Youth volunteers in Cambodia. Photo by: USAID Asia / CC BY-NC

Emerging development leaders in the Asia-Pacific paint it as a region of contrasts. Home to the enormous potential of more than 60 percent of the world’s youth population, the region also hosts two-thirds of the global poor.

For young development professionals, this situation presents both a challenge and an opportunity for change. Quality education and youth unemployment are among the most pressing themes that emerge: How to ensure the more than 750 million people under the age of 25 have enough skills and knowledge to contribute to the region’s social and economic development.

“As youths are the pillars of the nation and the backbones of [an] economy, youth engagement … can direct and pave the roadmap for solving different [development] problems,” Sushil Adhikari, a youth and disability rights activist from Nepal, told Devex.

Adhikari is one of the 12 Asia Foundation development fellows working to create positive change in their countries and communities. Devex spoke with the Nepalese advocate and three more development fellows to get a glimpse of where these emerging leaders see the opportunities for breakthroughs and innovations in development work.


Bringing governance and policy closer to the people they serve is a common theme for the young leaders who spoke with Devex.

Ruby Hembrom, a cultural and indigenous people’s rights advocate from India, explained that cultural and political inequality plays a role in the welfare and future of marginalized people. Her organization, Adivaani, focuses on spotlighting the plight of Adivasis, one of the indigenous people in India.

“I come from a country where only those elected … [are] considered leaders, which automatically leaves community ‘leaders,’ activists and individual animators out of the pursuit for real ‘change’ on a grand scale,” she told Devex. Nonpolitical leaders “don’t hold enough power to influence policy change.”

This focus on politics and power also resonated with young leaders from Afghanistan and Nepal. Adhikari said he sees a pro-poor policies at times compromised by those in power.

“[One] fundamental challenge is institutional corruption leading to insecurity,” Nangyalai Attal, jobs expert at the International Labor Organization in Afghanistan, told Devex. “Corruption has turned to a generational practice, and this is halting inclusive and sustainable development.”

All these issues are hampering meaningful policies and solutions to take place on the ground, according to East Timor’s Carmenza dos Santos Monteiro. Apart from poverty alleviation, Monteiro government’s role should be to “manage and sustain growth needed to create jobs” which can only be achieved if through the “principles of good governance, transparency and accountability.”

In addition to these structural challenges, Hembrom also pointed out the daily difficulties of development work: resources. “We mostly operate on a limited bandwidth, either with specific issues or target groups — the challenges are certainly financial constraints and human resources,” she said.

Role in the process

These emerging development leaders told Devex that they see addressing corruption, inequality and transparency as an equally important piece of their countries’ development. Without solving those structural issues, poverty alleviation programs will be stymied by problems of access, inclusivity, and sustainability.

“Inequalities of income, opportunity and power are the results which are directly linked with the disparities in access,” Hembrom said.

She and other emerging leaders “try and plug the gaps that lead to further imbalances,” Hembrom said. “We have to tackle the essentials of these differences and inequities by fundamental interventions of awareness of rights, how to access basic services.”

“Our goals are to help those at the peripheries, in unorganized sectors, an inclusive development to achieve a quality of life they deserve,” she said.

A different approach

Young development professionals are increasingly looking toward entrepreneurship to help combat these challenges.

Development entrepreneurship works by finding “technically sound, politically possible” reforms that can transform institutions and markets, according to a paper by the Asia Foundation.

Adhikari, who lost his sight at age 11 and campaigns for accessibility, said entrepreneurship offers a new way of thinking about innovations. “[It] is the act of transforming problems into possibilities, challenges into creativity and different obstacles into opportunities via innovative solutions,” he said.

“Technology cannot be a solution to every pain, every wound and every challenge,” said Attal, who also heads a nonprofit focused on advancing girls education in Afghanistan. Entrepreneurship, he said, also means human solutions such as collaboration and interaction.

Hembrom, meanwhile, said it will be vital for new leaders to harness the potential of new innovation. “It’s not just a way to fulfill aspirations or bridge opportunity gaps, but generate employment for the informal sector.

“When the entrepreneurship approach seeks methods and ways to benefit from coordinated government policies, it has far reaching consequences,” she concluded. “[These] eventually work toward effectiveness and sustainability that [give] the most underprivileged communities a fighting chance.”

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About the author

  • Lean 2

    Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.