There’s rarely enough listening in international development. In Sub-Saharan Africa, we’ve learned the value of listening, especially to young people—and not only listening, but also putting them right in the driver’s seat. Young people are agents of their own change, and some are already leaders in their communities, local governments, and civil society. Those who seek to spur African development need to engage and support young people, encouraging their creativity in sparking local solutions.
The lessons we’ve learned could benefit many. Businesses need to develop young talent to retain their competitive edge, and any government facing a demographic “youth bulge” needs to pay special attention to the needs and opportunities of the young. But our lessons are particularly important for the international development community, which seeks catalytic social returns on investment.
Intensive engagement with youth—girls in particular—is already bearing fruit. In Uganda, where BRAC and The MasterCard Foundation have worked in partnership since 2008, a program called ELA, for “Empowerment and Livelihood for Adolescents” combines opportunities for social empowerment, such as health awareness and life skills development, with financial literacy and livelihood training. The girls themselves lead learning sessions, with the guidance of peer mentors trained by BRAC, in a “safe space” where they can socialize, away from the pressures of living in poverty in a male-dominated society.
Scholars have noted ELA’s remarkable success, with heart-gripping stories of self-empowerment and transformation backed by hard data showing movement on important indicators. Using a randomized control trial, researchers from London School of Economics, University College London, and the World Bank recorded positive effects on income from entrepreneurial activities (up 35 percent), personal consumption expenditure (up 33 percent), teen pregnancy rates (28.6 percent lower), self-reported condom usage (up 12.6 percentage points among sexually active girls, versus a control sample), and girls’ reports of having sex unwillingly (down an eye-popping 83 percent).
All of this took place in a country where the demographic challenges are immense. In Uganda, the “youth bulge” many developing nations face is more acute than anywhere. It is the youngest country in the world, with a median age of 14. Of a total population of 31 million, 57 percent are below the age of 18. Even more strikingly, more than 90 percent of young people live on less than $2 a day—the highest prevalence of poverty among youth anywhere.
Programs such as ELA are shaped not by presuming that development workers and program designers know best, but by giving voice to young people’s concerns and aspirations—and then giving them the means to shape their own futures. To do that, we reached out to every corner of Uganda, using focus groups, case studies, and a survey of more than 5,000 people aged 15 to 30, from all settings and walks of life. The findings, recently published as “Problem or Promise: Harnessing Youth Potential in Uganda,” were at times surprising, often disconcerting, and ultimately heartening.
We found a huge unmet demand for relevant vocational training and financial services for youth. Formal primary education offers few financial returns on its own in its current format. Transactional sex was all too common among girls, mainly due to poverty. And we found a huge hunger for entrepreneurship among young people, who see self-employment as a way out of poverty.
Listening to these concerns is not enough. We’ve set up a process that gives young people a central role in the design of youth education and empowerment programs. A forum called The MasterCard Foundation Youth Think Tank engages and solicits ideas and views from young people, using their unfiltered feedback to design programs that create wider opportunities to learn, earn, save and lead in 18 Sub-Saharan African countries.
In Uganda, for instance, we’ve augmented microfinance for adults with microloans tailored for teens, and with training programs to develop 21st-century life and work skills. To nurture Africa’s next generation of leaders, The MasterCard Foundation Scholar’s Program now offers secondary and higher education scholarships on the basis of merit and ethical leadership qualities.
The result is stories like that of Judith Mugula, age 21, of the eastern Ugandan town of Iganga. Like most Ugandans, she never had a chance to finish secondary school; only 13 percent of Ugandans attend the last two years of secondary school, mostly due to the need to find work or raise children. Yet thanks to microloans she took from BRAC through her local ELA club, Judith now owns her own grocery store and supports an extended family.
Judith attributes the greater part of her success—more, even, than the microloans—to the supportive social network of the ELA club. “The worst thing you can do is think that you know best and just start a business,” she says. “It’s vital that you share your idea with other people before you start.”
Judith and the many others like her are the reason we’re optimistic about Africa. Funders have learned that the best way to understand the real needs of the poor is to talk to the women in a community. Our experience compels us to add that we need to engage and learn from young people as well. Judith and her generation possess a vast reserve and energy and resourcefulness as they confront the challenges of poverty. It’s time to release it.