Youth engagement in development: Time for the golden triangle to become a square?

A high school student in Cestos, Liberia takes his final exams. How do we engage the African youth to be at the front and center of development initiatives? Photo by: Ken Harper / CC BY-ND

The formation of government, private and public sectors is often referred to as the golden triangle, but the push for youth to be more centered in development initiatives means there might need to be another point to the three-sided shape.

“Maybe the triangle could become a square,” said Andrea Koppel, vice president of global engagement and policy for Mercy Corps, in response to the question of how to better engage youth in development efforts.

Youth have enormous potential in the context of Liberia, where nearly 70 percent of the population of more than 4 million is under the age of 35, but they’ve also suffered a destructive 14-year civil war when education took a backseat to the battle for survival, according to Liberia’s Vice President Joseph Boakai, present on the panel of Monday’s Mercy Corps-organized “Empowering Africa’s Youth: Lessons from Liberia” event in Washington. Boakai was present on behalf of President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who had to cancel plans to attend the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit and other side engagements due to widespread Ebola outbreak in the country.

Many people became part of Liberia’s lost generation during this prolonged period of conflict, Boakai noted, and continue to face high unemployment and insecure livelihood.

But the development agenda for the country’s youth has changed dramatically from 15-20 years ago, according to panelist Earl Gast, assistant administrator for Africa at the U.S. Agency for International Development. The initial focus on rebuilding the education system as Liberia emerged out of crisis, as well as emphasis on training teachers — while still important — have shifted to looking at areas of employment and job skills. The Accelerated Learning Program, for example, is one of the mechanisms being used to target the skills youth would need to be productive members of workforce and then implement them in training.

“On the demand side, we engage with private sector partners like Coca-Cola and others to understand skills they need,” Gast said, referencing fellow panelist Alexander Cummings, executive vice president and chief administrative officer at the Coca-Cola Co. who was born in Liberia.

So are the U.S. government and private sector speaking the same language in Liberia?

“We’re beginning to,” Gast said. “We certainly understand each others languages better.”

Working together is a core element of the new development model, he said, and it’s impossible to get to scale without properly engaging the private sector. Now that there is a growing private sector in the country, Gast added, it’s important to better shape programs to meet those employment demands.

“We cannot seem to be doing it for them, but with them,” Cummings said of Coca-Cola’s efforts to engage the youth.

Allison Huggins, Mercy Corps country director for Liberia, pointed to a recent Mercy Corps study on youth access to finance which engaged young people to collect information themselves, then come back and analyze the data.

Prior to this process, banks and financial institutions expressed their view that youths were a high-risk population, and the youth themselves said they didn’t understand financial institutions or see them as accessible, Huggins said, but many of these barriers were broken by engaging youths in the research.

While employment and youth programming is important for economic growth, it’s not enough to promote stability, according to Boakai. There is still a need to look at multisectoral programing to touch on complex factors — like lack of leadership skills — which can affect longer-term stability outcomes. And young Liberians are increasingly exploring entrepreneurial opportunities, capitalizing on private sector partnerships and working collaboratively with the government to ensure their needs are met.

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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.