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Seeing youth as assets

Assets, contributors, thinkers and doers, not problems to be solved.

Making Cents International’s Global Youth Economic Opportunities Conference happened last week (September 7-9). The focus of the conference was ‘Breakthroughs in Youth Enterprise, Workforce Development, Financial Services and Livelihoods.’ I attended most of the plenary sessions and followed the Adolescent Girls and Young Women track.
The main messages I took away from the 2 and a half day conference included:

Seeing youth as assets
The youth development approach has been around for quite a while, and some of the organizations and people I respect the most and have learned a lot from are those that use this approach with young people (shout out to one of my youth development approach mentors, Jeremy Phillips).  Still, it’s encouraging to hear big agencies like USAID talking about the youth development approach, emphasizing the importance of youth participation, seeing potential in the youth population, and working with youth as assets and valuable people in their own right with something to offer rather than fearing the ‘youth bulge’ and using a heavy-handed approach to control, contain and suppress young people, their voices, their needs and their rights.
Ambassador Donald Steinberg, deputy director of USAID, spoke on Wednesday morning, saying ‘If you stop looking at people as a development challenge or a threat, and instead see people’s potential to be something great, your perspective totally changes.’ USAID is doing their first ever youth in development policy and is working on integrating youth concerns into their 6 focus areas.
According to Clare Ignatowski, USAID’s Senior Advisor on Workforce Development and Youth, the agency’s positive youth development approach includes youth engagement and valuing youth as assets, ensuring multi-stakeholder participation, offering second chance opportunities for youth, and ‘engendering’ youth work. The idea is that by empowering youth and helping them have basic skills and opportunities; a sense of safety, structure, belonging and membership; self-worth and valuable opportunities to contribute; independence and control over own lives; a sense that they are competent and able to do something with their lives; and solid and supportive relationships – we can help young people make something out of their lives.
What role can technology play?
The youth and ICTs panel mentioned a few of the many areas where new technologies can be integrated in youth development work. To begin with, as moderator Wayan Vota from Inveneo mentioned, technology is one area where youth are viewed as experts over adults. They are often seen as thought leaders in ICTs. Via mobile phones, youth are starting to open bank accounts, according  to David Mukaru from Equity Bank in Kenya, and this is demystifying aspects of finances and banking, even in rural and slum areas.
There are challenges though, as Lia Gardner from TakingITGlobal reminded. ‘ICT is not a self-fulfilling circle; you can share great ideas but what about taking online connections into the offline world?’ Jacob Korenblum from Souktel  considered adults to be the biggest barrier. ‘Adults don’t see how tech can be leveraged and utilized for serious purposes. Older people really need to come on board and take youth seriously. Tech is a good way for youth to express views.’ Peter Broffman from Intel Learn Program recommended showcases with parents, teachers and community leaders to allow adults to see how youth and technology can be harnessed to address things that matter and to resolve problems in the community.
ICTs can also be used to engage youth and hear their voices and opinions. Korenblum commented that Souktel’s JobMatch idea was adapted and used to get feedback on 2 large-scale radio broadcast projects in Sudan and Somalia. The program implementers didn’t know what the audiences thought about the programs. Souktel developed a way for people to text in for free to give feedback. Some of the comments were selected and read out on the air. The texts began to inform the content of the radio programs. “We saw hundreds, even thousands of SMS coming in. In one case we had thousands of messages coming in from Orphans and Vulnerable Children [after we did a radio show on the topic]. They were saying ‘No one has ever asked me about my concerns, thanks for this radio show.’” In another case, thousands of people texted in saying they were not aware of the potential dangers of skin lightening creams. “We also had very frank and candid feedback like ‘you don’t represent enough Sudanese on your program.’ In Gaza we asked several thousand youth about the potential for a ceasefire. Youth wrote back their thoughts and said ‘this is the first time anyone has asked or cared about what I have to say.’” The feedback was shared with the television and radio stations so they could improve their programs, and in some cases it was played along the ticker tape on the bottom of Al Jazeera.
Mukaru commented that Equity Bank is known to be the ‘listening and caring financial partner’ in Kenya. ‘We listen to youth and clients. We have gone out to do focus group discussions to get to understand what youth are asking us to change, to do better, what they want to see in our services. We also use technology, SMS feedback. Our mobile phone number is displayed in our lobby where youth can interact with us and give their feedback. We’ve changed a number of things….They didn’t like our website – they said it’s too old, that it wasn’t talking to the youth. So we redesigned it to speak to the youth better. They said they want to bank small amounts of money and it costs them a lot to go into town, so this is why we started local agencies,’ he said.
It was encouraging to hear so many people highlighting the importance of the youth development approach and the fact that youth need to be listened to, respected and seen as valued partners in their own development as well as in the development of their communities and nations.
I’ll cover some of the other key take aways in my next few posts here on Wait… What?!