The Big Idea needs a Big Civil Society

21 Nov 14

For Restless Development, civil society has a key role to play in advancing youth-led accountability. The call for young people to implement and lead development after 2015 has, without doubt, resounded over the last couple of years. But the idea that citizens and young people should play a key role in monitoring the success or failure of these new development goals remains highly contested - not least because to do so has the potential to fundamentally shift the relationship between citizen and state. Too often, we hear that young citizens aren’t up to leading complex technical tasks – that their skills won’t be robust enough, and that accountability is best left to the experts in New York, statisticians in country capitals, and the official government accounts of whether development is reaching the most marginalised. At Restless Development, we think otherwise. We think that young people can, and should, lead this. At stake for civil society, we believe, is nothing less than an opportunity to recast fundamentally the way that citizens and member states oversee development together.

Restless Development’s Global Policy and Practice unit is engaging leading technical experts in publishing a five-part series asking what it would take in practical terms to have young people at the very heart of both monitoring the Sustainable Development Goals and also holding governments to account for their delivery. In this first piece, in collaboration with Dr Nicole Goldin, released as global civil society convenes at the CIVICUS International Civil Society Week, we explore the particular role civil society movements and organisations could play.

The Big Idea needs a Big Civil Society

What is a Global Youth Led Accountability Framework?

As the Millennium Development Goals first set by the United Nations in 2000 are set to expire next year, the world has been engaged to determine the future agenda that will come in the form of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Throughout the widespread consultation and input processes, increased accountability has surfaced as a principal theme. The Beyond2015 civil society coalition notes that:

“The Post-2015 framework must be underpinned by the strongest, most robust and comprehensive accountability framework possible, incorporating the commitment to monitor and report on progress and share learning and knowledge. This will help build a global partnership towards achievement of the SDGs that makes all actors – governments, civil society and private sector – accountable.”1

Indeed, this is the time to move past rhetoric and ensure that young people are explicitly part of the “Leave No One Behind” inclusive development agenda that the United Nations sets, and thousands of individuals and organisations act upon.

Big Idea LogoIn 2014 Restless Development launched the Big Idea to put young people at the centre of the monitoring of post 2015 development progress, as agents of the data revolution that, it is widely acknowledged, will be fundamental to the success of tracking the progress of any future development framework. As has been acknowledged at the highest level, “The collection, analysis, transparency and dissemination of disaggregated data based on, sex, age, race and disability is important to the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the goals of the new development agenda. For developing counties, data collection and analysis are a major challenge and requires increased access to financial and technical resources to improve its availability.”2

As part of the Big Idea, Restless Development is calling for a multi-stakeholder partnership to drive the development and implementation of a Global Youth-led Monitoring and Accountability Framework. The framework will be a means of monitoring the SDGs that is people centred, universally driven, innovative and complementary to national monitoring efforts. The framework will capitalise on the unique ways young people engage with data and ensure that the post 2015 development agenda is owned by the generation that will be most affected by its implementation.

While the Big Idea is being championed and led by Restless Development, it is part of a bigger mission to elevate and advance youth in the post 2015 development agenda. And in this, Restless Development is not alone. Represented at large by the Major Group on Children and Youth, numerous organisations and individuals are calling for young people’s prominence in both process - consultation, implementation and evaluation - and product – the outcomes of the SDGs. It is in this element of evaluation that the Big Idea is positioned to be a game-changer. If successful at scale, it could revolutionise accountability, local ownership and youth leadership. But success depends on collaboration.

Why a Global Youth-Led Monitoring and Accountability Framework?

“Only through hearing the voices of the poorest and most marginalized can we be sure that their lives are truly improving; only through protecting and valuing their participation do we respect and empower them. Hence, mechanisms at the local and national levels, as those closest and most accessible to affected populations, must be strengthened and must feed into processes at regional and global levels.”3

Indeed this sentiment has been taken forward by the Open Working Group on the SDGs, including in its Zero Draft target 17.16, to: “Undertake regular voluntary monitoring and reporting of progress on SDGs, led by governments, within a shared accountability framework, including means of implementation, the global partnership among Member States and multi-stakeholder initiatives and partnerships.”4 As final negotiations proceed, citizen participation must remain prioritised, and stakeholders must develop and put forth innovative, people-led models and solutions.

