Participants of the Youth Volunteers Rebuilding Darfur Project in Nyala, South Darfur. Photo by: Albert González Farran / UNAMID / CC BY-NC-ND

In December, the United Nations Security Council adopted its first resolution on youth as peacebuilders, not just as perpetrators or victims of conflict. It was historic, United Nations Youth Envoy Ahmad Alhendawi told Devex, and indicative of a kind of “youth spring” in the development sector, where the narrative is slowly shifting from young people as problem, to potential solution.

Alhendawi’s own role was first created in 2013, the same year the first global Youth Development Index was published. The U.N. now has an action plan for youth across all agencies and 49 country offices have youth advisory boards. Others are making changes too: The U.K. Department for International Development announced its youth agenda this year, while the International Youth Foundation and the Center for Strategic and International Studies are currently working on the next Global Youth Well-being Index.

Numbering 3.5 billion, or half the global population, young people can no longer be sidelined. India alone has 800 million citizens under the age of 35 — a generation that could “make or break the Sustainable Development Goals,” Alhendawi said. There is huge opportunity in Africa too, where 40 percent of the world’s children will reside by 2050. Yet, according to Reeta Roy, president and CEO of The MasterCard Foundation, “without significant investment in education, leadership and community engagement, we will not fully reap the impact of that massive demographic shift.”

More than just cashing in on this demographic dividend, youth-led Restless Development wants more emphasis on young people’s active agency in their futures. Not, however, “participation for the sake of it,” said Mark Nowottny, the nongovernmental organization’s director of influence and strategy, but “participation that actually improves development outcomes.”

Secure livelihoods

How do we make this happen?

Whether this generation can sustainably earn an income “will be the difference between eradicating extreme poverty or not,” said William Reese, president and CEO of the International Youth Foundation. More immediately, decent prospects mean safety and stability: In Medellín, Colombia, the city’s former mayor calls an IYF employability scheme his peace program, according to Reese. But though the shortage of positive youth opportunities has clear implications for society, John Hamre, president at the CSIS believes that we’ve so far paid “relatively little attention” to the issue.

20 percent of all youth in developing countries are not in education, employment or training — the so-called NEETs — while, at the same time, employers can’t source the skilled workforce they need. To tackle this mismatch, said Roy, we need to better understand where the growth is and ensure young people have a “line of sight” to the opportunities. Retail or hospitality — upwardly mobile industries with low barriers to entry — are one place to start, said Reese: Research by IYF in 2013 found that the travel and tourism sector alone would need over 70 million new people by 2022.

Involving young people in livelihoods programming, from design to evaluation, would improve their quality and relevance. Support services need to account for today’s reality — mixed livelihoods and the rise in informal, part-time and precarious work — for example, providing training relevant to both formal and nonformal sectors.

Measures of success could be more realistic: looking solely at jobs created or training completed misses part of the picture, Roy said, since a new employee may also work part-time elsewhere or run a business. One underused metric is an individual’s mindset and confidence — “a powerful measure” of their ability to handle transitions in the future.

Space to develop

Employability programs such as IYF’s Passport to Success, used in 40 countries, focus on the life skills employers demand. But such skills are equally important for civic leadership, said Roy. The MasterCard Foundation’s Scholars Program supports the transition into work with an emphasis on transferable skills such as framing problems or setting goals; participants further develop these through the program’s community service component.

Young people also gain valuable experience within their movements and organizations — yet these are among the least-funded civil society groups, said Alhendawi, partly because they are seen as not professional enough to handle financing. Where that’s the case, donors could support their fundraising skills or financial strategies.

And they could provide more flexible funding too, said Sarah Huxley, an independent children and youth rights expert, for example through pooled funding mechanisms that could also draw on donors’ different fields of expertise. Working with partners or intermediaries can make financing more inclusive: the FRIDA Young Feminist Fund, for example, prioritizes grantees usually excluded from donor funding, including nonregistered groups.

It’s not just about money, though: development organizations can consider how they enable youth-led groups to take their share of responsibility, said Huxley. The NGO Plan UK, for example, works with Youth for Change, a network of young advocates and activists, but rather than Plan defining their cooperation, they are negotiating the alliance together.

Fear of harassment or attack limits the potential of young activists, particularly where they work on trickier issues such as reproductive health or sexuality education, or in countries where civil society is restricted. For Nowottny, better understanding of the context is an important first step; development organizations can also support sectorwide efforts to protect civil society space — such as the Case for Space initiative, or the Enabling Environment Index led by CIVICUS, a global civil society alliance.

Meaningful participation

It’s easy for policymakers to talk of inclusion in “a tokenistic way,” said Nowottny, but more than just granting access to the meetings, they must also allow youth to influence their outcomes.

Supporting young people to be politically active can be delicate, and development organizations need to take care to remain politically neutral. That means working closely with government, said Nowottny, and being constructive by playing the “critical friend” role between government and young people — both of whom are crucial in achieving national development goals.

And internally, development organizations need to go further than mainstreaming youth across all their work “to the point that it ends up nowhere,” argued Alhendawi, and consider hiring youth specialists, rather than relying on focal points covering multiple sectors.

DfID’s new youth agenda may be a new benchmark in this respect. All departments are currently looking at how to integrate youth into their operational plans, a spokesperson told Devex, while some country offices already involve young people. DfID Nigeria, for example, has consulted over 600 young people on their priorities for development; in Tanzania, they accompany staff on monitoring field visits.

Associations can miss out on representation when not formally registered, but international organizations can work through national bodies better placed to reach informal networks. Nor should we demand formalization just to suit donors, said Alhendawi, since “youth work can be organized without being institutionalized.”

Filling the evidence gaps

There is growing evidence of the “impressive impact” that youth participation can achieve, said Nowottny, who pointed to the compelling case of the Ebola response in Sierra Leone. With few international NGOs on the ground, Restless Development rapidly mobilized some 2,000 young volunteers as community outreach workers, helping to promote safe practices and significantly reducing infection rates.

For Nowottny, this was visible evidence of what could be achieved by investing in and engaging young people — at a low cost relative to the overall Ebola response. But, he added, we need a broad evidence base, not just individual case studies, and better quality data, disaggregated by age. The U.N. is working on a global youth index to monitor progress on relevant SDG indicators, Alhendawi told Devex; he is also pushing hard for better country-level data. At least 160 countries have or are currently developing a youth policy, but actual spending levels often remain unclear.

More evidence of what works could update the narrative around youth once and for all — from problem to opportunity, from charity case to worthy investment. And youth as “the future?” Alhendawi is tired of hearing it: “It doesn't have the right sense of urgency”, he said. “They are an issue of today.”

To read additional content on youth, go to Focus On: Youth in partnership with The MasterCard Foundation, International Youth Foundation and Center for Strategic and International Studies.

About the author

  • Anna Patton

    Anna Patton is a freelance journalist and media facilitator specializing in global development and social enterprise. Currently based in London, she previously worked with development NGOs and EU/government institutions in Berlin, Brussels and Dar es Salaam as well as in the U.K., and has led media projects with grass-roots communities in Uganda and Kenya. Anna has an master’s degree in European studies — specializing in EU development policy — and is a fellow of the On Purpose social enterprise program.