Allan Williams

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
South Africa
Fellow since 2006
This description of Allan Williams's work was prepared when Allan Williams was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2006.


Allan Williams is teaching young people to understand government as well as promote leadership through a program that models actual government ministries in high schools. 

The New Idea

Allan Williams has developed an innovative program that enables young people in South Africa to understand the governance model of their young democracy and actively and consistently participate in the democratic process. The program targets learners between 16 and 18 years old, modeling actual government ministries of the South African government in their schools. This allows youth to take charge of the social challenges that they face, participate more actively in partnership with school administrators in the daily affairs of their school, community and country, and most significantly the program offers unprecedented leadership opportunities. The effect is two-fold: the young people emerge empowered about their ability to shape their lives by understanding governance structures and process in South Africa; and through the development of leadership skills and practices they gain an advantage as they make life decisions and compete for opportunities and jobs. Allan designed the South Africa Youth Ministerial Project (SAYMP) so it would help revitalize student participation in all aspects of school affairs, from governance to curriculum development. The skills and outreach then extends into their communities’ and nation’s democratic processes. The program accomplishes this through its unique structure which mimics exactly the ministries of the South African government.  Allan has been able to effectively leverage the government’s recent prioritization of more interactive learning methods, which had remained an empty promise due to a lack of effective models for implementation. With pilots in 15 schools, Allan envisions a school-based ministry in every South African school, overseen by a national governing body that would not only model but also provide insight and input to the national government.

The Problem

Eleven years after South Africa's first democratic elections, young people are still largely uneducated about their rights and responsibilities under the new structure. Their understanding of the electoral and governance processes are in most cases limited to exposure through their parents’ knowledge and activities, general observations in their communities, and limited exposure at school or through the media. Civic education is being slowly introduced into schools, but mostly in an academic and abstract form. The result is a serious deficit in young people’s understanding of the system and especially to what extent policies shaped by elected representatives affect their own lives. There is some effort to change practice in schools; however school governance, curriculum and extra-curricular development are almost always directed exclusively by adults. The Department of Education has recognized this to be a major cause in failure to develop a culture of critical analysis in schools and is attempting to resolve it by means of a more participatory teaching methodology called "Outcomes-Based Education". Nevertheless, practical implementation of that theory remains elusive. This scenario is compounded by the pervasive culture in South Africa where children 'are to be seen but not heard'. If young people attain maturity with a sense of little to no individual responsibility or the capacity to shape their own lives, the risk exists for massive social breakdown in the future. The symptoms are already present: studies assessing the impact of campaigns to encourage young people to change risky sexual practices to reduce the chance of contracting Aids exposed a widely held belief that individual choice was not a factor in terms of getting infected—they thus saw no real need to alter behavior. This trend is not just a social tragedy, but a danger for the ongoing stability of communities. Young people who do not feel powerful even when it comes to the most personal of decisions are highly unlikely to become empowered adults.

The Strategy

Allan recognized that one of the greatest challenges facing young people—the future leaders of the country—is the belief that they have little to no power to affect the course of their lives. His overall approach is to offer youth opportunities to rectify this in a tangible way. To have maximum effect and reach the largest number of youth, Allan realized that his intervention would have to be integrated into their daily lives and at a location where they spend the most time: school. Allan was aware that previous programs of a similar nature were directed by educators/teachers who drove and implemented them. Eventually the youth lost interest since they did not feel a sense of ownership. In Allan’s program, the learners are the leaders. To gain access to work in schools, Allan first seeks authorization from the Department of Education and respective school governing bodies. He has had success billing his program as a vehicle to implement the government-endorsed Outcomes Based Education model. Since the initiative's formal inception in late 2000 with four participating schools in one province, SAYMP has grown and now operates 15 schools in three provinces. The second stage in his intervention involves education on the democratic process and the consolidation of the program in each school. He has entered into a partnership with the Electoral Institute of South Africa (EISA)—a statutory body that runs and monitors general and presidential elections in South Africa—who provide training on voter education, human rights and democracy to a selected group of learners (Electoral Officers) and one teacher (Teacher Liaison Officers). On completion of the two-day course, the "model EISA" is then charged with returning to the school and running elections for the 14 Ministerial offices. Like the conventional democratic process, students interested in holding office are obligated to motivate their candidacy in public forums, debates, and advertisements.  Elections then take place under the supervision of the Electoral officers and Teacher Liaison Officers. On election for a one year term, the Youth Ministers are charged with developing policies for each of their portfolios in collaboration with their appointed cabinet (must consist of at least five other learners) and where necessary with school governing bodies. To assist in policy formulation, Allan has formed relationships with various government Ministries and as such the Youth Ministers can receive direct advice and suggestions on how to fulfill the responsibilities of office. In the 15 schools that SAYMP is present, the Youth Ministers and rest of students have already enjoyed new horizons of opportunity. For example in early 2003, the Ministers of Trade and Industry and six representatives from each school attended a workshop on entrepreneurship. On course completion, the participants spread their knowledge back in school and opened small businesses. But perhaps the most significant achievement so far of the project is influencing allocations in the 2003 Government Budget. The Youth Ministers of Finance from the four pilot schools canvassed student opinions from their schools and collectively presented a proposal to the Minister of Finance. The results were far from their wildest imaginations: their input was noted and acknowledged in the Ministers budget speech to parliament. The input from the SAYMP is now an annual occurrence with the Minister submitting the budget to the SAYMP for comment before presentation to parliament.  Resulting success combined with public and media attention on the program has created a demand which supports Allan's vision for the spread the project to the rest of South Africa. His ultimate vision is for every school in each of the nine South African Provinces to have elected Youth Ministers in the 14 national government portfolios. On top of this structure will be 14 nominated Executive Ministers in again the 14 different government ministries. Like the conventional government structure, the highest authority in each province will be a Youth Premier who will form part of the national parliament developing, lobbying for, and implementing democratically agreed upon policies. The national parliament will be the springboard from which the project spreads and interfaces with the rest of the continent. Given the logistical challenges of this venture, Allan is considering lobbying for the project's integration into national education curriculum but would remain involved to ensure that the program remains dynamic.

The Person

Growing up under Apartheid, Allan experienced many of the same hardships of others who fell into the “non-White” racial categories. Upon political emancipation in 1994, he had very high expectations for the socio-economic and political transformation of the country. Despite his best hopes, the change he wished for could not take place overnight and some of the worst problems persisted. When instances of mismanagement and corruption regarding the new government begun to surface, he realized that he had to take a personal stand and become part of the solution.  His first response was to start a soup kitchen for destitute children in a township in his hometown of East London. The kitchen began very humbly with him handing out sandwiches after church services to homeless children from the ages of 3 to 15. As time went on he grew to greatly treasure these experiences. During these encounters he began to note a sense of hopelessness in young people—especially from poor communities—and began to develop ideas on how to stem this epidemic. Although the soup kitchen (which still exists) filled an immediate need, the deeper problem of a sense of inability to rise up against one’s circumstances remained. Allan realized that the youth years were a critical time for learning life skills like leadership and problem solving that could prevent the destitution he saw around him. He therefore left the project in stable hands and relocated to Johannesburg where his concept of the SAYMP took shape and he began his first pilots.