High unemployment. Crime. Environmental degradation. Social and political unrest.

These are real issues facing millions of young people across the world. But more often than not, youth are meeting these challenges head on.

Many of our USAID missions around the world, often in post-conflict arenas, are working diligently to empower youth so they can serve as leaders in their communities.

Young Palestinian Youth Local Shadow Councils install traffic signals, paint sidewalks and organize a local tourism bike tour.

Young Palestinian Youth Local Shadow Councils install traffic signals, paint sidewalks and organize a local tourism bike tour. / USAID

For example, our mission in West Bank/Gaza supports a project that aims to provide leadership opportunities to 19 youth councils through mirroring their municipalities’ local elected governments. Youth Shadow Local Councils are comprised of young people between the ages of 15 and 22. Each group is composed of about 15 young people, a number that mirrors the number of local elected municipal leaders in individual jurisdictions. This allows the youth councils to shadow their town counterparts one-on-one as the elected officials go about their official duties and to learn lessons in good governance.

The young people also get opportunities to take on leadership roles in their communities through this project, engaging with not only local officials but also heads of NGOs and religious leaders. The councils have, in fact, implemented hundreds of local initiatives and activities impacting local communities, including beautifying parks and roads, hosting career fairs, conducting safety and traffic campaigns, and fundraising for local organizations.

In Kenya, our Yes Youth Can! project also supports democratic youth groups, called bunges, a Swahili word for parliament. Youth elect their own leaders within their villages as well as individuals to represent them at county and national levels.

Bunge members contribute to their communities by providing income-generating activities such as garbage collection that also serve to revitalize their neighborhoods. In one community, bunge members started a small private school providing scholarships for orphaned kids.  School fees are funneled into paying the teacher and renting space. The school is tackling illiteracy head on and providing opportunities for a new generation.

Another bunge has lobbied regionally to use biogas and other biodegradable materials as sources of energy rather than charcoal and firewood. These communal activities are building a culture of peace and professionalism for youth and helping to dispel negative perceptions that associate them with drugs and illegal activities.

In Kosovo, youth are becoming active citizens through USAID’s Basic Education Program, a five-year initiative benefiting all Kosovo public primary and lower secondary schools. The program is empowering Kosovo youth to create a shift in mindset and become future leaders. Youth are raising environmental awareness through student-driven environment education activities that encourage understanding of sustainability concepts and strengthens their leadership skills. To mark Global Youth Service Day and Earth Day last month, students created artwork with recycled materials, led a community class on environmental issues, and promoted recycling as well as the use of lowering one’s carbon footprint by riding bikes. In the spirit of promoting voluntarism, a group of students sold cookies donated by a bakery to raise money for purchasing books on the environment that were to be donated to a school library.

USAID projects supporting youth are creating a new paradigm of community engagement, helping to rebuild post-conflict communities and creating hope in increasingly challenging situations.

These courageous youth are embodying the wisdom behind Gandhi’s words “Be the change you want to see in this world” through bringing their countries into a new era – ushering in service as a new way of life.



Stephanie Hilborn is a Democracy Officer in USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance. Special contributions from Genora Reed (USAID/Washington), Micheline Sleibi (USAID/WBG), Antigona Mustafa (USAID/Kosovo) and Roger Steinkamp (USAID/Kenya)