Youth Participation - Which Forms are There and How Far Do They Reach?


Alina Goldbach and Till Sträter

The foundation EVZ has been running the international youth exchange program EUROPEANS FOR PEACE for the facilitation of international youth participation since 2005. This year it has had the program evaluated with regard to youth participation. Alina Goldbach and Till Sträter from Camino gGmbH conducted this evaluation and present the concept used – “the ladder of participation” – here.


How works the “ladder of participation”?

For operationalization we used a widely adapted model in participation research: The so-called ladder of participation. It distinguishes different levels of participation, each differing in the intensity of youth participation.

The three lower rungs of the ladder merely simulate participation opportunities, but offer no real participation in the sense of  an actual transfer of adults decision-making power. While the rungs four to seven re-present the midfield of participation, the top two rungs, the eighth and ninth level, characterize not only the feature of decision-making but also that of autonomy. This feature implies that children/juveniles can make and execute significant decisions independently of adults.

The ladder is not to be understood in a hierarchical sense. This means that the higher level of participation does not represent a more ideal state but that the extent of decision-making power must be adapted to the needs of children and adolescents: “It is not necessary that children always operate at the highest possible rungs of the ladder of participation. An important principle to remember is choice.” (Hart 1997, 42).

This participation ladder was very helpful in classifying the exchange projects of the EUROPEANS FOR PEACE program according to their degree of participation. This was done on the basis of a document analysis of the project applications. We analyzed the conceptual quality along questions such as; How much decision-making power is given to the juveniles? Do they have a say in the choice of topics e.g.? How autonomously can they implement project modules? Etc.

Where do you see the program of the foundation currently?

The EVZ shows a great interest in advancing youth participation. It advises the practitioners that implement the exchange projects on participation approaches within the framework of preparatory seminars and has, for example, also implemented a comprehensive strategy for the participation of marginalized youth.

As part of our study we have analyzed the project applications of the last two cohorts, we have conducted a survey with 101 juvenile project participants from 14 different countries and interviewed  leaders of selected projects. Our study shows that the majority of the projects reach a relatively good degree of participation during the exchange encounters. For instance, one third (32%) of the project concepts could be ascribed to the sixth rung “Adult-initiated, shared decisions with youth”, about one half (55%) of the projects were attributed to the seventh rung “Youth-initiated and directed” and 13% of the concepts implied that the eighth rung “Youth-initiated, shared decisions with adults” was reached.

The questioning of the juveniles revealed that the majority was predominantly satisfied with the possibilities of participation: They believe that their opinions are integrated in decision-making processes and that they are consulted sufficiently. More than half of the participants are of the opinion that they can exert influence on important project decisions beyond that.So our results show that the program EUROPEANS FOR PEACE can overall be very satisfied with the already implemented degree of youth participation in the projects.

Nonetheless, it became clear that only a minority of projects was able to already involve juveniles in the conception phase. Only 13% stated that juveniles were involved in the initial development of the project idea.The academic debate holds that formats, which are co-designed by juveniles, are especially fruitful. Here the program might forego important potential since most of the project concepts are solely developed by adults and juveniles are only involved in the implementation once the concept is already set.

What did you recommend to the foundation, for example, to enhance participation?

We have developed several scenarios for an advancement of youth participation at the level of the exchange projects and also at the level of the program itself. We recommend that the EVZ funds micro projects that are implemented by youth groups in self-government. Within such a format all activities from the development of the idea to accounting are implemented by juveniles. Other foundations like the German Children and Youth Foundation have made very positive experiences with such formats. Of course this is a relatively challenging format given that the foundation hands over a certain degree of control over important decisions to the juveniles. Our study demonstrates that accompanying support offers like coaching or mentoring for project work constitute important factors for success.

Another possible format is to allow juveniles to pitch their own project ideas to a peer-jury in the context of youth conferences or similar events. In such a format the concept development on one hand as well as the democratic selection process on the other hand is also passed on to the juveniles.

We feel, the discussion of different scenarios with the program managers was a very productive and constructive process and there was large openness for our recommendations.

Further Information

Arnstein, S. (1969) ‘A ladder of citizen participation’, Journal of the American Institute of Planners 35.4: 216–224

Hart, Roger A. (1997). Children’s Participation: The Theory and Practice of Involving Young Citizens in Community Development and Environmental Care. New York

Gernert, Wolfgang (1993). Jugendhilfe – Einführung in die sozialpädagogische Praxis, München; Basel



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About Camino gGmbH

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Alina Goldbach and Till Sträter from Camino gGmbH, a scientific institute with focus on practice support and research in the social sector.

Issue: Youth

Those born afterwards bear no direct responsibility. They may choose to ignore history or identify with perpetrators or victims. What can be done to awaken young people’s interest in history and motivate them to engage in building peaceful relations between communities?