Youth Engagement as a Means, Not an End

At the Table: Youth Engagement as a Means, Not an End

Author: Sarah Sladen | Manager, Alliance for International Youth Development

Photo Credit: RTI | Senegal & Sierra Leone

On August 12, 2012 the UN celebrated International Youth Day with the theme: "Building a Better World: Partnering with Youth"—a global call to action to develop and engage in partnerships with and for youth. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on governments, the private sector, civil society and academia to “open doors for young people,” stating the need for stronger policies and investments involving youth and youth-led organizations. His remarks were echoed by leadership at USAID and the State Department where Administrator Shah praised young people as “vital change-agents,”and U.S. Secretary of State’s new Special Adviser on Global Youth Issues, Zeenat Rahman, said that young people “are among the foremost potential drivers of economic and social progress.” These statements of support for young people go well beyond rhetoric: the UN is developing a System-Wide Action Plan on Youth that is focused on five priority areas identified by the Secretary General (employment, entrepreneurship, education, citizenship and political inclusion). And at USAID and the State Department, youth engagement is the taking shape in the form of new youth policies.

All of this is welcome news for the community I represent, a coalition of 24 youth and community development organizations that form the Alliance for International Youth Development (AIYD), based at InterAction in Washington, DC. The growing high-level focus on young people is driven by the facts on the ground: Half of the world’s population is under the age of 30—nearly 3 billion people—who face enormous challenges related to unemployment, education, conflict, and health that have only intensified with the global economic downturn. But we regard the new youth policies as indicators of another important shift: how young people are seen by our government as well as their own; as assets, not problems, and as an historic opportunity, rather than a threat to the status quo. At a Town Hall with Tunisian Youth this past February, Secretary Clinton said, “we not only need to think different; we need to think big, because if we don’t, we will miss this moment in history.” For our community, these policies are an important step toward meeting and reinforcing the practice of positive youth development that has evolved out of our work in the field. The focus must be on young people as an economic and social assets and youth engagement matters.

Photo Credit: IREX | Rwanda


What do we really mean by “youth engagement”?

Nevertheless, some may (rightly) ask what all this talk about youth engagement really means. As practitioners of youth development, engagement is an inseparable piece of our work. We know first-hand that if not done effectively, the result can be a photo op with little purpose, or worse, result in disappointed expectations and wasted time for the very young people we seek to include. Youth engagement is about much more than interacting with a special demographic. Like diplomacy, it is complex and requires a clear purpose, sincerity and sustained commitment. Listening and managing expectations is deceptively hard work, but it is also critical to ensuring that our policies and programs are relevant to the needs of young people. As youth practitioners, we rely on young people’s input and leadership to refine and strengthen our programs, and to ensure that we remain accountable to the populations we serve. Simply put, we cannot “do” youth development without youth.


Why should we engage?

But why is youth engagement relevant at all compared to the myriad other challenges and priorities of our government, and of those overseas? Despite a growing focus, it’s easy to regard youth engagement as a “soft issue,” secondary to more clear-cut strategic interests on the part of governments. The term “engagement” may seem abstract but the needs of the global youth population are not: 3 billion young people is not a secondary (or soft) issue, they are the issue. And youth engagement isn’t an “end” but rather a means to identifying how we can best leverage our investments in young people to help them bridge the opportunity divide.

Take Africa for example, where 70 percent of the region’s population is under the age of 30 (higher than any other continent) and more than 20 percent is between the age of 15 and 24. Refreshingly, more positive attention is being paid to the continent’s economic growth and investment potential, as evidenced by Secretary Clinton’s recent trip to the region aimed at deepening political and economic ties. And for good reason: according to the World Bank and the IMF, Africa is on the rise and now home to seven of the world’s ten fastest growing economies. This is good news for the region’s young people—the socioeconomic situation has improved with higher rates of school enrolment and a narrowing gender gap in education. Yet African youth still face big challenges that if left unaddressed, will prevent them from reaping the benefits of the region’s economic growth:


  • With by far the world’s lowest percentage of students enrolled in primary school, basic education in literacy and numeracy reaches too few youth to break the cycle of poverty, let alone compete in a new global marketplace.
  • Youth represent nearly 36.8 percent of Africa’s workforce. Seventy-six percent of workers in Sub-Saharan Africa hold low-skilled, low-quality jobs.
  • In 2009, youth unemployment in Sub-Saharan Africa was 11.9 percent and 23.7 percent in North Africa, with female youth most affected.
  •  In 2007, nearly 3.2 million young people were living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • These challenges will only intensify as the number of youth in this region swells by more than 19 million between 2012 and 2015.


How do companies invest locally if the workforce does not have the education and training needed to obtain lasting and quality employment? How can young innovators transform their ideas into enterprise and social goods without the skills or resources to do it? And how can we talk about democratic freedoms without including more than half the population? Young people in Africa and around the world are already working hard to make a difference for themselves and their communities, but the playing field is uneven and the dividends for youth are far from guaranteed.


The issues facing youth affect us all

When we talk about youth we aren’t just elevating the needs of a special cohort over others; we’re talking about the world’s labor force, its voting body, and the individuals who inherit our civic institutions. The delivery of public services, a nation’s industry, growth, and long-term peace will be determined by what we invest in our young people, right now. They are our present and future partners—we cannot do development or diplomacy without them.

Back to Home

What to know more?