Global indices: honesty must rank higher than “success”

Last week the Global Youth Wellbeing Index, a collaboration between the US-based research institute, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) , the International Youth Foundation and Hilton Worldwide, held its European launch in London, 7 months after the initial launch in April 2014.

The 30 countries in the inaugural YWI were chosen for their geographic representativeness and they collectively represent 70% of the world’s youth population. The YWI explores the wellbeing of young people, which in simple terms has been described as, “the state of being happy, healthy, or prosperous.” Youth wellbeing is measured across six domains: Citizen participation; Economic opportunity; Education; Health; Information and communication technology; Safety and security. 40 indicators are used throughout the domains, 8 of which are subjective and explore young people’s feelings, hopes and aspirations.

The YWI as political cover

Throughout 2014, Youth Policy Labs has worked with a UNICEF office, supporting the development of the country’s national youth policy. As part of this, we supported the national youth research agency to conduct a mass youth consultation through peer-led focus groups and an online survey. For the survey, we wanted it to be anonymous, accessible, and relevant to the lives and experiences of young people as well as provide a space where they could honestly reflect on their country, society, and government. However, we also had to recognise the political limitations and realities in place.

The Youth Wellbeing Index provided us with the academic protection to ask sensitive questions that might otherwise have been changed – or at worst deleted. The YWI allowed us to ask questions relating to trust in government, attitudes towards young people, and expectations for their future. In the end, over 3500 respondents took part, making it the biggest online youth consultation to ever take place in the country. In the end, we were also able to provide a score for the country on the YWI (as it was not one of the inaugural 30 countries) by following the outlined methodology and included substitute measurements from the online survey. While it was not a radical platform for critique, it created space for young people to give their opinion, for researchers to understand the youth situation, and for civil society and youth actors to lobby for policy changes and governmental action.

The launch of two indices – one focusing on youth development and the other on youth wellbeing – represent major forces in the development of youth and public policies at a national, regional and international level. The overlapping domains (education, employment, health, and participation) across the two indices provide an internationally recognised agenda for action, and become a new resource in the advocacy toolbox. As Bill Reese, CEO of the International Youth Foundation, pointed out at the launch, the YWI can also be a tool for investment. By highlighting the weak spots, it can give some insight into where money should go, and in the hands of young people it can become even more exciting through campaigns and lobbying.

The “data revolution”

The recent years have centred around the post-2015 development agenda, and central to that has been the focus on the “data revolution.” In the High Level Panel Report (2013), in national consultations, civil society actions, development agency campaigns and country positions, the role of data – collection, analysis and use – has become central to how we image the next phase of global development.

In the youth sphere, the aim of the “data revolution” is principally to provide a clearer picture of the real situation for young people and their communities. It then follows that we will be able to monitor and evaluation the effectiveness of development programmes, respond to changing needs and chart progress. While the oft-used mantra is that we need “more and better quality” data, our experience has shown significant limitations and challenges in how data and statistics are used – some obvious and some not. Let me give an example.

The risk of the “real picture”

With UNICEF, we worked with a regional level authority on youth to develop a set of youth policy indicators, initially to act as a baseline and set priorities, and in the future to measure changes and respond to new issues. However, the governmental system is such that unless continuous progress is recorded and proven, the youth authority will be seen to have failed.

Most policymakers recognise that year-on-year improvement is unlikely to be possible, and yet, if that isn’t the result, the jobs of the committed, knowledgeable and genuinely passionate staff are at serious risk. In fact, the entire youth authority would be at risk of closure. Staff are putting their entire careers – often at a very early point – on the line, and they need to show results. Data is a risky business, and yet the underlying assumption of the post-2015 agenda has been that everyone is universally committed to honest, real and rigorous data. They might be in principle, but the practice is far from it.

In our country example, as with many countries, youth authorities are politically weak, poorly resourced and yet house ambitious, young staff eager to pursue a future in policymaking and government. The very system destroys their ability to record and report decent, meaningful data – let alone respond to it with proper programmes and projects. In the end, there is the real risk that the data is simply made up to fit the political narrative, and compliance within a failure-adverse system. Some times the “real” situation is just not advantageous to those who are doing the work on the ground.

Space for critical thought

There is also the ability of young people to be honest. On the Youth Wellbeing Index, countries most thought of as being liberal, open societies tend to receive higher levels of criticism and skepticism on subjective measures. This could be that life is really not as positive, or it could mean that young people’s critical thinking is more highly developed, encouraged and permitted than in other countries. It is likely to be a mix of the two, however the high scores of countries often criticised for poor human rights, low freedom of expression and political participation gives some encouragement to this theory. National pride and the lack of space in which critical voice is allowed severely hamper young people’s ability to speak openly about their lives – or even to think about it in a critical way.

If the data revolution is going to mean anything, it needs to be accompanied by a revolution in civil and political participation. If research and analysis is going to provide an accurate portrayal of life, individuals need to feel able to respond honestly, and to be in an environment that encourages critical thought and reflection.

Similarly, our governmental focus on continuous improvement must stop. In many countries this culture is too engrained for immediate change, but over time the current priority of improvement needs to replaced by the needs of individuals and communities – whatever that means for policymakers and development actors.

A safe space for political participation

The Youth Wellbeing Index, the Commonwealth’s Youth Development Index, and the globally available data sets published by institutions and agencies, means that closer international monitoring and greater governmental accountability is likely in the next development phase.

What we do not need is tailoured data that gives the numbers that are politically needed. We need the numbers that accurately reflect the lives of young people. To do this, we must embrace failure, highlight where things have gone wrong and allow everyone to learn from this. We should see global indices as analytical tools, and not only as a numerical yardstick of success.

Rather than seeing the YWI as finished research, it is more useful to view it as a tool for research and for creating a safe space for political participation. The political cover it offered us to ask sensitive questions was useful for our short-term situational analysis, but the more valuable contribution is wider through the enriching of young people’s perspectives and critical self-reflections that are vital for human rights, democracy and society.

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