Youthful force for change in society

by Financial Times — January 28, 2008

Around the world, young individuals are demonstrating the power of the next generation to effect change, and becoming active participants in finding solutions to some of the problems they face.

While non-governmental organisations, companies and governments all play a vital role in improving the health, education and employment prospects of the younger members of society, there is an increasing recognition of the power of young people themselves to make a contribution.

Take, for example, three of last year’s Global Fellows in the YouthActionNet programme – an International Youth Foundation initiative: Rachel Nampinga, a 29-year-old Ugandan, is the driving force behind the African Youth Initiative on Climate Change. Abhishek Bharadwaj, a 29-year-old from Mumbai, is building partnerships and spearheading advocacy campaigns to address homelessness. And Neilesh Patel, a 25-year-old American, is connecting health professionals with global volunteering projects.

The problems they face are pressing. On the healthcare front, young people experience a high prevalence of unplanned pregnancies. About half of all people newly infected with HIV are below the age of 25 and adolescents between 15 and 19 are twice as likely to die from complications during pregnancy or childbirth as those over the age of 20.

The risk of unemployment is also high. Young people make up almost half of the world’s unemployed, according to the World Bank’s most recent World Development Report, which for the first time focused on young people under the title “Development and the next Generation”. Some 100m new jobs will be needed for these people in the Middle East and North Africa alone, said the report.

In addition, the bank found that companies doing business in countries such as Algeria, Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Estonia, and Zambia saw poor education and work skills as severely hampering their operations.

For Bill Reese, president and chief executive of the International Youth Foundation (IYF), enhancing the work skills of young people is crucial. “Even in the poorest countries, up to 30 per cent of national budget is spent on education, and that’s an appreciable amount of money,” he says. “But often there is no sense of what the market is going to need and what skills [young people] are going to need.”

Promoting employability is the focus of the Education and Employment Alliance (EEA), a partnership between the US Agency for International Development and the IYF that works in Egypt, Indonesia, India, Morocco, Pakistan and the Philippines – countries with high unemployment rates – to increase job training and education programmes.

Companies are part of the process. The EEA’s partners include corporations such as Microsoft, General Electric and Oracle. Microsoft is also working with the IYF in Africa to improve the employability of young people. Launched in May last year, the programme is modelled on the IYF’s entra 21 initiative, which aims to improve the IT skills of young people in Latin American and the Caribbean.

For companies involved in these and other initiatives, there are sound business reasons for participating – for young people are future employees and customers. “It’s not a jump for companies sourcing and selling in the developing world to realise that the demographics are huge,” says Mr Reese. “And they understand that the social investments need to be there, too.”

At the same time, there is a growing recognition that young entrepreneurs need to be given more support so that they can help reduce unemployment through their own small businesses.

“About 20 per cent of young people have the potential to start their own business but fewer than 5 per cent do so,” says Andrew Devenport, executive director of Youth Business International (YBI).

“So we need to support that missing 15 per cent because if they can start successful businesses, they can potentially offer employment to some of the remainder of the world’s under-employed or unemployed young people.”

To do so YBI, which is part of the International Business Leaders Forum, founded by the Prince of Wales, offers disadvantaged young people around the world loans and business mentors. Mr Devenport says the mentoring is an essential part of the programme. “When you start any new business, regardless of personal circumstances, the big thing is to have a shoulder to lean on and someone who can provide advice and access to external networks,” he says.

While companies and organisations such as YBI and the IYF are focusing on equipping young people for their future working lives – whether as employees or as entrepreneurs – increasingly, young people themselves are also coming up with innovative solutions to global problems.

For these people, technology is the fundamental tool enabling them to get their projects off the ground, to mobilise others to join them and to spread knowledge and information about the challenges they face and the successes they have experienced.

In a world where access to technology – whether through a mobile phone or websites such as MySpace and Facebook – is becoming more widespread, young people are better equipped than ever to find ways of improving their own lives and the lives of those around them.

These youngsters are not only entrepreneurial and technologically savvy, they are also plugged into global networks and connecting as never before, using technology to share ideas.

Several of the IYF’s YouthActionNet Global Fellows are using the power of technology in this way. In Albania, Mjaft!, which translates as “Enough!”, is a youth movement founded by Erion Veliaj and a group of his student friends that uses text messages to spread the word about issues ranging from the failings of the education system to human trafficking.

In Australia, Tom Dawkins has created, a website designed to promote youth participation in democracy by encouraging people to contribute articles, music and essays to the site.

Such individuals possess not only technological know-how. They also have an energy and idealism that prompts them to take risks and look beyond traditional obstacles at new ways of addressing poverty or global healthcare.

“We’ve seen this outpouring of energy from young people all over the world who are wanting to help with these issues,” says Deepti Doshi, talent manager at Acumen Fund, a non-profit venture fund that uses entrepreneurial approaches to address global poverty. “And they can see they can do things a bit differently.”

In the corporate world, recruiters talk of a generation of employees who want to work for companies they see as responsible members of society, while young social entrepreneurs are coming up with innovative solutions to everything from combating climate change in Nairobi to educating peers about the dangers of HIV/Aids in Beijing.

In the world of philanthropy, the children of wealthy families are also becoming more engaged. “We’ve come in contact with young people of wealth who feel a real sense of stewardship and a responsibility to do something with their resources – and they are approaching it with real creativity,” says Beth Cohen, director of the Global Philanthropists Circle at Synergos, a non-profit organisation addressing poverty whose Next Generation Group focuses on young philanthropists and social investors.

Alan Williams, vice-president for leadership and engagement at the IYF believes that young people in all spheres of life have more potential than ever to contribute to change. “[This is] a generation of young people who are more civically engaged than previous generations,” he says.


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