Empowering young people critical for global development : Weeratunga

Saturday, 10 May 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Secretary to Sri Lanka’s President Lalith Weeratunga addressed the main plenary session on Mainstreaming Youth in the Post-2015 Development Agenda at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall in Colombo on Thursday. Following is the full text of his speech at the event: Dallas Alahapperuma, Minister of Youth Affairs & Skills Development, Ministers and Deputy Ministers, UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy on Youth Ahmad Alhendawi, and my dear young people from 169 countries around the world. I am pleased to have been asked to address this largely youthful audience at the Conference’s main plenary session on “Mainstreaming Youth in the Post-2015 Development Agenda”, even for a short duration of 10 minutes. The post-2015 Development Agenda, as you know, intends to build on the current development framework based on the MDGs in order to accelerate development and make it more inclusive. It is indeed significant that young people have emerged as a distinct demographic group whose views and participation are to be solicited in the planning and implementation of the future global development framework. As the Colombo Declaration is to be a collaborative effort by policy makers and young people, I certainly feel more optimistic about its effectiveness in serving its purpose as a document for future global dialogue on youth. I think one of the mistakes that we of the older generations have made, and sometimes continue to make, is to make the youth feel that their opinions do not count. “Let the societies and communities function the way they do until the youth are old enough to take over at some point in future!“ But are we really satisfied with the way societies and communities are functioning? And do youth really have nothing of value to contribute until they reach advanced years? What better way to offer an explanation to these questions than to quote a few simple words from the great Polish writer Joseph Conrad when he marvelled: “O youth! The strength of it, the faith of it, the imagination of it!” Let me say with conviction: this strength, this faith and this imagination of young people are precisely the elements that uplift our societies and communities and make them resilient, stable and richer – and countries would be poorer if this potential is not recognised and harnessed. So what should we be doing to help the youth to do what they are capable of doing? The first thing that comes to mind is empowerment. Youth have expectations. They seek access to better quality education, healthcare, housing, technology and employment. They desire to be consulted when policies are created, and become involved when they are implemented. They have their right of say in which direction their governments should steer since they will one day be the custodians of their nations. You are probably familiar with the statistics. Nearly half the world’s population is under the age of 25 and nearly a quarter are aged 12 to 24. Of those between ages 12 to 24, nearly 40% live on less than two dollars a day. Seventy five million youth are out of work, escalating youth unemployment to crisis proportions. What is cause for concern is that this also accounts for 41% of total global unemployment, which is not likely to recover until beyond 2016. About 40 % of the youth survive on less than $ 2 a day, and about 133 million youth in the world are illiterate. It is apparent that the problems of the youth, as a significant group of the world population, have to be adequately addressed, not only for global development to progress, but also to enable them to add value to the development process. Thus, empowering young people - socially, economically, intellectually and politically across all divides - is critical to see tangible progress in global development post-2015. There are many interventions that governments can make. Take for example, the connection between young people and Information and Communication Technologies. Throughout the years, ICTs has not had a more robust and loyal champion than the youth. They have effectively exploited ICTs to dictate the trends in a major growth industry, and fostered it to generate youth entrepreneurship as a solution for youth unemployment. Be that as it may, these are not advantages that youth all over the world enjoy. For those in developing countries in particular, ICT access comes at an unaffordable cost. Looking at the draft Colombo Declaration on Youth, I see the powerful potential for ICTs to cut across many of its recommendations to strengthen their outcomes. But for this, governments must go beyond simply enhancing access and become actively involved in training and creating programmes aimed towards the empowerment of young people. Becoming ICT-savvy does not only open doors for job opportunities, but also motivates and enables young people to learn about their communities and become active in the local development process. Take for example, the Map Kibera Project in Kenya. Kibera is the largest slum dwelling, not only in Nairobi, but also in entire Africa, and is home to nearly one million people. But strange as it may sound, Kibera had been identified only as an uninhibited patch of forest in all the maps – that is until 2009. In 2009, the young people of Kibera created the first free and open digital map of their own community to record data and news reports, map information about themselves and their community, and to use that information for action. Kiberans attribute the access of information as an empowering agent allowing youth to “hold their head high and walk into a meeting with government officials. Knowledge is power, power is self-esteem”. On another aspect, I would like to quote some interesting revelations made by a recent survey that McKinsey Consultancy conducted involving more than 4,500 young people, 2,700 employers and 900 education providers across nine countries. Close to half of the youth surveyed said that their jobs were not related to their studies, and nearly 40% of employers complained that they struggled to fill entry-level jobs because young people lacked adequate skills. But what is startling is that while 70% of employers blamed inadequate training for the lack of skilled workers, another 70% of education providers believe that they have adequately prepared new graduates for the jobs. This disconnect obviously tends to leave young people in the deep sea of unemployment or under-employment. Employers, education providers and young people must communicate with each other to understand real requirements, and governments must start thinking of out-of-the-box solutions to address education-to-employment issues. In this regard, it must be noted that the full potential of ICTs in formal education systems that will better respond to the labour market requirement have not yet been adequately realised. Governments must align their development policies to integrate ICTs in education and coordinate with all relevant government agencies providing education, employment, skills and technology. Vocational education should be promoted in a large way with the use of ICTs to reduce costs of vocational education. As practiced in several countries, simulations and “serious games” can be propagated as a 21st century form of apprenticeships to provide tailored, detailed and practical experience to large numbers at a low cost. It is also our duty to promote the engagement of youth in the science of government, and to prepare them for the future governance of our countries. Sri Lanka’s own Youth Parliament commenced in 2011 and now has 335 members representing all ethnic groups. These Youth Parliamentarians and a network of more than 10,000 youth from villages around the country actively participate in debates and in the decision-making process. The Youth Policy launched in February this year has made provisions for full exploitation of potentials in youth for the development of the country. If we are to ensure greater success in the post-2015 development agenda, it is important to remember that we, the governments, policy-makers, officials, young people and other stakeholders stop functioning as “parallel universes”, and engage each other. What is more important is to realise that the more we engage young people, the better we will serve them. In addition, the more they feel they are part of the process, the more we will increase our public value to the entire community. I hope that your deliberations today will lead to the successful finalisation of the Colombo Declaration on Youth that will be a reference document internationally on any forum concerning youth and development. I wish you all the best.