If we want to achieve the SDGs, we must abandon empty rhetoric and invest in young people

“Youth is the future. The leaders of tomorrow. Youth will change the world”. All of this is true. But the rhetoric disseminated at leadership events is not matched by actions that enable the full and meaningful participation of young people.

International Youth Day (August 12) is a powerful reminder that this must change.

Our world is challenged like never before. A recent UN report says interconnected global crises like climate change, COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine are “wiping out” years of progress in ending poverty and hunger. Young people can help reverse this trend. Yet today’s youth, especially those living in rural areas, face countless barriers to their ability to take on this role.

Of the 1.3 billion people aged 15-24 in the world, around one billion live in developing economies, of which around 70% live in rural areas. One in five young people are ‘Not in education, employment or training’ – a status called NEET. This harms their long-term prospects, ultimately undermining the social and economic development of their countries.

Various factors are at the root of the problem and could aggravate the situation, such as low family income, lack of quality education and family responsibilities. Agriculture and forestry are essential to rural livelihoods, but many young people in these sectors struggle to earn decent incomes in decent conditions. About a third of employed young people in developing economies are poor, with 13% living in extreme poverty and earning less than US$1.90 a day. A growing list of “new” realities, including climate change and an unrelenting pandemic, make matters worse.

Waves of young people are migrating from rural areas in search of better jobs. This also has consequences on a global level. Small-scale agriculture in rural areas accounts for around 70% of national food production in many countries and 30-34% of the world’s total food supply. As agriculture is considered unprofitable by young people, the agricultural population is ageing. Meanwhile, global food production must double by 2050 to feed the growing world population. Who is going to grow all this food?

It’s obvious: we need more organizations to help these young people realize their potential and secure sustainable livelihoods in the areas where they are needed most.

In Calakmul, Mexico – a region rich in biodiversity that is home to the largest remaining rainforest in Central America – Rainforest Alliance prepares young people for meaningful and financially viable futures within their communities. Carmelina Martínez Hernández, a 23-year-old from El Refugio, Calakmul, is part of the Our Forest, Our Future program and testifies to what young people can achieve with the right resources. The program’s many field experiences, expert visits and workshops instilled in her a passion for the forest and helped her successfully apply for a scholarship and enroll at EARTH University in Costa Rica. .

Carmelina told me: “I feel privileged. In my community, young people do not have the resources to go to college. After graduating in agronomy this year, my plan is to create projects that help communities like mine use natural resources more sustainably and efficiently, provide opportunities for better health and education, and ultimately strengthen rural resilience and prosperity.

Meaningfully involving young people is not just a tick box activity; it requires investment. At Rainforest Alliance, we know that proven practices exist:

Local governments and academic institutions should help ensure equal access to quality education, capacity building and training that reflects the needs of rural youth and local labor markets. Partnerships with the private sector (tailoring programs to include sustainable agriculture and natural resource management, for example) are an effective way to align programs with labor market needs, while increasing employment opportunities. employment for young people.

Evidence suggests that young people thrive in environments that combine work experience with classroom learning. The private sector can provide incentives for young people to engage in agriculture and forestry—for example, through internships, apprenticeships, and training programs—to prepare them to lead and manage rural businesses. Work-based learning experiences help young people develop responsibility, communication, teamwork, and other social-emotional skills, in addition to domain-specific technical skills. It can also connect young people with careers and employers in sectors where barriers to entry are historic.

Next, governments and business leaders must bring young people, especially the most marginalized, into the rooms where strategies and policies are made – especially those that impact young people. Intergenerational dialogues help young people learn about the progress made by generations before them, while older generations better understand the barriers young people face and can work together to find solutions.

Whether in physical spaces like schools and work, or virtual places like social media, it is equally essential to develop and maintain “safe spaces” where young people in all their diversity can share their experiences, support each other and feel comfortable and valued.

Access to finance is crucial for young people pursuing careers in agriculture and forestry. Interventions can focus on changing the terms of access to finance so that more young people can open accounts and take out loans. Financial education and entrepreneurship training will also help. Public policies promoting sustainable practices can improve productivity and resilience in agriculture and forestry, making these sectors more profitable and attractive to young people. Companies can also play an important role here by bridging the gap between living incomes and living wages in value chains.

Fundamentally, gender dimensions – for example restrictions on women’s education and land rights – need to be considered in all youth engagement activities. Young women are even more disadvantaged than young men.

For these initiatives to translate into real change, we need all stakeholders to define measurable actions and results to improve the level and depth of youth engagement. History has shown that if young people are prepared to succeed, they have the power to change the world.


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