The International Year of Youth

In 2009 the United Nations declared that August 2010 – August 2011 would be the International Year of Youth.  Now that 2011 has begun, and there are only nine months remaining in the International Year of Youth (IYY), it’s a good time to refocus our attention on the unique needs, desires, talent and aspirations of youth around the world. 

First, let’s remember what youth, who represent 18% of the world’s population, are facing in today’s global environment.  United Nations fact sheets tell us:

–  In 2009, about 81 million young people were unemployed, the most ever;

–  In 2008, young people accounted for 40% of all new global HIV infections in people aged 15  years and older;

–  Children and youth are uniquely vulnerable to involuntary military recruitment;

–  More that 1.8 million young people aged 15 to 24 die each year, mostly due to preventable causes.

But not all the news about today’s youth is discouraging.   Young people everywhere are improving their societies and focusing their energies on the issues that matter most to them.  For example, youth are leading the way on climate change, organizing campaigns to help victims of natural disasters, preparing to be the next generation of government leaders, and innovating new ways to educate their fellow young global citizens.  In August President Obama’s Forum with Young African Leaders brought dozens of young men and women to Washington, DC to discuss the future of the African continent.

Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has said, “Youth should be given a chance to take an active part in the decision-making of local, national and global levels.”   The IYY encourages “Everyone… to promote the ideals of peace, freedom, progress and solidarity towards the promotion of youth development.”

What will you do in 2011 to support youth in your community?

Contest: “Your World, Your Future: Voices of a New Generation”

What is the most vital challenge to international peace and security facing your generation?  If you’re under the age of 21, the U.S. Mission to the United Nations wants to hear your answer to that question.

Simply create a video no more than one minute in length (or write 250 words or less) and submit it to the Mission by December 14.  The three most compelling submissions will become the topics of debate among Security Council members at an event that will be broadcast live at www.un.org/webcast directly from the Security Council Chamber at United Nations Headquarters in New York.   Ambassador Rice’s video announcing the event is here.

According to the Mission, “The challenges we face as a global community have never been tougher, and the youth of the world have an important perspective to share.  Now is your chance to be heard.”

Complete instructions as well as terms and conditions of participation are available at http://usun.state.gov/youth.  Please write to us at youth@state.gov with any questions.

Homeless Children to Human Capital

Ikuemonisan Banabas Ayobami recently attended the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship in Washington. Ayobami, 27, is president of Glimmer of Hope Foundation, an organization that empowers youth and improves adolescent health in Nigeria.

Paul Romer is a senior fellow at the Stanford Center for International Development and the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. He specializes in economic development.

Ikuemonisan Banabas Ayobami

Ikuemonisan Banabas Ayobami

Ikuemonisan Banabas Ayobami:
I am the first of five children, all boys. We lived on $200 per month. My high school was so bad that we were taught English in Hausa — a local dialect. However, I was blessed to have a great father. He always told me I can be all I want to be. His words helped me to become a doctor, which was a long struggle.

In my country, Nigeria, years of corruption and bad leadership caused many to lose faith in the “Nigerian dream.” But my work as a social entrepreneur facilitates young people gaining the life skills to become self-reliant, make right choices and pursue their dreams. That eventually brings economic growth and less crime.

The work I describe began five years ago, when I, with others, started the Glimmer of Hope Foundation, while I was in medical school. We had an idea but no financial muscle. People thought our dream – to help Nigerian youth to be healthy and also to empower them to succeed in life – was grandiose. But today, we talk of spending close to 10 million naira this year on youth-funded projects.

The foundation helps homeless young people, some of whom have been involved in anti-social behavior as a means of survival. In South West Nigeria, we are bringing kids, between 9 and 15 years old, who are on the streets right now, back to school. We also give them vocational training. We have to keep young people from following bad leaders.

I see young people who do not believe they can amount to anything. A few years ago, one young man told me he could never go to the university. Now he’s in his final years studying for a degree in economics.

The young people in our country are intelligent and want change. They just need a push. They need to see someone like themselves, someone who came from poverty and became something. When they do, they follow that lead.

Paul Romer

Paul Romer

Paul Romer:
Your blog post addresses an important issue. Human capital – the skills and knowledge embodied in the workforce – is central to economic development.

Unlike those who focus on specific job skills, you recognize that human capital also consists of important character traits. For example, the right education can instill in young people a sense of possibility instead of passivity.

