My college history professor Donald Campbell once made a bold statement: “The youth are the empire builders and the empire breakers, for they are the ones who historically started and fought revolutions or built the monuments and served in the military of empires.” It got me thinking, because in this day and age, despite protests worldwide against injustices during the Cold War, and now the New Media generation using Twitter, blogging, Facebook, and YouTube, they are a lot more vocal about issues that mean something to them, or being introduced to what is not readily familiar. There are several types of youth I think of when I think of their role in development: 1) those who speak, 2) those who act, and this actually leads to four groups, as there are the youth in developing countries and the youth interested in the ones in developing countries.
For those who speak, I look primarily at the youth who are engaging what is popularly known as “slacktivism”, particularly from sharing videos or links to articles and videos on issues that interest them. Now, I have my criticism of this because it is in itself not a driver for development, but it is a tool that has its place, and this article best describes its uses as supplementary to furthering the goals of development. I see it as useful in not spreading information or raising awareness, but raising interest from those who would not otherwise know of such issues we face in development today.
I can think of many examples where there were misguided attempts at helping out via the Kony 2012 campaign of Invisible Children, where one of the criticisms was that people did not understand the issue or felt that sharing a video or donating money to a questionable cause was all that they needed to do, which, in looking strictly at their intent, is good. In terms of outcome, not as good as it could be, but it got people interested, and even if not everyone is rushing to go out and volunteer or get involved in one way or another to what would actually impact the people in Uganda, for one moment, it made people think about something beyond the scope of their daily lives. So if they are interested, there is potential to go out and take action with measurable and direct impact. And this is just the youth who make use of social media from colleges–think about the youth from the developing world who appear in videos or make their own to show what their lives are like in the community they live in.
The youth who are actually affected by development can give a voice that doesn’t show their differences, but similarities with those who are born in relatively better circumstances in the First World. One of my favorites is ChildFund Connect, which connected Australian, Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Laotian children together to get a glimpse into each other’s lives:
So we have the voices of two sets of youth here: the ones who are letting the world know what issues and challenges they face, and the ones who see various issues in the world that generates their interest in development.
This leads into those who act. As I said before, the simplest action is sharing links using social media or even writing out their own feelings, which is good, because when you know how the youth are thinking and feeling, you know how to bridge that gap into creating programs or taking action that interests and engages them rather than muting them.
The youth are our future, and First World or Third World, we can come up with all sorts of approaches to helping ensure education, health, and teaching of good values and skills that prepare them for their lives in and outside of school and work. So it is just absurd not to include their voices in development, or to allow their participation, which is one of the reasons I have nothing but love for the organization I have been interning with over the past year, ChildFund International (the American member of the ChildFund Alliance and separate from ChildFund Australia).
In particular, two countries I traveled through and worked in (the Philippines and Indonesia) had programs in disaster risk reduction, which incorporated the youth into its framework to be most efficient in getting people knowledgeable of how to act when a typhoon or earthquake strikes. Both countries are affected severely by natural disasters yearly, and nature doesn’t discriminate when a village just happens to be in the path of the elements. So what they do is offer first-aid training and learn from the youth where people like to go or how to inform people of news, like using mobile phones to text evacuation routes, shelter location, and other updates. In addition to this, youth bring the knowledge vertically and horizontally: their parents are busy working and often do not have current knowledge, so the youth come home and teach them, then they teach their peers, it spreads through the community, and when they have children, it becomes not just habitual, but instinctive.
When you think about it, speaking is acting. The takeaway here is to speak in such a way that enables action rather than just trying to be heard, and if speaking only to be heard, that it is something worth raising to people’s attention that is both truthful and informative.
In summary, youth as empire builders as Professor Campbell said is still true today, for they are the ones who the future of humanity, and they are the ones who are the driving force that can look at a project or effort and say “That’s boring” and “That’s not going to work, I know a better place to hide during a storm” or “Nobody wants t-shirts or shoes, they want to know how to make their own t-shirts and shoes” to policymakers and aid agencies. If you ignore the youth, your efforts will not be sustainable, because one day, the youth will be the ones who continue contributing to the lifeblood of your cause: without interest, effort, or money, you simply cannot continue.