Big Idea

Putting youth at the frontline of SDG monitoring makes sense for many reasons. For starters, more than half the world’s population is under the age of 30 and in many developing countries young people account for a third or more of the population. As such a large group, their concerns reflect every aspect of the SDG agenda: advancing health, protecting the planet, quality education and training, good governance and peace, decent employment, and gender equality all serve the interests and aspirations of young people today, as well their children and those to follow. But more than strength in numbers, today’s young people have an abundance of talent, enthusiasm, optimism and strong commitment to strengthen their societies, and improve the conditions for families and communities. These qualities make young people best placed to tackle inequality, poverty and sustainability. In short, to be successful, the SDGs demand the assets that thousands of young people all around the world can supply.

Unfortunately young people often stand on the sidelines of society, politically disenfranchised, socially marginalised, inadequately educated and un- or under-employed. However, this uniquely positions young people to bring a fresh perspective to an agenda that has historically been more narrowly informed. There is a genuine generational opportunity, if the time and skills of young people can be harnessed and developed productively for their own, their communities’, and the world’s benefit through the SDGs. Today’s and tomorrow’s young generations will inherit the challenges or opportunities the world creates now. Civil society should, therefore, come together to ensure that young people are empowered to equipped to respond effectively.

How: A Global Partnership with Civil Society

A global youth-led accountability framework is an opportunity to capitalise on youth’s innate interests, abilities and capacity to innovate and lead. To succeed, however, it needs support, a mandate, enabling conditions, political will and resources at national and global levels. Restless Development can’t and shouldn’t do it alone. Importantly, young people feel empowered and valued in society when inter-generational partnerships are strong. Given the crucial role civil society has in influencing the SDGs, and will play in monitoring their implementation, it seems clear that a youth-led model needs a global – and local - partnership with civil society that will:

  • Build the capacity of youth organisations and public institutions to collect data and monitor development efforts more effectively.
  • Advocate for civil society’s role in ensuring that the data revolution is people-centred.
  • Create transparency between and among youth, civil society and government.
  • Demonstrate commitment from adults to stimulate meaningful youth participation and effective youth-adult relationships, to promote the social cohesion necessary for an environment where the SDGs can succeed.
  • Mentor a cadre of young leaders, and invest in strengthening the capabilities of youth organisations.
  • Advance youth voices and represent their interests with other stakeholders at local, regional and global levels.
  • Leverage and activate local and country networks to operationalise this vision on the ground.

Only in partnership with civil society’s development experts, practitioners and evaluators can we find the best solutions. Is the Big Idea the only way to advance the vision of youth-led accountability or create a new framework? Perhaps not. That’s why we have to work together with other initiatives to do something greater than the sum of our parts.

But the theory of change behind the Big Idea is rooted in Restless Development’s experience, theory and practice, of not only youth development, but also best practices and perspectives on monitoring and governance. Establishing a youth-led monitoring and accountability framework and seeing the Big Idea go to scale can help ensure that the goodwill and momentum generated by young people in setting the post 2015 agenda is not wasted.

Get Engaged

While the methodology behind the Big Idea is being tested, we are still asking questions, seeking ideas, assessing experiences, and building a coalition of partners around a shared vision for youth leadership and accountability.

Getting specific: How can civil society individuals and organisations engage in this initiative and the Big Idea today?

  • Follow the SDG development process at large. Watch for key advocacy opportunities via the Beyond 2015 calendar
  • Engage in national and global post 2015 conversations and advocate for youth inclusion
  • Talk about the youth-led accountability and the Big Idea project with local stakeholders
  • On social media? So are we. Tweet to us and about us @restlessbigidea
  • To find out more, or if you would like to initiate a Big Idea project and help us test and spread the methodology. Contact

Beyond2015 Reaction to the Outcome Document of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals, August 2014.

2 Summary of the President of the General Assembly on the High-level Event on the Contributions of Women, the Young and Civil Society to the Post-2015 Development Agenda, 6-7 March 2014.

3 Beyond2015, op. cit.

4 Open Working Group: Introduction And Proposed Goals And Targets On Sustainable Development For The Post2015 Development Agenda, September 2014.