Policymakers Must Act Now on Youth Opportunities

Young Australians dance during Australia's first national youth summit on climate change on the steps of the Sydney Opera House on July 13 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo: Lisa Maree Williams / Getty Images)

Young people around the world marked the 9th Annual United Nations' International Youth Day on Aug. 12. Millions of young people, who make up a significant portion of their respective country's population, embarked on various activities to remind their policymakers of the significant contribution that the youth make to development.

This year's theme is "Sustainability: Our Challenge. Our Future." This theme is indeed timely, considering the impact of climate change; it draws the attention to future challenges that, undoubtedly, the world's youth are going to be faced with. These challenges are enormous .The problems created today will, of course, outlive its creators and it will be the responsibility of future generations to deal with the repercussions and the global threat to ecosystems.

One major challenge that future generations are going to be faced with is the effect of increasing world population. The number of people inhabiting the Earth, which at present is estimated to be six billion, is projected to reach nine billion in the next 50 years. This means increased human activities on the planet, which will further create immense stress to our ecosystems. There are other challenges the world is faced with today, such as wars, poverty and so on, which will be on a much larger scale for future generations.

Young people around the world made a clarion call to their leaders to create structures of sustainability, not only in relation to the environment, but also in relation to the economy and society.

In the light of the current financial crisis, the developing world is arguably the most vulnerable. It is estimated that 1.3 billion young people now live in the developing world — the largest ever youth group in the history of the world, according to World Development Report 2007. High levels of illiteracy lead to little or no income for millions of young people, and inevitably, this leaves them with no 'voice.' .

Emmanuel Jimenez, lead author of the World Development Report, has called on policymakers to strike while the iron is hot:

"Most developing countries have a short window of opportunity to get this right before their record numbers of youth become middle-aged, and they loose their demographic dividend," he said, adding,"This may be one of the profound decisions a developing country will ever make to banish poverty and galvanize its economy."

One could not agree more with Mr. Jimenez on the urgency for the leaders in the developing world to act now before it is too late. The opportunities the youth present are greater now than before. Their population is significantly large, very energetic, relatively educated than the previous generation, but these opportunities will amount to nothing if young people are ill-prepared to make positive contributions to their economies.

So what should policymakers in developing countries do to make effective use of the opportunities young people present?

To echo the message of the World Bank Report, developing countries that invest in better education, healthcare and job creation for their young people are more likely to see higher economic growth and a significant reduction in poverty.

However, the danger is failure to act now. Failure of policymakers to do so, and create better opportunities for the youth to gain better education and access to health care will result in increased social and economic frustrations among many, stifling their progression to a productive adulthood.

Numerous opportunities have been missed in the past. This was, in part, due to wars and the marginalization of young people. The rights of young people can no longer be ignored by policymakers. They must channel the aspirations of millions of young people towards the sustainable development of their respective economies.

Unisa Dizo-Conteh is the leader of one of Sierra Leone's most dynamic youth organization, Young Leaders-Sierra Leone (Y.L.S.L.), which provides a platform that empowers youth to play active role in the sustainable development of their country. Dizo also works as outreach officer for Sierra Leone Diaspora Network (S.L.D.N.) an organization working to promote investment opportunities in Sierra Leone.