08/11/2012 07:53 EDT | Updated 10/11/2012 05:12 EDT

How Youth Can Change the World


Like millions of viewers, I've been mesmerized watching elite athletes from every part of the world giving the performances of their lives in pursuit of their Olympic dreams. The veterans are truly impressive, but I find myself most drawn to the rookies -- the young people bubbling over with the excitement of their first Olympic outing. I love watching these exceptional young people execute such amazing feats. Through a combination of determination, hard work, talent and luck, they've earned this chance to test the limits of their potential.

Plan's Dream: No Potential Wasted

I think I'm drawn to them because in the course of my work at Plan I see so many young people with great potential of their own who have so few opportunities to explore or express it. Still, they bravely persist in striving to make their mark on the world, even in contexts of deprivation and conflict, demonstrating their own Olympic-like strength and will in tackling complex local and global problems.

On August 12, we celebrate International Youth Day. This year's theme is about partnering with youth to build a better world. We need days like this to remind the world that we can't afford to waste any of the talent, energy and ideas possessed by over one billion global citizens between the ages of 15-24. The vast majority of these, about 85 per cent, live in developing countries.

Youth as Partners in Development

In thinking about this year's International Youth Day theme, my mind went flashing back to the aftermath of the tsunami that hit the Indian Ocean in 2004. As all the "experts" flew in to direct the recovery effort, we took the time to listen to traumatized children and youth. We worked with youth to articulate how they wanted their communities and lives to be rebuilt -- what features could be incorporated into the new school, for example, to reduce their fear of being swept away should another tsunami come.

Since that experience, we've put a stronger effort on training young people to reduce the risk of disaster devastating their communities. In Colombia, hundreds of youth now understand what human actions contribute to mudslides and flood damage -- like cutting down trees on steep slopes or letting drainage ditches fill up with mud. They regularly monitor their communities, map hazards and formally report risks to authorities. In flood-prone areas of Bangladesh, youth noting that their families seldom save for emergencies set up their own savings program as a kind of "insurance" that could fund food and supplies when floods come.

Youth as Economic Contributors and Engaged Citizens

A recent report by the International Labour Organization says that global youth unemployment is expected to rise to 12.7 per cent this year and remain high for some time. In developing countries with a "bulge" of young people now entering weak economies, opportunities are particularly scarce.

Through Plan-supported initiatives, youth are working to fulfil their potential as economic contributors. In Indonesia, to cite just one example, we're partnering with local businesses in a Youth Economic Empowerment programme, which gives promising candidates the skills, experience and self-confidence they need to land a job. Numerous Plan-supported microfinance programs help young entrepreneurs turn their good ideas into income.

In Sierra Leone and other parts of West Africa, young boys and girls are learning basic journalism and technology skills through Plan's Girls Making Media project. They then put these skills to work by raising awareness about issues that are important to young people in their schools and communities like combating child labour, gender discrimination and female genital mutilation. For example, in Guinea-Bissau, the government has passed a law to make female genital cutting illegal but the practice still occurs in the country. When Girls Making Media members in the region learned this, they organized a radio debate and a football match on National Women's Day to help make sure that girls' and women's rights are respected in the country.

Youth Changing the World

Back here in Canada, we've been thrilled by the response of Canadian youth to our invitation to partner with Plan in changing the world -- particularly through our Because I Am a Girl campaign. They each find their own special way to contribute. Nine-year-old Mackenzie made up bags of candy attached to magnets bearing words that inspired her, and sold these to raise money for Plan projects. Michaela convinced her school principal to let her make a presentation on girls' issues -- and that's just the start of her personal advocacy campaign.

As I write, 16-year-old Adiba from Toronto is looking forward to travelling to Ghana to experience Plan's work there. She earned this opportunity by signing up for our Plan for Change initiative and reaching her goal of educating more than 1,000 people on girl's rights and youth leadership through her own events and fundraisers.

Imagine the incredible possibilities for change in our world -- politically, economically, and socially -- if we challenged ourselves to find more and more ways to partner with youth in creating solutions to the world's biggest problems. With their help, a better world is totally achievable.