I find it common in international development for those of us with sectoral expertise to view our sector as primary. Whether it’s health or nutrition colleagues arguing that if people aren’t healthy nothing else will be effective, or economists saying jobs give people the security to be receptive to initiatives in other areas, or education practitioners – myself included, I admit – arguing so often that education is the “silver bullet” for poverty reduction, healthcare, rights and participation, and, well, pretty much everything.
While I make that silver bullet argument regularly (and probably will do so here at some point), a greater truth is that all sectors are inextricably linked to each other. Kids can’t go to school if they’re sick or need to care for someone at home. People can’t create or find well-paying jobs without education. And people can’t pay for healthcare without income. Ties run much deeper than these examples and across all sectors, but you get the idea.
The inter-sectoral nature of all development activity and the diversity of stakeholders in each make development inherently complex and identifying where we get the most “bang for our buck” can be hard. The answer, of course, is working on all areas through context-specific entry points. But how do we make sure the work is enduring? I think the answer lies in working with youth.
Historically, youth have been ignored or overlooked in development work. We’ve prioritized jobs for non-youth men, nutrition and education for young children, women and girls in all areas, or have focused on communities or governments generally without an age or gender perspective. I’m not criticizing or diminishing the importance of working with any of these groups, and I acknowledge a spike in youth programming in recent years. But I want to highlight the tremendous outcomes working with young people can have both short and long-term.
There is no demographic in any society that is as driven or creative as youth. That flies in the face of a lot of stereotypes, especially about youth in the West, but it’s true. Youth are open to ideas, new and old alike, and actively seek their place in the world. They’re looking for how they can contribute. They’re not weighed down with dejection or resign themselves to the status quo. Quite the contrary, they’re more optimist than older generations on the whole and tend to believe that they can change the world.
Yet too often we tend to view youth as troublesome, naïve, and disengaged. We see them as a problem, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Youth have and are the solution to problems. If youth are appropriately engaged and encouraged, if they understand that they have a voice that is valid, that they have agency, that they can participate in and contribute to their communities in a positive way, then they will raise their voices and act to address the issues they identify. This is not to say that the experience of older generations is invalid, but rather to say that we gain energy, vision, ingenuity, and resourcefulness when we broaden the circle of voices to include the young. That engagement and forward-thinking make youth leaders both now and for years to come, and makes the changes and solutions they come up with more sustainable.
Youth are not just the future, but also the present. They’re not just preparing to be the leaders for tomorrow; they’re among the leaders of today. And we see this around the world. From students in Chicago who organize dialogue sessions for groups in conflict. To the young woman in Libya working to ensure women’s voices and hands shape that country’s future. To the young man in Kenya who invented a solar lamp to light rural communities who lack electricity. To the teenage girl in Pakistan who refused to be silent about education for girls, and is now the youngest person to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Examples of youths refusing to wait to contribute to their communities, their countries, and our world far exceed the space I have here, and can be found in all corners of the world, in all countries. Every day, youth show us that they are not just the future, but also the present. And in a world as complex and interconnected as ours, and with work as intricately interlinked as ours, we owe it to youth to be prioritize them, respect them and their views and experiences, and support them not just for tomorrow, but for today.