Robert F. Kennedy once said, “The world demands the qualities of youth; not a time of life but a state of mind.”
This was the statement that was used to publically introduce the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) new policy, “Youth in Development: Realizing the Demographic Opportunity” this past Thursday in Washington, D.C.
The importance of youth to global demographics was a major theme of the presentation, and it was often cited that there are 1.7 billion people in the world who are between the ages of 10 to 24. In many developing countries, this age group makes up as much as 35% of the population.
This proposal in many ways represents a kind of shift for USAID. No longer are “youth” issues relegated to the child welfare or education ministers in given countries. USAID’s new policy places an emphasis on a comprehensive inter-departmental approach to youth issues around the world, which recognizes the centrality of these topics to over-arching efforts to promote international development.
Investing in youth can pay dividends for more than half a century. It may be a cliché but it is certainly true: the leaders of tomorrow are the youth today.
It also means protecting the rights of those youth who are especially vulnerable to discrimination, such as those who are LGBTQ or disabled.
At the same time, the policy ensures that youth are consulted when policy is created relevant to them. Too often policies concerning youth are hatched in boardrooms filled with older, primarily white males, even when the global youth population is so incredibly diverse.
In creating this report, USAID consulted over 150 youth from over 15 different countries. This embodies the mindset of having youth be “partners in development.” That youth are not just passive actors, but should be part of the conversation even at the highest policy levels.
Moreover, the policy understands that many youth can be put in tough circumstances when they are very young. This necessitates policies that allow for “second-chance” opportunities, relating to aspects such as education and employment.
Moving beyond some of the policy specifics that were introduced, it was heartening to have someone as prominent as the deputy administrator of USAID present the new policy to the public, signaling that youth issues are being taken seriously at even the senior policy level.
Additionally, the crowd at the event was indicative of how USAID understands that it cannot go it alone in implementing such policies. The audience was full of many youth, such as myself, as well as representatives from different civil society organizations.
Youth around the world are often some of the most vulnerable in society. For a development organization such as USAID, enhancing the lives of millions of young people around the world is a major humanitarian goal.
Engaging youth does not just make compassionate public policy: it makes smart policy. Empowering youth around the world to reach their potential benefits entire societies and can reap enormous long-term returns on investment.
Going back to the RFK quote, what makes this new USAID policy so laudable is that it recognizes that dealing with young people requires a mindset not just a set of policies. It means about looking at all policies and thinking about how they impact youth.
It’s time that the importance empowering youth is valued in international development. Americans should be proud that USAID is leading the way to empower two billion youth around the world.