Over the next decade, 1 billion young people are projected to enter the job market. This unprecedented volume of young workers has the potential to drive innovation and prosperity. Yet if the job market is unprepared to absorb the volume of workers — or if the workers are unprepared for the demands of the workforce — economic, social, and political stability could be seriously undermined.
How should implementers approach this challenge? Youth economic or workforce development — or WfD — programs are crucial but must focus not only on bridging the skills gap, but also on engaging the local government stakeholders and legislators who can help champion economic reform. Without government accountability, transparency, citizen security, and free political participation, the prospects for the next generation of workers will be limited, and the potential for disaffection and apathy will only grow.
The evidence clearly indicates that linking WfD to other sectors increases the effectiveness of both. For example, in 2017, FHI360 reviewed 48 USAID-funded programs that integrated WfD with sexual and reproductive health programming and found that integrating sexual and reproductive health and WfD programs led to greater impact over the long-term. However, the gains from WfD programming cannot be realized without good governance — the willingness and ability of local governments to invest in public goods such as education, security, and functioning markets.
Researchers continue to explore the relationship between youth unemployment, education, and political instability. One recent study notes that this relationship is complex, and counterintuitively, youth unemployment might be “a symptom rather than a cause of political instability.” Despite the evidence that youth employment is linked with robust democratic governance, many implementers continue to take a single-sector approach, providing career coaching, technical, and soft-skills training without linking to the larger political and economic environments.
So why are both donors and implementing partners failing to integrate democracy and governance inputs into WfD programming—particularly if youth unemployment continues to be a symptom of bad governance?
The very nature of governance work is complex, and the political state of play or marketplace of actors and incentives can be difficult to navigate. Additionally, implementing partners have often instinctively taken a single-sector approach — perhaps an unintended consequence of any “mission-driven” orientation. Yet remaining faithful to an organization’s central mission and pursuing a more holistic strategy need not be mutually exclusive — in fact, it can ultimately amplify the organization’s impact by securing multistakeholder buy-in.
The first step in moving toward a more holistic approach is to consider governance gaps prior to designing WfD programs, and to engage local governments, public administrators, employers, and other key stakeholders at the outset of any project. Additionally, organizations implementing traditional governance programming should solicit participation and feedback from employers, citizens, and especially participants in concurrent WfD programs. Donors can also help provide greater incentives to foster multi-sector approaches to youth empowerment programming.
This approach is yielding convincing results in Panama — a country with a robust economy, but where the youth unemployment rate is three times the general unemployment rate. The combination of a limited job pool and poor citizen security resulting from governance weaknesses is leaving frustrated young people vulnerable to recruitment by gangs and other criminal actors.
In response, the International Republican Institute integrated WfD into a program that focused on connecting local government actions with at-risk youth through “Ideathons:” team-based project design competitions that help young people develop critical soft skills, design, and pitch ideas to both private sector partners, and local government stakeholders.
While the initial goal of this program was to advance youth civic engagement and increase local government “responsiveness to citizen ideas,” we found that the most impressive outcome has been the commitment from municipal governments to invest in youth-centered and youth-managed projects such as community centers and pocket parks.
The Ideathons program provided a focal point for local officials to improve governance as an alternative to the organized crime groups that have attracted too many Panamanian youth. All three municipal governments in Panama that participated in the Ideathon project have gone on to adopt the program model as part of their community investment programs — indicating the sustainability of this integrated approach to WfD.
Existing models for convening broad coalitions of stakeholders on WfD programs can and should be expanded to integrate governance issues. A number of organizations doing this type of work are already engaging with the private sector as their “supply-side” approach to WfD; but this approach will always be constrained in environments with weak institutions and insufficient youth political participation. For example, a multistakeholder approach to addressing unemployment is critical as it pools the collective resources and knowledge of an issue, and greater buy-in potentially, into more long-term solutions that can be underpinned by reform.
Another option is for implementing partners to engage with public partners, such as the ministry of education or universities, as part of their program design. These programs offer tremendous value in addressing the skills gap, but would be strengthened by also engaging local governments, councils, municipalities, and other stakeholders, who can shape policy and think creatively about how they can continue to invest, adopt, adapt, or scale these programs.
The implementer community has a critical role to play in ensuring that the next generation has the opportunity to become productive members of the global economy — not just by delivering vital skills training, but by fostering the conditions in which they are more likely to thrive.