UPSHIFT: Putting Youth in the Driving Seat of Change

Written by: Agon Maliqi

Meet the Ferizaj Four


The Ferizaj Four at UPSHIFT, a works
The Ferizaj Four at UPSHIFT, a workshop that enables youth to build and lead solutions to a social challenge in their community. (c) UNICEF/Njomza Kadriu


Uresa, Arbnor, Albrim and Alma are four teenagers, from the city of Ferizaj, Kosovo[1], who share a common concern: the lack of opportunities for more meaningful engagements amongst youth[2]. Like many of their peers, they’re not content with being life’s bystanders—unemployed, disenfranchised, and disconnected. On the contrary, Uresa, Arbnor, Albrim and Alma – also known as the Ferizaj Four – share a special drive with many of Kosovo’s young people: when they see something wrong in their community, they insist on making a difference regardless of the challenge.



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Far too often, young people like the Ferizaj Four can’t find the right platforms to channel their altruistic energy and creative ideas thus succumbing to the cynicism of the environment, and accepting—albeit unhappily—the disempowerment and disenfranchisement that pervades Kosovo’s youth.

The Ferizaj Four began to plan their seeds in February of 2015 thanks to a notice pertaining to an upcoming workshop called UPSHIFT facilitated by UNICEF Innovations Lab Kosovo. Through UPSHIFT, young people from their region were invited to take part in a unique three-day workshop from 13-15 March 2015. It’s actually that platform that brought them together—by enabling them to build and lead a solution to a social challenge in their community, and join a network of young innovators thousands strong. You can read more about UPSHIFT here.

During UPSHIFT, all participants learned about project development and, depending on how well they performed, they were provided the means to implement an initiative of their own.


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Soon after partnering to work together, the Ferizaj Four set out to survey citizens in downtown Ferizaj, fishing for an issue they could work on. A woman told them a touching story about her son’s eyesight problems and inability to afford a pair of glasses.

The group decided to pinpoint the problem of lack of awareness and care-seeking behavior around optical health. Their application approved, the four duly accepted to take part in UPSHIFT, spending three days and nights in mid-March incubated at a hotel, together with other similar youth groups from their region. By the end of the three-day workshop, their “Let’s See” project was selected as one of five winning ideas that would go on to receive implementation support.

“Let’s See”




"Let's See" addresses the issue of optical health in their community. (c) UNICEF
“Let’s See” addresses the issue of optical health in their community. (c) UNICEF/Njomza Kadriu


Four months have passed since the group set out to improve the issue of optical health in their community. They are well into the final stages of implementing project “Let’s see” and feeling transformed by the entire experience.

They finished a tour of 10 primary schools where, joined by an ophthalmologist, they held awareness activities with around 400 schoolchildren about the importance of optical health.

During these lessons, they also played a short fiction film, which they made themselves. It tells the story of a kid who can’t play football and can’t sit with his best friend in his classroom’s last-row bench because he can’t see the blackboard clearly from there. He realizes that a visit to the doctor is a must and that glasses would allow him to learn more and hang out with his friend. The film was written, directed, produced and distributed by the Ferizaj Four.

At UPSHIFT, the group concluded that one of the reasons why kids and parents resist using glasses is the concern about their physical appearance. The Ferizaj Four made sure to address this issue in the film’s script. “The glasses make you look smart!” the friend tells the film’s main character.



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Every project activity was designed having in mind how it addressed a particular cause of the problem. “It’s not just kids, it’s also teachers and public officials who are unaware about the scope of the optical health issues. That is why we will be doing a public march and a debate with parents and authorities, in order to get them more involved,” says Uresa.

                              UPFSHIFT: helping youth drive social change

In development assistance and government circles, there is a lot of talk about getting young people like the Ferizaj Four engaged in the kinds of social impact projects like “Let’s See”. It’s one of those heart-warming and romanticized ideals that very often end up as empty rhetoric, resulting with policies, laws and programs that are too vague and general to have any tangible impact.

For several years now, UNICEF Innovations Lab Kosovo has worked on changing this approach to youth empowerment through the By Youth For Youth (BYFY) pillar of its program, funded by the Austrian Development Agency.

The programme’s theory of change posits that, through training, mentorship, and the experiential learning of building and leading a social business or other social impact initiative, the programme can strengthen vulnerable young people’s professional readiness and entrepreneurial skills. These skills then enable them to build social capital and connect with other change makers across a variety of backgrounds, and give them the confidence and leadership skills to rise to the challenges—social and economic—they’re set to inherit.

