Article: Civic Space and Meaningful Engagement with Marginalised Youth through Youth Participatory Action Research in Laos and Viet Nam

First Published: 15th March 2024 | Author: David Young, Kaila Thorn, Vu Thi Hai Ha | Tags: , , , ,

David Young, Kaila Thorn and Vu Thi Hai Ha argue for the need to engage marginalised youth in the development of civic spaces, and reflect on the use of youth participatory action research applied in Laos and Viet Nam.

The past ten years have witnessed a myriad of changes around the world. International social and institutional systems have been disrupted by large-scale changes, including (but not limited to) an increase in environmental pressures (Goldthau and Westphal, 2019), regional conflicts (such as the wars in Ukraine and Gaza), and the global COVID-19 pandemic (Hosseinzadeh, Zareipour, Baljani, and Moradali, 2022). These disruptors have helped lead to the rise of populist movements and radical political leaders, which have in turn placed stressors on civic spaces and marginalised populations living within those spaces.

According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, civic space is defined as a milieu that supports “individuals and groups to contribute to policy-making that affects their lives, including how it is implemented” (OHCHR, 2023a).  In other words, civic spaces are formed by individuals and groups contributing to works that impact their lives. However, determining which voices get to be engaged in such spaces, when, and to what extent is a universal challenge. This is especially true for youth, who are often the most vulnerable to significant economic, social, and political changes (Offerdahl et al., 2014).

Depending on who you ask or where you live, definitions of “youth” vary. In most Western societies, youth typically encompass individuals aged 16-25 years, influencing international organisations like the United Nations (UN), which defines youth as individuals aged 15 to 24. However, certain countries provide more nuanced definitions. In Brunei-Darussalam, for example, a person can be young up until 40, whereas some indigenous communities in Asia-Pacific set the cutoff at 35. Adding complexity is the multifaceted nature of youth beyond age ranges. Youth are exceptionally diverse, representing a spectrum of varying identities, backgrounds, and privileges, each with a unique set of needs and concerns.

Despite constituting a large percentage of the global population (the UN estimates that 16 percent is between 15 and 24 years of age), various factors have often excluded youth from decision-making processes, hindering their ability to engage in discussions on issues that impact them the most (Checkoway, 2015; Gray & Manning, 2022). For marginalised youth (i.e., those young people who have even less equity or rights than their peers), this exclusion from civic and democratic spaces is even more pronounced, with young LGBTQI+ persons, ethnic minorities, youth with disabilities, and others simultaneously facing ageism and various forms of discrimination.

Restrictive civic spaces are often seen as negatively impacting marginalised groups through the system supporting those in power and “exacerbating the exclusion of those living in poverty” (UN General Assembly, 2019). For youth, restrictive civic spaces threaten their existence and capacity to thrive in a community.

Incorporating youth’s authentic voices into policymaking is essential for the long-term success of the systems that implement them. Empowering youth in democratic principles enables them to actively participate in challenging and defending decision-making processes (Repucci & Slipowitz, 2022), fostering diversity of thought. Thus, there is a need to engage youth, especially marginalised groups, in civic spaces to ensure their needs are addressed and their creativity is built into the development of civic leaders.

Youth Programming Approach: Youth Participatory Action Research and Youth as Researchers

One of the many ways in which youth can access civic spaces is through youth participatory action research (YPAR). YPAR is a theoretical and programmatic approach to engaging young people in knowledge creation. In this co-researcher experience, youth are not only able to have autonomy over their lived experiences and identities, but they are also developing evidence-based conclusions to share with authority figures from an action-research lens. When considering civic spaces, a YPAR programming approach can create a theoretical and literal space for young people to engage in critical civic conversations with their peers while presenting evidence-based conclusions to authority figures capable of change-making. More specifically,

YPAR as a method embodies four key commitments: (1) the recognition that youth carry knowledge and expertise about conditions of their everyday lives shaped in contexts of oppression, colonization and resistance; (2) that youth and adults can collaborate together in serious inquiry into histories and present day conditions of injustice; (3) that research should be linked to organizing and action; (4) that research teams need to include youth leaders and adult allies (Fox et. al, 2010; Anyon et. al, 2018; Camarrota and Ginwright, 2008).

YPAR as a programmatic approach provides an opportunity for marginalised youth to raise their voices in civic spaces with evidence-based support. While leaders in civic areas might be remiss to incorporate a marginalised youth voice into policy, when that voice is supported with evidence from their young peers, it becomes increasingly difficult to dismiss.

From 2017 until 2019, the YPAR approach was introduced in two countries in Southeast Asia with restrictive civic spaces: Viet Nam and Laos. Using these two case studies, the remainder of this article aims to demonstrate the potential behind YPAR programmes as an approach for enhancing marginalised youth voices in countries with historically restrictive civic spaces. 

