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Diplomacy in Action

2011 UNESCO Youth Forum Finalist -- Ryan Ruggiero

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Bureau of International Organization Affairs
Washington, DC
June 27, 2011



Ryan Ruggiero

"What is the greatest global challenge facing youth, and how can American youth help to address it?"

Sitting in a rural village in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, I set up a few wooden benches and wait for my peer educators to arrive for our meeting. The sun will be setting soon, earlier than it has in the past 6 months, because winter is quickly approaching in the Southern Hemisphere. After only 20 minutes of waiting, they begin to arrive. But not everyone is here.

We lost Busi, one of the best peer educators back in February, because she went to Johannesburg to look for work. Sthembiso has been stuck in Pietermaritzburg since March trying to find a job and doesn’t have enough money to return to Weenen to complete the program. Zodwa and Prince moved closer to town to save money on the commute to school, thanks to the bursaries they recently received to complete degrees in human resources and management.

Those who do arrive are mostly old faces, but some are new. A few of them started higher education in town with a bursary but had to drop-out because the transport cost to town everyday was too high. The others don’t have enough money to go looking for work outside the village.

The HIV Peer Education program, deemed Stars of Tomorrow, was started in January because of a problem I saw involving out-of-school youth in my village. The youth are in their early 20s, finished high school, and have no prospect for work. Living in an area where the unemployment rate is 70% doesn’t make it any easier. There is also an HIV rate here of 36% and because I am a Peace Corps Volunteer with the HIV/AIDS project, it seemed a perfect way to tackle two problems at once. Since the program began in January, 15 HIV Peer Educators have conducted 1,500 HIV surveys and talks to community members and are empowering themselves to positively impact their community. In a few weeks these out-of-school youth will receive a free asset based community driven development and entrepreneurship training to give them the skills they need to see the resources available in their community and to lift themselves out of poverty.

The biggest global challenge facing youth today is unemployment, where youth do not have the proper skills needed for work or are not making a dignified living from the job (working poverty) and underemployment, where the youth are overqualified for the work they are doing. The International Labour Organization reported that, of the world’s 620 million economically active youth between the ages of 15 and 24, 81 million, or 13%, were out of work at the end of 2009, the highest number ever.

The unemployment issue is not only a problem for only youth in Africa and the developing world, but also for the youth of America. According to the International Labour Organization, in 2008 nearly 30% of the young workers in the world were employed but remained in extreme poverty in households surviving on less than $1.25 a day, (“Global Youth unemployment rate at all-time high, UN Labour agency reports”). In the United States, as of May 2010, the youth unemployment rate was 19.6%, the highest for the age group (16-24) since the government began tracing data in 1947, the Joint Economic Comittee said. There is no denying unemployment is challenge facing youth all around the world today.

I recently received an e-mail from a good friend of mine back home, who graduated with a degree in Business in 2009, at the height of the economic crisis. After spending six months looking for a job, she finally found and accepted an offer for a job she was overqualified for, but it was better than nothing. She is not getting paid enough to be economically independent from her parents, as she is still living at home. She is one of thousands of recent college graduates in America who are currently underemployed, where their skills are not fully utilized.

Contrast this situation to the youth in South Africa, who face even more challenges to employment because of their impoverished circumstances. Poverty creates a cycle where youth in developed nations are more vulnerable to unemployment because of lack of access to quality education, hunger and health obstacles including HIV/AIDs. Many of these youth also lack the necessary skills to even be considered for the jobs available in their countries.

There are many challenges facing the youth in the world today including poverty, education, health and gender roles, many of which are addressed by the Millennium Development Goals. The fact of the matter is even if these youth overcome these challenges and live past five years old, protect themselves from HIV/AIDS and stay in school, what is next? If there is not dignified, meaningful and economic uplifting work for them, the cycle of poverty will continue. “We are the living dead,” one of my peer educators once told me.

The hope for a better life for many of these youth dies when they realize they have no support from their families or governments to make a better life for themselves. When you lose hope, nothing else matters. Rather, these youth are forced to then not only contribute nothing positive to society, but also are a source of many social problems including spreading HIV/AIDS, crime and abuse. The ILO agrees, warning of a possible ‘lost generation’ of young people dropping out of the labour market, “having lost all hope of being able to work for a decent living,” (Global Youth unemployment rate at all-time high, UN Labour agency reports”). If poverty and social problems ever want a real chance of ending, hope cannot be lost for the youth in the world who are the future. Without hope, things will never change and a better life will not be achieved.

In order for the youth today to have a real future tomorrow, they need to be economically empowered on their own through employment opportunities where their skills are matched and where there is pride and dignity in their work. Government grants are not the answer. A youth that does not have the opportunity to find meaningful employment where they can financially support themselves and their family, will never have a real chance of breaking the cycle of poverty.

Clearly there are problems in the world. We need health care professionals to care for the sick, teachers to be on the frontier of education, police officers to enforce the law of the land and activists for women’s rights. In these developing nations, there are roads that need to be built, boreholes that need to be dug and managed to provide clean water, agricultural systems in place to feed the people and NPOs that need better training to be able to help their communities the best they can.

So how is it possible that there is such a high percentage of unemployment among the youth in the world? Governments need to invest more in vocational trainings and trainings for service professionals especially to the youth if they want to meet their need for qualified teachers and nurses and also to slowly break the poverty cycle in rural areas, where over 70% of the African youth still lives, (“Youth unemployment and underemployment in Africa brings uncertainty and opportunity”).

So where do the American youth fit into this bigger picture? For starters, American youth, who have many more opportunities than other youth in developing nations, need to take advantage of the educational opportunities available to them and get their college degree. College graduates in the U.S. only account for 8% of the unemployed youth. American youth should also diversify themselves by broadening their own horizons, which will in turn impact the larger problem of youth unemployment.

The American youth must start seeing the world as more globalized and see that we are really more connected to the youth in China than we may think or even like. Unfortunately, the global economic crisis of 2008 is a real eye opener to just how connected the world is, as countries all over the world, not only the U.S. were affected by it. America is possibly the most influential country in the world and the youth of America are a powerful force if we put our minds, energy and talents together. Get involved in organizations that promote dignity in work, that stand up against injustices like hunger and poverty and that fight human trafficking. Write letters to your senators and local representatives to tell them about the plight of youth all over the world. Tell them you are not happy about the lack of dignified employment opportunities for youth in the U.S. and abroad. Write letters in the local newspapers and educate others about these challenges facing the youth and others all over the world.

Join the Peace Corps. Volunteering abroad for an extended period of time will not only give one a new perspective on life and the world but it can also have a positive impact on the people you are serving. Peace Corps’ first goal is to meet the need for trained men and women in developing countries. By joining the Peace Corps or another long term volunteer organization internationally, the youth of America will help share their skills with the youth abroad and will in turn gain more work experience which will make them more competitive when they get back home.

There are plenty of real life opportunities to go to these places where the need for trained youth is the highest and to do some good work. If it’s not the Peace Corps, there are thousands of other NPOs and volunteer opportunities. Hope needs to be spread among this potentially lost generation and hope needs to be given to all the Busis and Sthembisos of the world who have just about given up on looking for a job because they lack the proper skills or there are no employment opportunities available.

When the American youth begin seeing how they are connected with the youth around the world, despite cultural, religious, economic and geographic differences, real change can start happening. The youth who are educated and empowered in America need to help their fellow youth anyway they can. A youth forum is a perfect opportunity for youth from all over the world to discuss global challenges faced by the youth and to make a plan for moving forward. If we work together, we can have the strength to speak out to governments and let them know that we have a voice and should not be forgotten. The hope is not lost.

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