Social norms – each person’s learned beliefs about what is right and wrong – are also part of human capital. Social norms influence our interactions with others. If the only available role models are the bad leaders to whom you refer, young people will internalize social norms that undermine Nigeria’s prospects. Your organization provides a much-needed alternative, offering a different standard of what is normal and right.

In the pursuit of human capital and economic development, changes in social norms are driving forces, not incidental side effects. Societies can get trapped by outdated or counterproductive norms that hurt everyone.

But societies can change. In the 1970s, Hong Kong dramatically reduced corruption in its police force partly by changing social norms. The government convinced citizens that police corruption is not normal or tolerable. As a result, ordinary citizens helped fight it by reporting requests for bribes to a special hotline.

Entrepreneurial organizations like yours play a role in the diffusion of more just and socially constructive norms within existing social settings. (With my new research non-profit, Charter Cities, I hope to convince people that newly chartered cities offer complementary opportunities to establish desirable norms in new social settings. In a sense, new cities can be like startup companies that establish new cultures.)

Working from both directions – reforming existing social systems and forming new ones – we can move all nations toward rules and norms that unleash everyone’s potential instead of holding them back.

Getting People to Care: The Challenge of Activism

If you’re trying to start a grassroots movement, your biggest challenge will likely be figuring out how to raise more awareness to your cause and mobilize support into effective action. What’s an organizer to do?

South Korean activits protest North Korea's nuclear weapons programI recently witnessed a group of students concerned over nuclear proliferation discuss this very issue. But before they spoke, a group of U.S. officials outlined the vision of a world without nuclear weapons and said, “We can’t do this alone.” They added that the United States cannot unilaterally realize this vision, and the Obama administration cannot solely convince the U.S. Congress to back its efforts by ratifying the START and CTBT treaties. The lawmakers also need to hear from voters. Afterwards, the students shared ideas for not only encouraging awareness of the topic, but also for getting people excited enough about it to take action.

Some students thought the climate change issue offered a successful model because even if some don’t believe that it is a cause which demands action, most are still familiar with both sides of the debate and have an opinion. Can we get the same level of awareness when it comes to nuclear weapons, the students asked? Can we make it more accessible to average people?

One student from Missouri thought that skilled speakers should be brought to college campuses to spread the word. Another suggested promoting the idea of college courses on the topic, and developing a comprehensive curriculum.

“People know about climate change because they are concerned about the effects of global warming, we can do the same, it’s ok to scare them,” said one student.

“No,” replied a dissenter. “We risk making the threat seem hyped-up and people will think we are exaggerating.”

A woman from California thought the group needed to get practical and start small. She suggested that because people respond to food the organizers could offer pizza and combine it with a workshop event.

I found all of these ideas to be practical in their own ways. What works for one audience might not work for another since some mostly need to be yanked from their apathy, even if through “bribes” like fear or free food. Others need to feel they have considered all of the evidence and will quickly sense if you are not being straightforward.

From earlier posts like evaluating social networking campaigns and canvassing for then-candidate Obama, I think that no matter how self-evident you think your arguments are, there will be legitimate doubts about what you’re essentially “selling” them (let’s be real). So a good sense of humility and patience also come in handy.

Harmonizing for Humanity

This month, several of my co-workers and I will join musicians around the world in the 8th annual Daniel Pearl World Music Days. Since 2002, individual concerts every October have commemorated the birthday of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped and murdered by extremists in Pakistan four months after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Pearl’s untimely death moved his family to create the Daniel Pearl Foundation, which seeks “to promote cross-cultural understanding through journalism, music and innovative communications.” To this end, the foundation supports journalism fellowships, youth initiatives, lectures and interfaith dialogues — as well as the annual musical performances.

Although Pearl was known for his work as a journalist, he was also a mandolin player and a classically trained violinist who used his love of music to make friends across cultural and religious divides. As Michelle recently observed in Kosovo, music has a remarkable power to bring people together. President Obama also recognized this in an October 1 message marking the start of this year’s World Music Days:

“Music has been called a universal language that transcends cultures and borders,” he said. “Its power to move us, touch our hearts, and speak to our souls enriches our lives. Through artistic creativity and expression, music can build bridges between individuals and communities thousands of miles apart. This month-long event to celebrate music and honor the legacy of Daniel Pearl is a fitting tribute to a man who promoted respect and dialogue throughout the world. On this occasion, we recommit ourselves to tolerance, compassion, and ‘Harmony for Humanity.’”

Heading to Serbia

Soon I leave for Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, my first stop on my quest to learn more about what it takes to build – and sustain – a democracy.

