To prosper, Africa must listen to its young leaders

The future belongs to the young people and recently the MUBS leadership Centre held its 4th Annual International Leadership Conference focusing on youth empowerment. The young people in many African countries constitute a large number and they are unproductive and they are potential to cause social unrest. But what ideas do young people have? Can we listen to these ideas? Sir Abed the founder and Chairperson of Brac and Rita Roy President and CEO of the Master Card Foundation had something to say on the listening to young people.

This is appeared in the Monitor of July 8, 2013.

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 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 programme called Empowerment and Livelihood for Adolescents (ELA) 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 socialise, away from the pressures of living in poverty in a male-dominated society.

Scholars have noted ELA’s remarkable success. Using a randomised 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 per cent), personal consumption expenditure (up 33 per cent), teen pregnancy rates (28.6 per cent 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 per cent)!

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. It is the youngest country in the world, with a median age of 14. Of a total population of 31 million, 57 per cent are below the age of 18.

Programmes such as ELA are shaped not by presuming that development workers and programme 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. ransactional 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 programmes. A forum called The MasterCard Foundation Youth Think Tank engages and solicits ideas from young people, using their feedback to design programmes that create wider opportunities to learn, earn, save and lead.

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 Programme now offers secondary and higher education scholarships on the basis of merit and ethical leadership qualities.

The result is stories like that of 21-year-old Judith Mugula Iganga, eastern Uganda. Like most Ugandans, she never had a chance to finish secondary school; only 13 per cent 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 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 energy and resourcefulness as they confront the challenges of poverty. It’s time to release it.

Sir Abed is the founder and chairperson of Brac, a development organisation. Reeta Roy, president and CEO of The MasterCard Foundation, co-authored this article, which was first published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

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