Ideathon! —Helping Youth Pitch, Pilot and Promote Solutions

Panama is a stable democracy with a strong economy, but opportunities for economic, civic, and political participation do not come equally to all citizens. In 2015, we listened to youth in marginalized, lower-income communities who said they felt excluded and regarded by society as criminals-in-training. Such perceptions seemed to fit into a cycle of mistrust and exclusion, eroding the quality of democratic governance in these localities.

Besides sports leagues, local governments didn’t seem to offer much these young people who faced limited opportunities and were not begin reached by programs available in more affluent neighborhoods. They were looking for a chance to show they could make a positive contribution to their communities and come up with creative solutions to the problems they saw first-hand.

First conducted in Panama in 2016, IRI’s Ideathon model uses competition to help young people realize their natural capacity to serve as positive change agents. Teaching technical and soft skills, the Ideathon combines social entrepreneurship and workforce development with citizen engagement—by helping youth develop community improvement concepts, pitch them before civic leaders and local authorities, and by connecting them with local governments to carry them out.  

IRI has trained over 200 youth in Panama, providing not only technical skills but encouragement to improve self-esteem, self-reliance and resilience. Dozens of these young people have gone on to design and implement seven community-based pilot projects, which have engaged more than 1,300 additional youth and community members in three Panamanian municipalities. Municipal governments have taken local ownership of the process and committed to continue to carry out Ideathons for youth on an annual basis, demonstrating appeal and sustainability of the model.

Youth project teams have gone on to new roles and opportunities thanks in part to their participation in the Ideathon process. In the municipality of San Miguelito, one Ideathon project created a path for its leader to find a new career leading the youth division of his mayor’s office. Other youth participants have gone on to brighter educational and economic opportunities and some have been inspired to work with local civil society groups to keep their Ideathon initiatives going.  Not bad for “criminals-in-training.”

The Ideathon process features five components that bring together youth, civil society, academia, the private sector, and local government partners to address social, economic, or governance problems affecting their community.

Best of all, the Ideathon concept can be adapted to almost all contexts and environments and is a great way to foster civic participation among marginalized populations or in communities without an established culture of civic engagement. For more information, see IRI’s Ideathon Toolkit. Have questions or would like to learn more? Email


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