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Putting the “Youth” into International Youth Day

The theme of International Youth Day 2012, “Partnering with Youth,” is about governments and civil society organizations reaching out to youth groups and forging meaningful relationships with young people. In the humanitarian field, we talk a lot about this kind of participation by youth, but few of us build it into our programs. 

Everywhere, and especially in the emergencies where we work, young women and men should be at the center of the systems meant to serve them. This means enlisting disaster-affected youth to share ideas so that we can design programs that are relevant to their lives. It means making sure the programs we offer are safe and girl-friendly and don’t introduce new risks of violence or exploitation. It means finding and empowering the most vulnerable kids, who may be invisible or hard to reach: kids with disabilities, living on the street or working as domestic helpers, for example. 

Even without the help of relief agencies, young people are always active agents of change after a crisis.  In the wake of recent emergencies, youth in the Horn of Africa, Haiti and Kenya have organized themselves in a positive and forceful way—with groups of young people reaching out to their peers and their communities for healing and reconstruction. In fact, young people’s energy is usually one of the most powerful resources that poor, disaster-affected countries have. Given a voice and some resources, young people can drive a community’s—and a country’s—rebirth.

And yet the youth age group is often overlooked by humanitarian agencies as they work to help communities rebuild. Because it’s quicker and more convenient, aid agency staff tend to make top-down decisions when designing their programs, channeling resources through those who have the most power in a community—who are rarely youth and very rarely girls. That’s a shame, because a humanitarian crisis represents a unique opportunity to change the “rules of the game,” especially in societies where young people’s rights are ignored and people in power lock them out. Coming together around an emergency, young women and men can create a politically neutral movement to call for better governance, greater transparency and human rights.

Humanitarian agencies and governments should take the following five steps to fulfill their duty to protect and empower youth:

1. Bring young women and men into the design, monitoring and evaluation phases of humanitarian programs.

2. Build the capacity of youth groups to contribute positively to the reconstruction and development of their communities.

3. Make it easier for young people, both those in school and those who aren’t, to participate in and make contributions to their society.

4. Engage young people to establish systems and structures, at all levels, to prepare for disasters.

5. Engage young people to promote peace through peer-to-peer interactions, and with political leaders.

These measures will go a long way in ensuring youth in crisis-affected countries have a chance at a better future.