World Leaders Must Address Global Youth Employment Crisis

The international community's historic commitment to slash worldwide poverty in half by 2015 -- known collectively as the Millennium Development Goals -- has resulted in real advances: Primary school enrollment is up, new cases of preventable diseases are down, and millions of people have climbed out of extreme poverty. Yet even with these steps forward, far more can and must be done to achieve meaningful and sustained progress in every corner of the globe. World leaders, for example, have not fully embraced one of the most powerful engines of economic growth at their disposal -- youth employment.

It's time to do so.

To rebuild and grow, a country needs jobs, economic investments, and a younger generation hopeful about their prospects and able to lead renewal in their communities. You simply cannot make the transition away from poverty toward a new future when huge numbers of individuals, particularly youth, are marginalized as they are today.

The current youth employment crisis, in fact, poses an immediate threat not only to the global economy but to the well-being and security of all citizens.

Even before the worldwide financial crisis added 7 to 9 million youth to the unemployment lines, more than 100 million of this younger generation were without jobs or livelihoods. Thirty percent of young people in North Africa and close to 40 percent in some Middle East countries can't find work. Contrast this with an 18 percent unemployment rate for youth in the United States and you see the enormity of the problem.

In Pakistan alone, 36 million jobs will be needed in the next decade to address rising youth unemployment in that volatile country. Moreover, an estimated 150 million young people who are working can't climb out of poverty due to low wages, dead-end jobs, and slumping economies.

The result: A staggering number of youth are growing up without hope -- disengaged from society, frustrated by limited prospects, and ill-equipped to contribute to their communities.

Reversing these conditions will demonstrate dramatic returns on investments. Time and again, I have witnessed the remarkable progress that can be made when young people have the skills and opportunities to get a decent job and become productive citizens. When fully engaged and employed, this larger than ever youthful generation -- 1.3 billion between the ages of 15 and 24 -- can be a powerful force for change, offering us an historic dividend to be realized through revitalized economies, vibrant communities, and sustained peace for generations to come.

The social and economic impact of not making those investments, on the other hand, is devastating. The combined costs of youth unemployment in the Middle East alone are estimated to reach $25 billion a year -- or 2.3 percent of the region's GDP.

A decent job not only makes it possible for a young person to support his or her family. It makes it far more likely that members of that family will have adequate food, shelter, and the chance to attend school. Employment also offers tangible alternatives to more destructive pursuits. A job training program in an impoverished violence-prone area in southern Philippines, for example, is teaching former youth combatants who were engaged in the local insurgency how to build houses, engage in organic farming, and repair cars. They have become part of the solution to renewal, not the barriers.

"We used to hold and play with guns," says one young ex-soldier. "Now we're holding hammers."

Such transformations ensure hope and prosperity can reach even the toughest neighborhoods.

Time is running out to effectively address this growing crisis of disengaged and disempowered youth. But I'm heartened by recent international development efforts.

Collaborations among governments, businesses, and civic and social organizations -- which support the Millennium Development Goals -- have successfully reduced preventable diseases, raised elementary school attendance and helped close the gender gap.

Can we now mobilize new alliances to dramatically expand livelihood and other economic opportunities for youth worldwide? Our future depends upon it.

Institutions like the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank are expanding their investments in youth employment programs and sharing effective strategies and proven programs with the broader community. Global companies are stepping up to the plate to increase and strengthen youth-focused job training and employment opportunities.

All of us have a role to play. The International Youth Foundation is among leading civic organizations helping to prepare today's youth to enter the workplace. This week, IYF, together with its worldwide network of 175 partner organizations in nearly 80 countries -- is launching a global campaign to raise $155 million by 2012 to expand those employment opportunities. Each one of us needs to take a similarly ambitious stand for the future.

Today, I issue an urgent call to governments, corporations, civil society groups, and individuals to join this global campaign to expand investments in jobs for youth. With some 1.3 billion young people standing on the threshold of adulthood -- we have no time to lose.

In 2015, world leaders will report how close we came to creating a world free of extreme poverty and disease. Will there be joyous celebrations of promises kept or deepening regrets about historic opportunities missed?

With expanded investments and responsible and accountable leadership, we can realize a world where peace and prosperity thrive. Central to that progress must be a fully engaged and productive younger generation. Even in these troubled times, young people offer our greatest hope for the future.

After a distinguished career with the United Nations and the Finnish Foreign Ministry, Martti Ahtisaari was elected President of the Republic of Finland in 1994. In December 2008 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. After leaving office, he founded Crisis Management Initiative (CMI), a non-governmental organization to continue his legacy in helping the international community promote preventive diplomacy, peacemaking and post-conflict statebuilding. Today President Ahtisaari is Chairman of the Board of CMI.