Youth, Civic Space, and YPAR in Laos and Viet Nam

The 2010s marked a pivotal decade for youth policy development. The Baku Commitment, a result of the 2014 Global Forum on Youth Policies in Azerbaijan, laid the foundation for innovative and inclusive approaches to developing youth policies, particularly those promoting social inclusion, meaningful participation, and evidence generation. In the Asia-Pacific region, this approach inspired the creation of several youth policy resources by UN agencies, setting the stage for Laos and Viet Nam to review and develop national youth policies.      

a. Laos

In 2017, Laos developed its first national youth policy. Despite the Lao People’s Revolutionary Youth Union (LYU) acting as the official youth wing since the 1970s, the country lacked an official strategy for addressing the needs of its youth, representing over 60% of the total population (UNFPA, 2023). Additionally, the country lacked sufficient data on marginalised youth sub-groups, like LGBTQI+, persons with disabilities, and others. Responding to LYU’s request in 2017, UNESCO Bangkok, in partnership with AIESEC Laos (a youth-led network with extensive surveying experience), organised a five-day YPAR and youth policy development training, focusing on participatory, evidence-based, and socially inclusive youth policies. This training brought together young and older members of LYU and youth representatives of CSOs regularly working with some of Laos’ most marginalised youth populations.

The primary aim of UNESCO’s training was to prepare and empower young people to engage in a dialogue with decision-makers on the needs of marginalised youth. Simultaneously, it aimed to create qualitative evidence that didn’t previously exist in the country. This second goal appealed to LYU, which nominated several members to attend.

In addition to building participants’ understanding of basic research topics such as methodologies, interviewing techniques, and survey design, the training prompted reflection on Laos’ youth diversity, and encouraged discussions on challenges faced by different marginalised youth sub-group. Participants generated broad research topics focusing on one of these sub-groups, aligning with the YPAR approach. Examples of these research topics include:

  • LGBTQI+ youth in Vientiane Capital;
  • Youth with disabilities in rural Attapeu Province;
  • Drug users in Savannakhet.

After finalising their research and budget proposals, each team received a small budget for a four-month research period, procured through LYU. As most team members worked with CSOs, they connected with their target groups through their networks. UNESCO regularly communicated with English-speaking “team leaders,” who coordinated with their team members.

Following basic training on data analysis, reporting, and presentation, participants were supported in developing evidence-based policy recommendations through a futures thinking exercise in June 2018 (Young et al, 2022). Months later, during a youth policy drafting consultation, teams presented their findings and recommendations to older LYU members and representatives of interested government ministries. This provided a rare opportunity for evidence-informed conversation with decision-makers. For several researchers, such a conversation would have seemed unlikely in the past. A notable example was the LGBTQI+ group’s presentation, where a transgender activist presented about LGBTQI+ youth in Vientiane.

Ultimately, most of the recommendations made by the young research teams didn’t make it into the final youth policy. However, appendix 3 to the policy explicitly mentions youth with disabilities and LGBTQI+ youth as among the many young persons who were consulted in the policy’s development (UNFPA, 2021).

b. Viet Nam

In Viet Nam, youth participation in policy development processes is typically limited to Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth Union members, a government-affiliated youth organization. UNESCO and UNFPA aimed to create strategic and sustianable mechanism for meaningful youth engagement in policy processes. This led to the establishment of a Youth Advisory Group (YAG), a semi-formal group comprising marginalised youth and youth advocates aged 16 to 30 years, to contribute to the Youth Law and youth-related policy development processes. This ultimately resulted in a country-wide YPAR initiative, primarily aimed at supporting Viet Nam’s Youth Law revision process.

In 2018, a youth policy workshop in Ho Chi Minh City introduced the YPAR concept for the first time, bringing together Government representatives and young advocates to establish a sustainable mechanism for meaningful youth engagement in the youth law revision process. Later that year, the YPAR process formally started in Hanoi with a two-day training workshop on data collection, analysis, and dissemination. Driven by passion and the understanding that they weren’t the sole knowledge-holders representing diverse youth groups, YPAR teams were formed to engage marginalised communities, many lacking sufficient data. Some of the teams’ included:

  • The role of ethnic La Ha women in Son La;
  • Knowledge of and need for Sexual and Reproductive Health for upper secondary Khmer students in boarding schools in Soc Trang;
  • The knowledge and attitude of Vietnamese youth towards the LGBTQI+ community.

After the training, participants returned to their respective communities to put their learnings into practice. Their facilitators established consultancy contracts with each team, creating a formal sense of ownership and accountability for the youth. The groups were supported throughout the research process in various ways, including research design, gaining appropriate clearances from authorities for data collection, and financial assistance.