Some useful facts about Serbia, from the U.S. Department of State: This relatively small country has about 7.5 million residents, the majority of whom are of Serbian ethnicity. Serbians have maintained their identity for decades, even as others occupied the region. Serbia became an independent country in 1992, as communist Yugoslavia collapsed. Since then the regions of Montenegro and Kosovo have formed their own separate nations.

Serbia’s earliest years as a country have been notably marked by conflict. In 1999, NATO launched a bombing campaign on Belgrade, seeking an end to attacks on Kosovar Albanians. Much progress has been made since then. Today the nation often collaborates with its European neighbors, and it even has a relationship with NATO, as a Partnership for Peace country.

One of the first things I hope to do in Belgrade is visit with a group of students who are helping to clean the banks of the Danube River. This initiative is part of an effort to not only educate students on the importance of environmental preservation, but to encourage youth activism.

How important is youth activism for a young nation? I’d like your thoughts.

Intern Week: The Power of Youth

[guest name="Yasmine Alotaibi" biography="Guest blogger Yasmine Alotaibi is a summer intern with America.gov and a senior at the University of Tennessee - Knoxville. With a double major in political science and history, she is currently working on two honors theses – one focusing on U.S. national security policy and one focusing on pre-revolutionary Cuba. Upon graduation, she hopes to continue writing on U.S. foreign policy."]

Young people from all over the United States (and the world!) come to Washington to gain valuable experience working for Congress, the federal government, law offices, lobbying firms, international organizations and non-profits. America.gov had its own group of summer interns, and we thought it would be fun to feature their thoughts on democracy here on By the People:

When President Obama visited Russia, he told the graduating class at the New Economic School in Moscow, “You get to decide what comes next. You get to choose where change will take us, because the future does not belong to those who gather armies on a field of battle or bury missiles in the ground; the future belongs to young people with an education and the imagination to create. That is the source of power in this century.”

Young people with an education are the source of power in this century. As a young person myself, such a responsibility seems daunting. How can I possibly decide what comes next? However, although the responsibility seems overwhelming, the president encourages us to seize it rather than fear it.

Indeed, President Obama, in his speech to the Ghanaian Parliament, said we must “hold [our] leaders accountable and… build institutions that serve the people.”

He added, “You can serve in your communities, and harness your energy and education to create new wealth and build new connections to the world. You can conquer disease, and end conflicts, and make change from the bottom up. You can do that. Yes you can, because in this moment, history is on the move.”

Just imagine what we could accomplish if we worked hard, followed our passions, and used our imagination to come up with innovative solutions to some of the world’s deepest problems. We have more opportunities before us than any previous generation could ever have dreamed of. We have the freedom to decide how we want to spend our lives. We can choose our own destiny and together, we make this world a better, freer place.

Do you agree that young people are the “source of power in this century?” What do you think we can do to make this world a better place for everyone?

If Kids Ran the World, Democracy Would Be Different

Ok, I’ll admit it: I eavesdrop on other people’s conversations while riding the DC Metro.  It’s not my fault, really.  Sometimes the conversations are so loud and you’re packed so closely to the other riders that it’s impossible not to hear what’s being said.  People’s stories range from funny to annoying to sad to bizarre, with the best conversationalists being the kids.  Their musings are just plain adorable. 

While heading home from work the other day I sat near a boy and his father who, according to their conversation, had just finished watching a movie.  The boy was about nine years old, and very active.  After they discussed the merits of special effects, the father asked his son to stop moving around so much in his chair, to which the boy proudly replied, “It’s a free country, Dad!” 

I couldn’t believe my ears.  That was the exact same argument I used to use with my parents whenever they wanted me to do something I didn’t want to do!  It’s a free country, so I can do what I want.  Well…it’s not as simple as that. 

Young children in the U.S. definitely have a sense of the kind of system they’re living in.  They get that freedom is a big deal, and in a lot of ways they’re right.  Yes, we value our freedoms.  We are free to move from one city or state to another, free to pursue career paths that interest us, free to vote or not, free to worship or not, free to speak our minds in public.  But kids take the idea of a “free country” literally. 

Ice cream, but probably not for breakfastThe mind of a child can see ideas in their purest forms, and democracy is apparently no different.  So while a nine year old boy thinks that he doesn’t have to obey his father because he lives in a free country, adults know differently.  There are still rules to follow, red lights to stop at, and taxes to pay. And these rules are thought to make life better for everyone. It might be a free country, but as a kid I still wasn’t allowed to eat ice cream for breakfast.