Enabling Youth

Today’s young people have opportunities for achievement but face obstacles such as insecurity and conflict, lack of infrastructure, scarcity of food and proper nutrition, stagnant economies with little opportunity for employment or entrepreneurship, and inadequate access to quality education and skills training. These challenging circumstances may contribute to many disadvantaged or marginalized youth engaging in illicit activities such as the drug trade or radicalization that leads to violence or extremism. The U.S. government provides a leadership role and valuable resources to counter negative influences. However, as the percentage of youth in the global population increases, additional political will and resources are needed.

InterAction Recognizes

  • The Youth Bulge continues and strains existing resources. The combination of lowering infant mortality rates while fertility rates remain high has created a youth bulge in age demographics, especially in developing countries. As the percentage of youths continues to increase, their needs—such as education, health, housing, and food—expand and assistance providers must match this expansion with greater development resources. The assistance community, governments, and nonprofits must evolve to address these changes. With so many youth alive today, programs must build youth leadership and give youth a voice, so they can play a central role in developing and implementing effective solutions.

  • Many youth are denied opportunities because they are child laborers. While the number of child laborers worldwide has sharply declined many still have to work, including some 85 million children who work in hazardous jobs, which denies them the chance to be in the classroom and pursue an education. By getting children out of work and into schools—including opportunities for technical and vocational education and training—they will have greater ability to direct their futures and work in the formal sectors of the economy.

  • Limited economic opportunities for working-age youth create poverty cycles and disenfranchisement that may lead to criminal behavior, such as participation in street gangs or illicit goods trafficking, or even the adoption of radical beliefs that evolve into terrorism. Youth are also the main victims of gang violence. Yet most youth want to stay positive and be part of the solution. Greater intervention is needed to provide young people with economic opportunities that offer dignity and independence. This is particularly true for girls and young women who face particular challenges as a result of gender inequality. 

Upcoming Opportunities

  • Continue to implement a holistic approach to youth development [President's Congressional Budget Request]: USAID released a report in 2012 entitled Youth in Development: Realizing the Demographic Opportunity. In that report, USAID’s policy task team examined the need for cross-sectoral programs to support youth development and identified innovative programming and policy opportunities, including increasing the capacity of girls and young women to gain more advantage. The new administration and the 115th Congress have an opportunity to continue USAID’s and the State Department’s current implementation of youth-oriented programming in multiple sectors, such as providing education and skills necessary for employment and leadership, healthcare, and access to basic needs such as food and safe water.

  • Restructure resources for youth programming [2017 and Beyond]: In 2015, USAID initiated large, multimillion dollar contracts for the implementation of youth development programs such as, YouthPower as well as major youth-related programs in Central America. While USAID’s funding amount for these programs is impressive and the investment indicates U.S. commitment to global youth, the use of contracts rather than grants and cooperative agreements keeps many local and U.S. nonprofits—which operate independently of the U.S. government, and have historic ties to local partners—from receiving U.S. government resources, and curtails established programming. For example, in Kenya, when a follow-on to a local youth-oriented program run by a nonprofit was revised to be a part of YouthPower, doing so severed the nonprofit ties in the region in favor of the contractor-led consortium, thus eliminating community links that were important for both consistency, implementation, and local ownership of the project. To empower youth, the U.S. government should use assistance mechanisms to provide for lasting North–South civil society connections instead of relying on transactional connections of shorter duration.

  • Expand youth leader development [2017 and Beyond]: The Obama administration successfully launched the Young Africa Leaders Initiative, the Youth Leaders of the Americas, and the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative programs. Expansion of these and the creation of similar programs provide real opportunities for participants of these programs in their home communities. This could take the form of greater public and private partnerships, and include corporate support of employment in participants’ home countries. Young people who have training and job skills need work and ongoing mentorship to ensure they work well and remain employed. Research shows that a positive influence is key in preventing young people from turning to radicalization. As a result, U.S. government programs should mandate positive mentorship in every intervention, whether humanitarian, democracy and governance, or other types of assistance.

  • Grow U.S. government leadership and capacity [2017 and Beyond]: USAID and the Department of State have established youth-related operations and dedicated staff, including the Department of State’s special adviser for global youth issues. The new administration and the 115th Congress can further solidify leadership in youth policy by elevating such staff positions to the administrator and secretary’s office, respectively. The greater involvement of the USAID administrator and the secretary of state and their direct oversight of a coordinator would ensure that youth issues are prioritized in agency-wide policies and ensure that bureaus and offices align themselves in ways that best support policy and program success.

  • Providing for Young Refugees [Immediate]: The ongoing violence in Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, Central America, and elsewhere has led to the unfortunate reality that refugee children are growing up outside of their traditional support networks. Youth escaping such conflicts need resources to integrate into their new communities—a particular challenge because locals may ostracize new arrivals. The extended conflicts cannot be allowed to negatively define the entire future of a refugee generation.

Additional Materials

Current U.S. government policy and programming provide a solid foundation for the incoming administration and the new Congress to expand efforts for youth development, including greater economic opportunity, participation in government processes, and establishing a positive culture of empowerment. For more information, please see:

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