Youth service programmes could mobilise young people to build infrastructure, fight HIV/AIDS, improve literacy rates and facilitate the green economy. But how would such a programme be structured, asks YERSHEN PILLAY.
Every year the world celebrates International Youth Day on the 12th of August. A 1998 proclamation adopted by the World Conference of Ministers Responsible for Youth and later endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly led to the 12th of August being annually dedicated to young people around the world. International Youth Day provides an opportunity to reflect on the state of youth globally by creating awareness about the challenges that youth face and some of the strategies that can be employed in mobilising young people to be active, educated and productive citizens of society. The United Nations International Youth Day recognises efforts by youth in augmenting a global society and engages young people in becoming more actively involved in improving their communities.
The world is getting younger and South Africa is a microcosm of this youthful and vibrant world. Youth between the ages of 15 and 24 constitute close to 1.2 billion of the total global population, and 87% of the world’s youth are found in developing countries. In South Africa, youth make up 42% of the total population and the youth population group is growing at a faster rate than the adult population group. This high youth population group can create new socio-economic opportunities if adequately empowered. At the same time, if not properly supported, it could result in social and developmental catastrophes. Today many youth find themselves in abject poverty associated with weak endowments of human, capital and financial resources such as low levels of education, few marketable skills, low productivity and generally poor health. Many young people are trapped into a culture of entitlement and dependency, turning to alcohol and drugs or a life of crime as an easy way out. On the other extreme are those who are at forefront of transformation, taking the opportunities that come with freedom and democracy.
There is no bigger challenge in the world today than the challenge of youth unemployment. Recent data from the International Labour Organisation suggests that youth unemployment globally is as high as 12.6% with close to 75 million youth worldwide being unemployed. From high levels of youth unemployment to increasing rates of alcohol and drug abuse, teenage pregnancy and higher rates of new HIV/AIDS infections, these challenges represent enormous economic and social costs to society. As a country we are no different to the rest of the world in trying to address these challenges more efficiently and effectively. Many countries around the world are grappling with the implementation of effective policies and interventions to address the multitude of challenges facing young people today.
The theme for International Youth Day 2015 is “Youth Civic Engagement”. This year the objective is for the global community to arrange a series of global workshops aimed at encouraging young people to take ownership of the problems in their communities, and in so doing become part of the solution and not the problem. Civic engagement remains a fundamental goal of the United Nations System-Wide Action Plan on Youth (Youth-SWAP) which promotes the inclusion of youth at all levels of society.
Does South Africa need a structured national youth service programme capable of absorbing the millions of unemployed youth? What structure would this national youth service programme take, given the international experience and our own unique context? These are just some of the questions that we may need to contend with in determining how best to ensure that youth service becomes a strategy for youth development and national development. While there is no silver bullet to address the challenges facing young people, it is important to consider effective weapons of mass development such as youth service.
As government contemplates youth service through military conscription it is important that young people actively participate in sharing their own views so as to take ownership of a public youth service programme for the youth and by the youth. The militarisation of national youth service can be one aspect of a broader, more innovative and socially responsive youth service programme. Fundamentally, a dynamic national youth service programme must be mass-based and capable of enrolling millions of unemployed young South Africans into structured programmes for meaningful skills development.
Participating in youth service programmes empowers young people to become active citizens in addressing a wide range of community needs. Many young people are already involved in cleaning up their communities, tutoring and mentorship or particular forms of social work. This helps in positioning young people as dynamic agents for community development, as opposed to being viewed as passive recipients or being part of the problem. Youth service programmes can also serve as a cost-effective tool for addressing a wide range of development priorities. With limited budgets and staff, youth service programmes can be used to mobilise and organise young people to build infrastructure, fight HIV/AIDS, improve literacy rates and facilitate green economy interventions for protecting the environment.
Let’s celebrate International Youth Day 2015 by intensifying awareness and debate on the importance of youth service. Opportunities to volunteer are bountiful and youth can actively contribute in the various fields they find themselves in. Young South Africans need to take more of an interest in youth service while on the other hand more structured opportunities need to be created to help them develop the skills, knowledge and values necessary to become productive members of society. Some may argue that the brutality of our past as South Africans has bred a society where violence, rape and abuse are the norm. However, it can be similarly argued that unity, peace and service can equally rear a new culture where peace, unity and humility are the norm.
Yershen Pillay is the executive chairperson of the National Youth Development Agency and a member of the Presidential Youth Working Group.
– Featured image by Ihsaan Haffejee