In March 2019, a two-day follow-up training on data analysis, reporting, and presentation was organised, followed by disseminating research reports and policy briefs to key stakeholders. In partnership with UN Women, UNESCO organised a final briefing with youth researchers, allowing them to share experiences, reflect, and articulate needs and “asks” for shaping a future vision for the Youth Law. The workshop concluded with a policy dialogue to share key results with policymakers from the Ministry of Home Affairs (MOHA) and representatives from the development sectors. Overall, this process empowered youth with knowledge and tools to adapt their language to match policymakers and integrate evidence-based materials into conversations about youth law recommendations.

The research findings, combined with effective advocacy efforts, facilitated the removal of references relating to social evils in the revised Youth Law, specifically on prostitution, and included a new article on the need to organize yearly dialogues with youth (including non-HCMCYU members) on matters that concern them.

Analysis and Reflection

The cases of Laos and Viet Nam present vivid accounts of meaningfully engaging marginalised youth living within countries with restricted civic spaces using YPAR methods. They also reveal several important commonalities and differences worth discussing:

  1. First, both projects relied on substantial support (and permission) from governments. In Laos, LYU was an implementing partner in charge of administration of funds and facilitating a space for dialogue with other decision makers; a similar role would be played by the HCM Youth Union and MOHA in Vietnam. While the permission of the teams to research sensitive/taboo topics (e.g., LGBTQI+ rights in Laos; sex work in Vietnam) was likely made possible by the influence of UNESCO and UNFPA, it still represents a willingness by governments to allow for these discussions to take place, and even make a tangible difference (as was the case in Viet Nam’s revised Youth Law). It is also plausible that the global trends on youth policy development (i.e., the Baku Commitment) influenced this willingness.
  2. Second, the projects themselves brought together representatives of CSOs with other youth who were members of LYU and HCM Youth Union, which greatly enhanced their abilities to reach marginalised youth populations. In the case of Viet Nam, the establishment of the YAG would formalise this pairing. Furthermore, the youth themselves who participated in the projects were highly motivated individuals who were not only driven by the opportunity to take part in the development of their countries’ youth policies, particularly considering taboo topics, but also the desire to enhance their advocacy through the acquisition of applied research skills.
  3.  Third, the research conducted by the research teams in Laos and Vietnam were limited in scope. The purpose of YPAR is to serve as a learning tool for empowering young people to have conversations they might not have had previously. Very often, this means that small exploratory qualitative data is produced, and large representative samples are not. Ultimately, however, the project achieved its objectives in that it created a space for marginalised youth to have conversations with decision-makers and legitimised these conversations through facts.      
  4.  Finally, many of the projects’ participants would ultimately use their learnings from the projects to continue conducting research and policy advocacy. In Laos, for example, Proud to Be Us Laos would conduct a nation-wide study on rural LGBTQI+ youth living in two provinces, as well as a study on the inclusivity of businesses in the capital of Laos, Vientiane, of sexual and gender minorities. In Vietnam, the YAG is still active, offering ad-hoc support to the HCMYU and the UN to implement the revised Youth Law.

As young people in Southeast Asia and beyond find themselves in increasingly restrictive civic spaces for civic and political participation, the cases of Laos and Viet Nam are promising examples of what can be accomplished through positive youth development approaches such as YPAR. At the same time, reflecting on the process and key accomplishments of those countries’ projects, several key recommendations can be made, particularly for youth stakeholders (both young and old) looking to navigate the post-COVID world and beyond.

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Last Updated: 6 June 2024


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David Young is a youth development professional with over ten years’ experience working in Southeast Asia and the United States. From 2015 until 2023, he worked with UNESCO Bangkok in Thailand, where he managed and supported youth empowerment and leadership programs, particularly with marginalized youth groups such as indigenous youth and LGBTQI+ communities.He is currently based in the Washington, DC area, where he specializes in youth and democracy, rights, and governance (DRG).

Dr. Kaila Thorn is an Assistant Professor in Environmental Studies at Hollins University where she engages in work on environmental perceptions, research methods, and leadership development. Alongside this appointment, Dr. Thorn is a lead trainer for the UNESCO Youth as Researchers program, and has facilitated this youth-led program in Jamaica, the Bahamas, Myanmar, and Vietnam to name a few.

Ms. Hai Ha Vu Thi is a Technical Officer on Youth and Social Inclusion at the IFAD ESA regional office. Hai Ha is a youth advocate and centers her work around meaningful youth participation, leadership and agency. Prior to this appointment, Hai Ha worked for the UNESCO Ha Noi and Bangkok offices as a Consultant on youth programming. She also co-founded and acted as the Communication Coordinator of Kiron Open Higher Education France, enabling access to higher education for migrants and refugees.</p.