The youth agenda: Enough 'box checking'

University students in Laos. Encouraging more girls to attend and stay in school would achieve many things at the same time, according to Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the U.N. Population Fund. Photo by: HUMA / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

The world today hosts the largest generation of youth in history: up to 1.8 billion young people — most of them in developing countries — with the potential to help tackle major development challenges.  

But on World Population Day, first come the challenges that remain for this youth to find their way to decision-making tables; many are still deprived from quality education, including comprehensive sexual reproductive education, have little or no access to health care, and are not exposed to enough opportunities to find work or participate in the political life of their societies.  

“Youth the world over want to be agents of positive change…we need to empower them to do so,” Ariel Pablos-Méndez, assistant administrator for global health at the U.S. Agency for International Development, said on Thursday at an event focused on youth engagement and the sustainable development agenda in Washington, D.C.

Panelists stressed that so many key objectives in sectors spanning from environment to health could be more effectively achieved if more emphasis is first placed on human rights — specifically on the role and importance of youth.

In fact the youth agenda — precisely the focus of this year’s World Population Day— has never been more important, Pablos-Mendez added, not only because of their sheer numbers but because the needs of these young people to realize their goals are simply not being met.

Such a large number of young people represents equally large economic potential. And as Suzanne Ehlers, president and CEO of Population Action International, noted: it’s not just their future, “it’s our future.”

Though strides have been made in primary education enrollment, there is a deficit in access to secondary education, especially for girls, noted U.N. Population Fund Executive Director Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin.

Encouraging more girls to attend and stay in school, he said, “would achieve so many things at the same time,” including helping to put an end to early marriage when these girls “disappear from the statistics.”

But first, it’s going to take less “box checking,” and a healthy dose of reality, suggested Ehlers.

“What I see consistently is that we have a real fear of accepting reality, reality that young people are having sex, that they’re getting married, that they’re not finishing their education,” she said.

Ehlers gave the example of a venture capitalist interested in investing in women-run businesses in the Middle East. The problem? Once he did his research, there weren’t very many women running businesses that he could invest in. That’s why without eradicating child marriage and ensuring girls are finishing secondary education, “we’re not going to have them to invest in as human resource potential.”

Helping them influence the policymaking process is key, she added. And doing this will require more thoughtful investments and “no more low-hanging policy fruit with no plan for implementation,” as well as more collaboration across sectors.

Framing and visuals must change too, Ehlers suggested, from a photo of a woman in a developing country with her six children to a picture of a successful business woman in Nairobi or a young Malawian college graduate whose father supported her continued education.

It’s time to look at some examples where this kind of shift is taking place, Osotimehin added.

Recently returned from a trip to Rwanda, the UNFPA chief observed the highly-educated young people of Rwanda’s parliament — 64 percent of which are women — stand before their president and share their vision for their country.

“Young people are assets,” he said — and the choices they make, as well as how loud they are heard, will affect the world for generations to come.

How can the development agenda more effectively engage youth? Please let us know by emailing us at or leaving a comment below.

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About the author

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.