Originally featured on The Huffington Post
New policies and procedures are announced nearly every day in Washington, D.C., often with little notice, and sometimes, deservedly so. However, a new youth policy just released by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) deserves not only our attention, but real applause. For the first time, it lays out specific strategies and guiding principles for how we, as a country, ought to invest in the world’s young people over the coming years. That’s important for all of us. Here’s why.
Today, half the world’s population, nearly three billion people, are under the age of 25, and the vast majority of them struggle every day, often against terrible odds, to stay in school, find a job and have a voice in society. Yet we know that when young people have the skills and opportunities to contribute to the economic, political, and civic life of their communities, they become their country’s and the world’s greatest assets. This potential demographic dividend of today’s youth population, the momentous events of the “Arab Spring” over the past year, and ongoing challenges of poverty, unemployment, and conflict, make this new youth policy both timely and urgently needed.
USAID, working with the NGO community, has been supporting youth development for decades — and having a real impact on young people and their communities worldwide. The International Youth Foundation has been among USAID’s many partners, working together over the years to expand job and civic engagement efforts in dozens of countries worldwide, including major multi-year initiatives currently being implemented in Jordan, Palestine, the Caribbean, Mexico, Kyrgyzstan, Senegal, Uganda and Mozambique. This new release, entitled “Policy on Youth in Development,” builds on these years of experience in the field and aims to strengthen our collective efforts. In the words of USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, we need to pursue “smarter, more innovative and evidence-based approaches to empowering youth in development.”
As the head of a global organization that for more than 20 years has worked with our locally rooted civil society partners in 70 plus countries to expand work, learning, and citizenship opportunities for today’s young people, I applaud USAID’s new policy for many reasons.
For those of us in the youth development field, this policy provides a strong framework and a set of overreaching goals within which to pursue and evaluate our efforts on the ground. The policy wisely promotes a holistic approach to youth development as young people make the often difficult transition to adulthood, yet recognizes overlapping links with childhood interventions such as health, protection, and education. It underscores the need to strengthen youth programming in areas such as employment and citizenship while also integrating youth issues across other agency initiatives and operations. I don’t believe the agency needs to change its focus on economic growth, democracy and governance, and post conflict situations. In fact, the new policy will help USAID address these challenges better and more sustainably given that 35 percent of the population of most developing countries is in the 15-29 age group.
I frequently advocate that ensuring young people can find decent jobs or create their own livelihoods through entrepreneurship gives societies a 50-year “return on investment.” Those who can work their way out of poverty will gain the dignity and self confidence to be more actively engaged in their communities. As a result, they will contribute to society, both economically and civically, for decades to come, and their children will be far more likely to succeed in school and in the job market. Policy on Youth in Development buttresses this argument, by making young people’s ability to get a job and support their families a critical piece in USAID’s larger goal of boosting economic growth and reaching those at the base of the socio-economic pyramid. Our foundation’s programs focus on expanding opportunities for this same under-served population. Put into practice, this strategy can turn the demographic “bulge” into a meaningful demographic “dividend.”
One of the greatest challenges we face in the NGO community is how to scale up effective and tested programs so we can reach and benefit millions more young people. USAID’s youth policy comes out strongly in support of building public-private partnerships to leverage greater resources to support such expansions. Equally importantly, it presses us all to increase our knowledge and evidence base by implementing rigorous evaluations – so that scaled up programs are built on best practices and metrics-based evidence and will thus have a real and lasting impact on both lives and public policy.
Most importantly, USAID’s youth policy reflects an overarching belief that young people are not simply program beneficiaries but extraordinarily valuable assets in society. This philosophy, that young people, indeed, must be our partners in development, lies at the very heart of our work at the International Youth Foundation. In that spirit, I applaud USAID for engaging 150 youth from 15 countries in the writing and developing of this policy and in providing important feedback. It is a valuable model of cooperation that I hope more policy makers, donors, and implementers will be emboldened to follow in the future.
To create a more prosperous and peaceful society, we need young people who are prepared for jobs in the 21st century, who have the resilience to keep going when times are tough, who feel free to voice their opinions and ideas, and who can lead positive change in their communities. With a renewed sense of urgency, we look forward to continuing our work with USAID and other public agencies and private sector donors to realize this vision for tomorrow.