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Working across sectors on adolescent issues is trendy…but how does it work?

Supporting young adolescents to thrive is not the responsibility of any single sector. The needs of adolescents cross ministerial mandates and boundaries, and the health and well-being of adolescents depend on effective networking, coordination, and collective action among different sectors.

Many countries, including Ethiopia, have cross-cutting coordination groups that work on youth issues nationally, and to some degree, locally. For example, Ethiopia has successfully advanced a national multi-sectoral approach to combat malnutrition. In the same vein, our Act With Her team works hard to reinforce multi-stakeholder platforms and strengthen these relationships in local communities to focus attention on adolescent issues and nurture more responses that span the health, education, child protection, and social support sectors.

We interviewed Pathfinder International and CARE staff leading the Act With Her project to hear their perspectives on working across sectors, including the challenges and benefits it brings.

Q: As organizations supporting a wide array of health-oriented programs, both Pathfinder and CARE have longstanding strong relationships with the Ministry of Health (MoH). Health is a cornerstone of Act With Her, but since we are also striving to support adolescent girls and boys more holistically in many aspects of their lives, which other ministries and government stakeholders did you forge a connection with in support of this program, and why those specifically?

Abiy: We partner with the MoH since the Her Spaces model that Act With Her is built from is an MoH program, but we also work with the Ministry of Women, Children, and Youth (MoWCY) as they are tasked with addressing issues that affect young people, including harmful practices. We also brought the Ministry of Education (MoE) on board, realizing that our work strengthening local systems intersects closely with their School Improvement Program.

Serkadis: We must include all sectors that work on child and youth issues, as challenges in adolescence are complex and interrelated and therefore require a multi-dimensional response. So, in addition to the MoH, the MoWCY, and the MoE, we also engage the Ministry of Justice. They can be good partners for ensuring a strong legal environment that supports and protects adolescents’ rights.

Q: We collaborate closely with government stakeholders from multiple ministries at both the national and sub-national levels on this program. Did working at the regional and lower levels in this cross-sectoral way look or feel any different from what you are doing at the national level in Addis Ababa?

Abiy: There are both similarities and differences. The biggest key issue is that in Ethiopia the regions are somewhat autonomous, so the real action and implementation is taking place at the lower levels. But, work at the national level is still necessary to influence and inform key policies.

Masresha: Cross-sectoral collaboration at every level of government plays a key role in making progress. Working at the national level carries the opportunity to contribute to policy and strategy formulation for adolescent issues in different sectors. But working at the regional and lower levels is so different. They are the ones directly leading activities, and in a place to get results. In Ethiopia, a Woreda is similar to a district. Our project’s Woreda Advisory Committees (WACs) have triggered so many government sectors to come together for the planning, implementation, and monitoring of our holistic program. Their enthusiastic and intersectoral support has helped strengthen our partnerships and our program delivery on the ground.

Q: Was there anything difficult about coordinating with people from so many different sectors?

Abiy: Coordination has a price tag. People are busy, and it takes time and effort to connect, build relationships, and establish a good rapport. But once you build trust, the work flows from there.

Masresha: One of the challenges working across sectors is to get people focused on one common agenda, as naturally each has their own responsibilities and priorities and is also held accountable for their own mandates. So, to create collaboration to collectively resolve one problem takes time.

Serkadis: This has never been easy. Each sector has their own plans and political commitments. High levels of turnover in government can also make sustaining momentum difficult sometimes.

Q: Have there been any program successes that you feel came about specifically because of the multi-sectoral collaboration, which may not have happened if we had only worked with people from a single sector? If so, why?

Masresha: There are several instances of progress which were the result of genuine multi-sectoral coordination at the lower levels of government. For example, sometimes child, early, or forced marriage or sexual and gender-based violence for adolescents is perceived as the responsibility only of one sector like the MoWCY. However, after integrated stakeholder engagement at the Woreda (i.e., district) and Kebele (i.e., village) levels, additional sectoral officials have joined together in a commitment to address these pressing problems.

Serkadis: Yes, there have been successes, and I do not think we will achieve our goals if we only work with a single sector. We have many cases, but in one case both an official from the MoWCY and an MoH health extension worker took it upon themselves to proactively help monitor and support the Act With Her adolescent group sessions in their area.

Q: Do you have any advice for other adolescent-focused programs who may want to expand their sectoral partnerships outside of their core sector?

Abiy: My message is that when three cords come together, it won’t be easily broken. Multiple disciplines working together fosters more effectiveness and efficiency. When you look at what other sectors outside your own are doing, you learn a lot.

Masresha:Adolescents are not a homogenous group. They have diversified and complex needs. So, it only makes sense that response efforts are multi-faceted. Adolescent-focused programs should be sure to invest in designs that intentionally engage across sectors, because it could maximize outcomes.

Serkadis: We must bring in people from other sectors from the very start, not in the middle or end. If we do this, they have the chance to better see the important roles that they play in improving the lives of adolescents. Because it’s always good to remember, we all have a part to play in this.