Cristina Bacalso is an OTT Fellow and Research Coordinator at Youth Policy Labs. Cristina has a wide background in policy, with nearly twelve years of experience in research and analysis in governmental and non-governmental sectors internationally, including with the governments of Canada, United States, and a UN-backed international tribunal. Cristina has worked with youth in various civil society organisations, primarily as a youth leader and volunteer. She co-founded the Hague Interns Association, an advocacy group that seeks to improve intern welfare and promote intern rights at the UN and international organisations, and the University of Calgary Red Cross Club, engaging young people in global humanitarian issues.
Enrique Mendizabal: Please tell us a bit about yourself?
Cristina Bacalso: I’m the Research Coordinator at Youth Policy Labs, a global think-tank that focuses specifically on youth and how public policies affect their lives. We’re based in Berlin, Germany, however our focus is international, and we work with a network of researchers all around the world. We promote and support evidence-based policies for young people.
EM: How did you come to work at a think tank? Why?
CB: I have a background in policy, both from my Master’s programme in public policy, but also from working in government in policy and research, in Canada and the United States. So I’ve always had an interest in research, analysis, and writing, but this is my first role in a think-tank specifically.
EM: What is youth policy?
CB: At the most general level, youth policy is an articulation of a government’s commitment and vision towards its young citizens. In this sense, all governments have a youth policy – whether by intention or not. Looking at how much a government invests in services for young people, how it handles youth unemployment, or how it treats young activists protesting on its streets – all tell you about the state’s posture towards its youth. In a technical sense, a youth policy is also a document, of which 127 countries had at a national level in 2014. It is typically a cross-sectoral policy that tries to coordinate various interventions – across education, health, industry, housing, for example – in a holistic way to promote youth development.
EM: What is your role? How did you get that job?
CB: I came to the role by luck! After finishing grad school, I was mostly traveling and working freelance contracts, with no real roots anywhere. I decided to settle into Berlin, and looked into what the English-language job market was like, to see if I could find something a bit more stable. I remembered that Youth Policy Labs was based in Berlin (I came across them as an intern-rights activist, organising interns against unpaid internships in the UN), and I decided to email them an introduction and my CV. I was called in for an interview the next week. That was nearly five years ago!
EM: What is it about working in a think tank that you like most?
CB: I enjoy producing knowledge that can have an impact on policy and programming, sometimes almost immediately. Our work in Kazakhstan with UNICEF, for example, began with designing a youth consultation as part of a research project on the situation of young people in the country. The work provided some insights into the types of supports young people need, especially in the area of youth work. This went on to UNICEF supporting a pilot training programme for youth workers, which we also designed, on how to deliver extracurricular programmes for young people in their youth centres. Before this, youth centres would stand empty, with little activity in them. This is an example of where our research went on to inform concrete programming and funding decisions, and on to action that affects the lives of young people.
EM: In this role, what have been the biggest challenges you have faced?
CB: One of the challenges for youth policy in general is getting policy-makers to take young people seriously. We are currently experiencing the largest youth population in history, at 1.8 billion young people worldwide, with youth bulges primarily in the Global South. Policy-makers like to say that “young people are our future”, yet neglect to put the serious time, effort, and money it takes to support them. Youth policies themselves are often full of nice platitudes and statements, but are hardly matched with resources. Meanwhile, youth unemployment continues to rise, young people face obstacles to accessing health and education, and experience exclusion on multiple levels. Then policy-makers are surprised when young people take to the streets.
EM: How does Youth Policy Labs, and your role as Research Coordinator, address this?
CB: Well, we see the first step to designing good policies for young people is research. Policies need to be rooted in evidence, in an accurate reflection on the situation and lives of young people in that country. For example, we are currently working in Kuwait on a large-scale national youth survey to help inform their youth policy, and how to track its impact on youth development over time. We’ve provided similar support in Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Armenia. We’ve conducted national-level youth policy evaluations in six countries, working with local researchers and building youth research capacity. We recently completed a piece of research for the Department of Social Development in South Africa, which is developing a departmental youth policy, benchmarking youth policies of three other countries to provide some insights into how it works in other contexts. We are also working with Oxfam Novib on research that profiles youth-led initiatives to influence public policy, and how INGOs can best support them.
EM: And as a research coordinator, what have been the biggest challenges you have faced?
CB: Youth development is holistic and involves the intersection of various domains such as education, health, employment, civic and political participation, and protection. You can’t look at any one domain independently and say “young people are well-educated and therefore our public policies are serving them well”. Being educated means little if you can’t find a job when you graduate, have no access to health care (which can have compounded effects for individual young people at this developmental stage of their life), can’t exercise your rights as a citizen, or live in an insecure or unstable environment. Therefore as a youth researcher on youth policies, you need to be a bit of a specialist in everything – education policy, health policy, employment policy, juvenile justice, protection. Having fluency in such a diverse range of areas is challenging, but also means that you can approach youth development in a multi-dimensional way.
EM: Are there many other think tanks focused on youth policy? It seems to me that developing countries in particular ought to be investing in these kind of institutions.
CB: Interestingly, we’re seeing some think tanks focus more on youth (and to an extent, youth policy), though none as a major focus. For example, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C., and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in London both have youth as a thematic stream. But Youth Policy Labs is really the first think-tank in the world to have an exclusive focus on youth, which is our unique advantage. It’s exciting for me to be at the forefront of such an important and growing field.
EM: You have joined the OTT Fellowship Programme. What do you expect to gain from this experience?
CB: I hope to grow personally and professionally, learning how to think more strategically, and developing my skills in areas such as writing for policy audiences, and fundraising. I also look forward to the connections that I’ll make with other emerging leaders of think-tanks around the world, to gain a better understanding of how our work can have a multiplier effect on generating positive social change.