(Illustration by Matthew Hollister) 

Half of the global population is under the age of 25, and the world has begun to pay attention to the needs and aspirations of that group. Since 2011, world news has been dominated by coverage of the Occupiers, the Indignados, and the various manifestations of what came to be known as the Arab Spring. In each of these movements, the central role played by young people was evident.

The causes of protest differ, but common among these movements is a high level of disaffection among young people. The 1.3 billion people between the ages of 15 and 24 are, on the whole, a highly educated lot; in many cases, they are the first members of their families to graduate from university. Even so, unemployment among this cohort is high. All across the world, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), youth unemployment has increased dramatically over the past five years. The ILO reports that at least 6 million young people have dropped out of the labor force. Globally, nearly 75 million people between the ages of 15 and 24 who would otherwise be in the workforce are unemployed.

A sense of frustration and discontent is building, with potential consequences that range from an increase in criminality and drug consumption to a toppling of regimes and a rise of violent extremism.

Meanwhile, for the first time in history, new technologies enable people to communicate widely without the need to rely on traditional media. Young people are at the forefront of using these new media—particularly for organizing—and their efforts have already proven effective in many recent protest movements.

The new tools at our disposal create an opportunity for young people to be part of the solution to the problems that beset them. Instead of expecting governments and traditional private companies to take sole responsibility for generating employment, young people can become catalysts who initiate new ideas—and new enterprises.

That principle underlies Global Changemakers (GCM), a program of the British Council. GCM brings together hundreds of people between the ages of 16 and 25 who have a track record of community work, social activism, or entrepreneurship. The result is a global youth network that draws members from 128 countries worldwide. More than 200,000 young people participate in GCM activities each year, and 3.2 million people have benefited from GCM projects since the program’s inception in 2007.

High Ambitions, Low Budgets

In 2009, I helped lead a GCM initiative that awarded grants to young people for projects that would bring about positive change in their communities. The idea was not only to foster youth engagement, but also to give talented young leaders a chance to learn from the process of designing and implementing their own projects.

Ultimately, we funded 250 projects in 86 countries, all of them conceived and run by people in their twenties. These projects address major global issues that young people face today, and many of them have achieved national prominence. Although budgets varied by project, no project received more than $3,000 in funding. What follows is a sample of the projects undertaken by our grant recipients.

Education and transparency in the Philippines | For several years, efforts have been under way to make the Philippine education sector more transparent. The national Department of Education, for example, has developed a system that collects school enrollment data and makes it accessible to the public through the Internet. The department has also welcomed third-party initiatives to monitor various service delivery programs online—efforts such as Textbook Count (for textbook delivery), Bayanihang Eskwela (for school building construction), and Bantay Eskwela (for furniture delivery). Combining those efforts into a common platform was the next logical step. And that’s exactly what does. Created by Jecel Censoro, 24, and a team of other young people, provides an interactive map that allows people to track the services and facilities that are available in public schools throughout the Philippines. It gives users a tool for evaluating how best to allocate resources within the country’s educational system.

Instead of expecting governments and traditional private companies to generate employment, young people can become catalysts who generate new enterprises.

Social cohesion in Kenya | Tribal rivalry has ravaged Kenya in recent years. After an election in 2008, for example, images of devastation and death circulated throughout the world. Young people have been particularly vulnerable to such outbreaks of tribal violence. Following the turmoil of that election year, a young Kenyan named Eddy Gicheru Oketch (he’s now 22 years old) founded a small street theater group whose aim was to promote understanding between rival tribal groups. Five years later, that theater group has evolved into Peace for Africa and Economic Development (PAD). PAD reaches thousands of young Kenyans by offering economic empowerment projects, peace workshops and forums, and art programs.

Economic empowerment in India | For many Indian families, the production of handicrafts constitutes the main source of income. But intermediaries control much of the market for such items. As a result, little of the profit from handicraft sales reaches the producers themselves. Kaushik Tiwari, 18, decided to do something about that problem. He created Illuminate Inc., an enterprise that brings 21st-century online retailing technology to the age-old practice of artisanal production. At the Illuminate Inc. website, customers can buy a variety of items—such as apparel, jewelry, and furniture—directly from producers. Not only does this venture improve the livelihood of Indian families, it also helps preserve traditional forms of Indian art.

Energy provision in Sri Lanka | To supply power, Sri Lankans rely primarily on expensive and environmentally destructive fossil fuels. In about 20 percent of the country, moreover, people have no access to electricity. Enter Empower Lanka, an initiative led by a 22-year-old Sri Lankan named Sulakshana Senanayake. He and his team launched their effort in the remote village of Ratugala, Bibile. People there subsist by farming and hunting, and until recently they either lived in the dark or used costly oil-burning lamps. Empower Lanka donated and installed a 300-watt off-grid solar power system that was designed to suit the local climate and needs of this rural area. The group also donated energy-saving lamps. In addition, a team of Empower Lanka volunteers installed basic lighting in 15 households and a common electrical outlet that allows people in the village to charge batteries.

Building a Future

The young people who received grants through the Global Changemakers program are exceptional. But investing in youth groups, and in organizations that give direct grants to young people, should not be an “exception”; it should be a rule.

The experience of working with members of the Global Changemakers network taught me a great deal. I learned that direct grantmaking to young people is a workable model for international aid. I learned that we urgently need to restructure education models worldwide. And I learned how important a sense of ownership is to the success of a project.

Although investment in youth is not a panacea for all the world’s problems, our experience showed that it is a cost-effective solution that can bring tangible benefits to communities in developed and developing countries alike.

Five years ago, there were very few initiatives that focused on strengthening and fostering youth entrepreneurship. Since then, many such projects have emerged. That is a positive sign. Unfortunately, too few of these initiatives focus on supporting youth-directed startups, and too often they run the risk of seeming to be token efforts.

Too few educational systems, meanwhile, focus on cultivating entrepreneurial skills or on developing entrepreneurial talent. As a result, the number of university graduates soars, but so does the level of unemployment. Therefore we must revise educational curricula to provide students with skills that match the current job market—and with skills that increase their self-employability.

Engaging young people in project work is not a new phenomenon. Traditionally, however, a “youth project” has been one that is conceived (and typically implemented) by adults on behalf of young beneficiaries. The Global Changemakers approach—enabling young people to develop their own strategies for issues that they care about—has proven to be highly effective. Indeed, in light of the limited resources involved in this initiative, the results have been extraordinary.

In early 2012, Ban Ki-Moon announced that a focus on youth would be a new priority for his second term as U.N. Secretary General. “We must help young people to build the future they want. This should be in our hearts and on top of every agenda,” he said during a lecture that he called “Empowering People in a Changing World.” The current cohort of young people, he emphasized, is the largest generation that the world has ever known. “The priorities of young people should be just as prominent in our halls as they are on the streets and squares. They should be just as present in our meeting space as they are in cyberspace.”

And Ban is not alone. In all parts of the world, people are starting to realize that engaging with the youngest 50 percent of the population is a vital imperative.

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