4 ways to meaningfully engage youth in development, from West African student leaders

By Evelyn Rupert

July 24, 2017

Youth can and should play a greater role in shaping their futures through peacebuilding and development, a panel of West African student leaders said during a discussion at Creative Associates International headquarters.

Creative welcomed 20 university students from five countries – Mali, Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon – on June 17, with six of the students participating in a panel discussion about youth-led development efforts in their countries.

The students are visiting the U.S. for nearly a month as part of the State Department-funded Study of U.S. Institute on Social Entrepreneurship and are hosted by California State University, Chico.

“Youth play a very, very key role in peacebuilding and development in my country, but I think the major obstacle is making people aware of what we’re doing,” said Kachi Dominic of Nigeria, one of the panelists.

Welcoming the students, Creative CEO Leland Kruvant, stressed the organization’s commitment to seeking out and listening to youth voices throughout project planning and implementation.

“We share the optimism that Africa is the place on Earth where the most exciting and fastest pace of change is going to be happening over the next decade or two,” Kruvant said. “And we all need to get together to find ways to harness the exciting power and the intelligence and the energy of all those young people who are going to be doing great things.”

The diverse panel shared their experiences as young leaders working for positive change, and gave insight into how development efforts can benefit from the talents, creativity and drive of the young people in the communities they seek to serve.

Here are their top four recommendations.

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Panelists with Creative’s Grace Akukwe (far right), Workforce Development and Youth Employment Practice Area Director. Photos by Jillian Slutzker.

1. Foster entrepreneurship

Having developed their own social enterprise business plans as part of the exchange program, the youth panelists – several of whom have already launched social change start-ups – are eager to create the conditions so their peers can do the same.

But for this to happen, there needs to be an early focus on entrepreneurship in schools and communities, they said.

“I think one problem for youth in entrepreneurship is that they may not know at all what entrepreneurship should be about. How should I start, and what is the value of my ideas?” said Amina Diambo, a Senegalese student who launched a fashion line with her mother with the hope of changing perceptions about Africa.  

Diambo and other panelists called for educational institutions to start teaching entrepreneurship early on, particularly in areas where unemployment is high. Small businesses can then in turn become job creators for others.

“If we can include social entrepreneurship in the system, in the education curriculum, it will provide many students with the idea even before graduation, and then when they graduate they will be thinking about creating their own businesses,” said Yoro Cisse, an English student and leader of a mentorship program in Mali.

As an example, in Nigeria, Creative is implementing education programs that also provide students with marketable skills, which can provide youth with an income and help them become more confident in their futures.

2. Teach tech

What else can help to unlock the creative potential of young people to solve community problems? Technology.

In Africa, nearly 75 percent of people are not using the internet, according to the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations agency. Ghana has one of the highest rates of internet use, while Mali and Cameroon are among the lowest.

Increasing young people’s access to technology and equipping youth with skills like coding to utilize that technology can unlock new possibilities for youth, particularly women, to contribute to positive change, said panelists.

“One thing that can help young people develop their countries is technology. If you teach somebody how to code, you show them how to change other people’s lives. Ideas matter,” Diambo said.

Learning how to write code should not be a goal in itself, said Dominic, but can teach valuable problem-solving skills.

“We introduce coding as the end, not the means to an end. We tell them they should learn coding, not that they should learn to solve problems,” he said. “We have to start teaching these kids how to solve problems first, then give them the tools.”

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Nigerian student Mirabelle Morah (center) answers a question during a panel at Creative Headquarters.

3. Transform education

Another major obstacle inhibiting young people from reaching their full potential and contributing to society is lack of access to education and challenges within education systems, said the panelists.

Millions of children in West Africa are out of school. In Mali, 39 percent of primary school-age children are not attending school, according to UNESCO. School enrollment figures can drop even further in rural areas.

Even at the college level, many schools struggle with lack of resources and overcrowding, according to the panelists.

In addition to knocking down these barriers to quality education, the students said that there also needs to be a change in the way students themselves approach their education.

Kinge Emmanuel, an entrepreneurship student in Cameroon focused on agricultural job creation, said he sees many peers studying to get a degree, not to learn.

“Students are taught just to have a certificate,” he said. “In 99 percent of the universities, they are just being trained to study and pass an exam, and believe me, if people were taught more based on a problem-solving approach, we would go a long way.”

Increased teacher training could also help instructors better engage their students and help them retain information, said the youth.

For example, through two projects funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, Creative has established thousands of non-formal learning centers for school-age children in Nigeria and trained learning facilitators. In Borno state, at the epicenter of the Boko Haram conflict, more than 7,100 primary school teachers were recently trained on how to better engage their students, particularly those dealing with trauma. 

4. Give youth a platform and listen

If you want to instigate real and lasting change for young people, take a good look at who is sitting the table, said the panelists, noting that youth are often overlooked in decision-making. Addressing this challenge falls to both leaders in government and civil society and young people.

Dominic said youth must work to break into spaces traditionally reserved for older adults – government, policy, development – and seek out leadership roles.

“The most important thing we have to do is to change the cultural narrative that currently exists in the country. You can’t talk about trying to solve the problems when you don’t change the system that bears the problems,” he said.

He said youth need to make their voices heard – particularly in politics – to hold leaders accountable and shape the future of their nations.  And adults, for their part, need to listen – a difficult but critical culture shift in cultural contexts where youth are not traditionally involved in decisions.

“I think youth, to overcome these challenges facing their country, should try to speak up against the status quo,” he said. “Youth in my country are being stagnated by a cultural perspective that makes them incapable.”

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