The Lab saw BYFY’s role as an incubator bridging the gap between ideas and impact. Giving wings to youth potential, if we’re to speak metaphorically.

Since 2011, the Lab has experimented with various methods to achieve this goal.

Initially we began with a simple open call for applications for youth projects which we would then support with advisory services and financial assistance. But there was a lot of self-selection through this method. Those with good projects already had capacities and experience while many others with good ideas did not feel confident to apply and didn’t know how to develop a good proposal.

– Arbnore Berisha, Senior Youth-Led Project Officer

UNICEF Innovations Lab Kosovo

Later on, the Lab took on a more incubatory approach by providing project development support through workshops such as Social Innovations Camps (known as SI Camps). Young people work in groups to develop technological solutions to social problems. Working in groups proved to be useful in developing better project ideas. But the creaming effect was still there: in this particular case, not everyone had the skills and tech savvy to take part, or the fluency in English needed to benefit from foreign mentors’ advice.

Later models of workshops – such as iInnovate Camp – improved on the outreach component to get the word out to marginalized groups. The key innovation to these programmes was the inclusion of individual mentors to work continuously with small groups and nudge their work.

The Lab team knew they could do better, and brought onboard the team from Laundromat Design to turn the lessons—good and bad—from earlier models into the insights and principles that would underpin UPSHIFT. First piloted in October 2014, UPSHIFT’s key ingredient is the detailed and unique mentoring methodology developed by the Lab’s team in Kosovo—and praised by young participants as being very effective.



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What makes the methodology special is the sequenced curriculum that uses and teaches young people the sophisticated and cutting-edge skills used by businesses and development organizations—namely, human centered and user centered design, design thinking, agile development, and rapid prototyping.

Through UPSHIFT, the Innovations Lab team basically decided to teach young people the same tools and methods that the Lab uses to build its initiatives—the same tools that they used to develop UPSHIFT, where it’s the other way around: young people from vulnerable groups are taught how to generate change from below, at the micro level, building solutions to challenges that are every day realities to them, their peers, their families, and their communities.


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Out of 10 groups in March, five of the best project proposals were awarded financing. The group working on optical health received 2,000 Euro for their project.

“I must say I felt comfortable throughout the training,” said Sejhan, an UPSHIFT participant from Ferizaj who was part of another group from the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian (RAE) non-majority communities addressing the problem of early marriages. “The lecturing was interactive, informal and encouraged creativity. We also mixed serious work with fun activities.”

Building impact and agents of change

Ultimately, youth led projects can generate many immediate impacts for communities in developing countries. Certainly, some projects can do more and are more ambitious than others in ensuring sustainability and spillover. For example: one of the youth groups from the first UPSHIFT in October implemented a recycling project that was later picked up by municipal authorities as a creative solution.

But perhaps the impact that matters most from UPSHIFT – the one that makes every cent spent on the programme worthwhile – is the transformative impact it can have on the young people implementing the project themselves.

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UPSHIFT helped the Ferizaj Four gain confidence and also provided a sense of authority with those around them. “People would open their doors when we mentioned that we were supported by UNICEF,” said Alma, a member of the group. “We even got to meet the head of the municipal department of health.”

There is nothing more sustainable than investing in the confidence and capacities of creative and energetic youth in their formative years. UPSHIFT seems to have found a great formula through its holistic approach – from making sure that young people from vulnerable groups are able to discover and connect with opportunity, to making sure teams emerge with a well-designed initiative, to supporting teams with mentorship and additional training during implementation.

As a methodical approach to creating young change makers, UPSHIFT promises to be easily implemented in nearly any context. In fact, the meme has already travelled: the BYFY program and the UPSHIFT methodology developed in Kosovo have been chosen by UNICEF Innovation as one of the five project initiatives for global scale-up; plans are in motion to replicate the programme in other countries around the world.

Will the seeds of change planted in Kosovo bear fruit for young people in other parts of the world? In the words of the Ferizaj Four: let’s see.


[1] Kosovo is mentioned here and thereafter in the context of UNSCR1244

[2] 35% (41% amongst girls and women) are not in employment, education, or training (KAS Labour Market Survey 2014); 55% (68% amongst girls and women) of youth participating in the labor market are unemployed (ibid.); 64% of youth feel little or no representation in decision-making (FES, Kosovo Youth Survey, 2012).

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