By Kate Moran
The world has a problem: "too many young people." A March 2016 article by Somini Sengupta in the New York Times makes a valid point in claiming that "it's the youth...that [stand] to put greater pressure on the global economy, sow political unrest, spur mass migration and have profound consequences for everything from marriage to Internet access to the growth of cities." Today, the number of global youth--those between 10 and 24 years old--surpasses 1.8 billion individuals, about 24% of the world's total population. The majority of this number--89 percent--live in the developing world, where educational and labor market infrastructures are in poor or deteriorating condition, ill-equipped to deal with what appears to be a sustained youth bulge.
It was such a youth bulge that in recent years has led to the upending of entrenched political regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, and both peaceful and staggeringly violent uprisings in other countries across the rest of the Middle East and North Africa, from Morocco to Syria and Yemen. And while much discussion has focused on the downsides of such a bulge--mass unemployment and increasing radicalization as a result of socioeconomic disenfranchisement, to name a couple--far less emphasis has been placed on the ways in which the skills and passions of this 1.8 billion-strong community could be harnessed for positive change.
As it currently exists, the development and humanitarian assistance field does not afford a great deal of opportunities for those whom many organizations dismiss as "unqualified" youth--those who do not have access to the very best schools, the best training, and the requisite professional experiences needed to compete. Because even the most basic, entry-level jobs in international development require a high school or university diploma, formal roles for youth of lesser educational opportunity are almost entirely missing. In this way, development as a vocation, one that requires specialized degrees and higher education, reinforces the notion that it is reserved for a select few--a country's most elite and privileged.
In such a context, youth are almost exclusively talked about in the context of beneficiaries--engaged and empowered through development programming--but not necessarily incorporated into the program design process itself. Youth roles in development--particularly for youth in the developing world--are limited; they are rarely given true agency or helped to build the capacity to direct the very programs from which they might best benefit, thus being limited to hashtag and social media activism. That there are no readily available statistics or metrics by which youth are incorporated into program design processes is in itself an indication that a more intentional focus needs to be placed on the issue of their inclusion. Increasingly over the last decade, a great deal of research--such as that undertaken by ChildFund Australia--has centered on the need for such focus; international agencies like USAID have even self-identified youth marginalization in design and development as an issue, leading to attempts at counteracting it.
Yet despite socioeconomic, political, and cultural barriers to their participation in international development writ large, youth are demonstrating their capacity to shake up the development establishment; they are particularly active in the realm of humanitarian assistance, where youth-led initiatives have been working to confront the myriad challenges associated with the Syrian refugee crisis. And while traditionally the development field has been filled with a standard fare of Western-educated professionals with years--if not decades--of field experience, international and local bodies are increasingly recognizing the need to incorporate youth into their programming. Unlike in years past, youth are now being sought after not just as targeted beneficiaries, but as designers, developers, implementers, and innovators.
Participants in the World Humanitarian Summit's Youth Consultation, held in 2015 in Doha, Qatar, produced the "Doha Youth Declaration on Reshaping Humanitarian Aid." This Declaration, among other points, emphasized that youth, "as part of affected populations, are best placed to know the needs of their local communities and thus are often first responders in humanitarian crises. It is imperative that all response strategy needs assessment, planning, and delivery specifically and deliberately include young people as official actors." That is, instead of viewing youth as merely social media activists or low-level humanitarians incapable of affecting real or substantive change, sustainable development practitioners and institutions would best benefit from the full and unlimited use of youths' skills, social capital, and unique community buy-in to better engage and implement programming.
To be sure, the development sector has made progress on this issue. In 2012, USAID published a comprehensive report, which identified "mainstreaming youth through planning and design" as a policy priority. Still, "youth" often remains a buzzword without any real substance behind it, with youth themselves demanding a more authentic role in international development program design. Inclusive processes to address the absence of youth in programming are now standard features of almost every initiative, but gaps remain. A study commissioned by Y Care International and the UK's Department for International Development reveals that youth are still frequently relegated to the margins of program design and implementation. They might be asked to participate in a focus group or workshop--the "needs assessment" phase of an initiative--but they remain absent from field offices and humanitarian missions, where the research they helped inform is translated into a tangible service rendered.
If we are to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, it will take more than lip service to youth empowerment. It will necessitate sustained, genuine engagement of and support for youth-led initiatives, including and especially those within the communities affected by the very challenges those in the development field seek to address. We will have to substantiate our intentions not just with words, but also with dollars--recalibrating our understanding of development as a field and reshaping our perceptions of youth roles.
Kate Moran is a Program Assistant for the Middle East and North Africa at the Center for International Private Enterprise, an international NGO that works to strengthen democracy and promote market-oriented economic reform. She has a B.A. in Middle Eastern Studies and Arabic from Emory University, and currently serves as a Humanitarian Assistance Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.