“On a continent where leaders have been in power longer than most people have been alive, we need something new, something that works.” These are the words of Siyanda Mohutsiwa, a youth activist from Botswana and stand-out speaker at the recent World Bank Global Youth Forum.

Siyanda, known for her TED Talk, How Young Africans Found a Voice on Twitter, highlighted the long-standing issue of youth as beneficiaries, not drivers, of development and decision-making around the globe. Fortunately, as the youth bulge balloons to record numbers, stakeholders in development are recognizing that efforts for change are simply less effective when youth, those most inextricably linked to the existing issues, are left out of the process.

“We used to try to convince governments that they needed to include youth voices,” explained Roby Senderowitsch, panel moderator and Manager of Leadership, Learning, and Innovation at the World Bank, “but now governments are coming to us, looking for ways to include youth.”

To tap young people’s creativity and insights in solving pressing global issues, the World Bank is launching the Global Partnership for Youth in Development, a coalition of global stakeholders who share a commitment to youth inclusion and leadership. Adding to the momentum is the UK Department for International Development (DFID), which recently announced plans to put youth at the heart of its work through a comprehensive Youth Agenda.

With this growing consensus, the question remains: how do we move beyond superficial efforts to ‘listen’ to youth and ensure that institutions with the resources to affect change seek out young people as credible advisors, collaborators, and organizers in solving the greatest challenges of our time?

I asked this question to several young leaders at the forum, each a member of YouthActionNet®’s global network of 1,350-plus social entrepreneurs under 30. They offered these suggestions to institutions looking to include youth in development:

  • Be clear in your request and consult the right young people. “Organizations often try to lump all youth into one category,” explained Daniel Uribe, founder of Costas Verdes in Costa Rica, “but the reality is, we are individuals with different expertise and experiences to offer.” Daniel called for development decision makers to be more concrete and organized in approaching youth for input. He cited strategies such as quotas for youth on a board or advisory committee, because doing so ensures relevant youth perspectives will be involved the moment high-level decisions are made.
  • Set targets and measure progress. “A first step that every institution can take is to assess how you are including youth now—not as beneficiaries, but in program design and implementation,” suggests Cherrie Atilano, founder of AGREA in the Philippines. “Once you better understand the gap that exists between where your organization is and where you need to be in terms of youth inclusion, you can then set targets and develop an intentional strategy in consultation with knowledgeable young people.”
  • Partner with youth-led organizations. “Governments and global organizations are looking for solutions that are culturally-relevant and supported by local communities,” acknowledged Waly Ndiaye, founder of Help the Street Children in Senegal. “Youth-led organizations combine the best of innovation, community trust, and local experience, but struggle with securing investments due to the stigma surrounding youth.”

Young people are our greatest allies in driving sustainable change. If we invest our hope in young people but not our resources, we miss out on the creative, agile, and locally rooted insights and strategies that are key to unlocking progress on issues ranging from climate change to racial discrimination and gender inequality.  

“There will be no progress on the Sustainable Development Goals,” warned IYF President & CEO Bill Reese in his opening remarks at the forum, “if we do not tap the spirit, talent, and human resources of young people today.”

Development organizations need not squander precious time huddled together in board rooms searching for the secrets to youth-led development. Young people already have concrete ideas for increasing their involvement; we just have to ask. And then of course, act.

Lisa Jones is Program Manager, YouthActionNet®.

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