and solutions as well as youth contributors.