The Empty Seat at the Table: Are we Paying a Heavy Price for Ignoring Half of the Global Population?

PYXERA Global

The global youth population is currently the largest it has ever been. With almost half the world’s population under the age of 25 and nearly a quarter between the ages of 10 and 24, empowering young people has never been more important.

I have seen the power of youth voice firsthand. As a child growing up in India, I watched my dad mentor troubled kids and even bring them along on our family vacations. I saw my mother constantly cooking for complete strangers, many of whom were youth. In my teens, I started the Calcutta Youth Club to encourage youth participation in civic projects. We produced handwritten leaflets to post on message boards; organized blood donation camps, charity events, and sporting activities; improved living conditions in several slums in Calcutta; and provided shelter to women facing domestic violence. The Club provided a safe place for many vulnerable young people, but most importantly, it offered a practical internship on writing, mentoring, organizing, budgeting, and other critical professional skills that enabled youth to articulate their interests and convert them into action.

In 1984, at the height of the “Reagan Revolution,” I decided to leave my home in Kolkata, India to pursue higher education in the United States. My career path later took me to the private sector, through trade, diplomacy, and defense contracting, including five years in India from 1993 to 1998. Throughout this time, I maintained a passion for poverty alleviation, so it was perhaps inevitable that I should find my way back—or forward—to the development sector and to issues related to vulnerable young people. But this time, I had a new perspective: I was convinced that the lessons I had learned from my experience in other sectors could be applied to development, especially regarding children and youth.

In spite of a significant reduction in global poverty, we still have 75 million youth unemployed and more than 500 million underemployed. I agree with progressive legislators that we need to provide them with skills, employment, and entrepreneurship training. However, for young people to be productive, creative, and problem solving citizens, they also need meaningful opportunities to express their opinions and pursue their own ideas around social change.

In the face of the convergent trends of the so-called “youth bulge” and pervasive—if not increasing—unemployment and community violence worldwide, there is a clear opportunity to better leverage youth as catalysts for social change, rather than drivers of global conflict. In short, we need to give youth a place at the table. When youth gain a voice, good things happen. The conversation around youth voice isn’t just a conversation about violent extremism or misinterpreted religious ideology—it’s a larger conversation that requires connecting dots across both contexts and countries.

We need to give youth a place at the table. When youth gain a voice, good things happen.
A multi-stakeholder approach is needed to identify and partner with grassroots organizations to affect systems change. Training youth with irrelevant skills for the local job market is a disservice. It is time to focus on the demand side of the value chain as has been done in other value chains.

The lessons I learned from my teen years at the Calcutta Youth Club inspired me. I witnessed youth transform when they were allowed to express their ideas and act on them. I see enormous potential in harnessing youth voice as a solution to some of our global challenges—from violence to employment. It is no longer enough just to provide youth with employment training or to counter the narratives that lead to violence. We must provide channels to solicit youth ideas and provide support to turn those ideas into action.

It is no longer enough just to provide youth with employment training or to counter the narratives that lead to violence. We must provide channels to solicit youth ideas and provide support to turn those ideas into action.
After leading SNV USA for more than nine years, I recently joined the Global Fund for Children (GFC), where we identify and invest in innovative grassroots organizations that serve the world’s most vulnerable children and youth in more than 50 countries. We hope to work with partners to amplify the voice of youth as a means to solve some of the world’s toughest challenges. But we need others to get involved, too.

In the United States, empowering youth voice is something both Democrat and Republican policymakers can get behind. While governments and multilateral and bilateral organizations have a primary responsibility, it is critical that foundations and corporations (both multinational and national) also play a major role. Foundations can pursue an intentional vision for supporting youth who are not already involved in education, employment, or training—instead of simply assuming they will be supported through child or adult interventions, as is often the case. Corporations can also reap both social and economic benefits by investing in potentially disenfranchised youth, whether as employees, consumers, or elsewhere along their operations.

Take the city of Rivera Hernandez in Honduras as an example. It had the highest homicide rate in the country three years ago. Today, the neighborhood’s complexion is notably different. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Sonia Nazario visited  last summer and wrote in the New York Times about the dramatic decrease in violence, noting that programs funded by the United States are partially responsible. Investments helped fund programs to productively engage youth in the community, through neighborhood outreach centers with mentorship and training, and with more active events such as movie nights and soccer league matches.

Similar programs have also been successful in the United States. In Philadelphia, the State’s Attorney’s Office recently started supplementing law enforcement tactics with a filmmaking program called “Voices of Youth,” which provides inner city youth who’ve experienced violence with expressive techniques through narratives and film. The program aims to give youth a positive creative outlet and voice in their communities, while also fostering strong relationships between them and authority figures such as police and their parents. The post-program results have been promising—simply by being treated like they have power to effect change in their communities and help reduce violence, they have done exactly that.

Through these experiences working directly with youth, it is clear that we must work with organizations operating on the ground to give youth a voice. When it comes to capacity building, it is imperative that we shift our focus from a supply driven, one-size-fits-all approach to demand driven models.

It may not be easy, but as we confront the dual trends of the youth bulge and unrelenting growth in both unemployment and community violence worldwide, we have the power—and the responsibility—to empower youth as catalysts for social change, rather than drivers of global conflict. The time is now for government, corporations, civil society, and philanthropic leaders to connect with organizations like GFC and many others working on children and youth issues.

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