What Comes After Policy?

Photo By: Education Development Center, Inc.(Haiti)
Advancing Youth Development Means Working Together Now, More Than Ever

Four years ago I joined InterAction to help turn an idea into a community of practice. At the time, the “idea” was that a group of international organizations could work together to advance learning and advocacy for international youth development.   What began as a loose network of nine voluntary organizations has since become a diverse group of nearly 24 organizations from the private and non-profit sector: The Alliance for International Youth Development (AIYD), aka “The Youth Alliance” based at our partner InterAction, in Washington, D.C.

AIYD took shape against a backdrop of heightened attention to youth around the world. The Arab Spring put into sharp focus young people’s struggles across the Middle East and North Africa, as well as their ability to mobilize and transform their societies through activism.  At the State Department, a new Office of Global Youth Issues was established under the leadership of then Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. At USAID, the first-ever Policy for Youth In Development was taking shape – AIYD would co-host its official launch in 2012. The UN Secretary General appointed its first Special Envoy for Global Youth Issues Ahmad Alhendawi, who has shaped the UN’s Action Plan for Youth. Today, an even wider set of actors from the private sector in particular are engaging with youth who represent both potential consumers and a labor force. The emergence of people and policies dedicated to youth, coupled with a wider audience for youth development is, I believe, a good thing. Compared to just five years ago, today “youth” is appearing with greater frequency in national and international development agendas.

Visible, invisible youth

Yet youth are also seemingly nowhere: policies require strategies, budgets, and champions from within an institution and without. As AIYD Co-Chairs Patrick Fine (CEO, FHI 360) and Kristin Lord (President & CEO, IREX) illustrate in a recent Op-Ed for Foreign Policy, just as youth have become a more visible part of the global development conversation, there remain significant gaps between seeing and doing, between rhetoric and investment.

How can this be, when even a superficial glance at demographics reveals young peoples’ significance to global development, health and stability? The numbers are compelling: half of the world’s population is under the age of 25. This means that half of all 7 billion of us on planet Earth – nearly three billion people – are at a critical moment of transition from adolescence to adulthood, in need of health services, education, employment, inclusion, and opportunity, and critically, a sense of possibility.

These are complex but not necessarily abstract needs – however distant it may now seem, we have each experienced the challenges of growing up.  The majority of the world’s young people are growing up not from a place of privilege, but more often in resource-scarce, conflict-affected environments. From Baltimore to Abuja, youth are disproportionately impacted by poverty and injustice, vulnerability in the workplace, underemployment, and unemployment. Because of these pressures, youth are vulnerable to gang recruitment and extremism, and thus frequently under the scrutiny of government security apparatuses, regarded as risks rather than assets. Yet youth are also peacemakers, community leaders, activists, and entrepreneurs. They are volunteers. They are parents or heads of households. They are our global workforce. They have or will soon inherit our governing institutions. Or they will be excluded and it will cost us.

Today’s global demographics mean that when we talk about development we are talking about youth development.  Addressing this reality is another reason why coalitions like AIYD exist: because we have a lot of work to do, and we will need to do it together. AIYD’s commitment to positive youth development by definition means that communities – entire societal systems – work together to include young people, and create a continuum of services and opportunities that enable them to grow into successful adults.

So now what?

Coalition building is as fulfilling as it is challenging. Convening a diverse group of organizations to collaborate is especially difficult in a development context that increasingly touts partnerships, but promotes stiff competition, and an aid architecture that creates fewer rather than more incentives for sharing and transparency.  Yet this is the commitment AIYD members make when they join our network: to put their own resources behind a platform that better enables us to work together with the aim of promoting positive youth development within our organizations, and the youth development sector.  AIYD members recognize that no single organization can move the needle on strengthening youth development practice – the challenge is too complex. Taken together however, the expertise of our community and their commitment to young people is powerful. The best moments in my role at The Youth Alliance have been when our members have come together to problem solve, not as competitors but as youth development practitioners who care deeply about advancing the field. Indeed, “neutral” spaces for collaboration and learning like AIYD and InterAction are needed, but far too rare in a field bound by limited resources, and pressure to demonstrate quick success for complex challenges that require long-term investment. 

The youth development community that I have come to know in my role with AIYD includes smart, dedicated people and organizations that represent one part of a development ecosystem of many moving parts, and increasingly diverse actors. Within this ecosystem there is tremendous knowledge from which to learn, but only if we invest the collective time and resources. To this end, over the next two years, AIYD will follow a strategic agenda entitled Youth In Transition: from Education to Economic Opportunity. This agenda builds upon AIYD’s work to date to develop an organizing framework for our community to critically reflect on and advance our work.

To support our efforts in 2015 AIYD has partnered with its member Deloitte, who will lend its expertise and in-house capabilities in data analytics to capture learning from this year.  The Youth In Transition Agenda will: 

  • Map program interventions along a continuum of school to work transitions for young people that demonstrate high potential in helping youth move successfully along the pathway from education to economic opportunity and;
  • Apply these lessons to the rapidly changing landscape of global development, examining how current approaches can anticipate and adapt to challenges face by future generations of young people.   

In addition to our members, AIYD invites engagement from partners and stakeholders beyond our network through learning events and consultations.

To learn more about AIYD and the Youth In Transition agenda, contact: ssladen@interaction.org or 202.552.6558. Visit AIYD at www.theyouthalliance.org, www.facebook.com/aiydforyouth or on Twitter at @AIYD2.