Youth are the future: they are also the present

Geneva, 5 November 2018 - 

During the recent World Food Prize week in Des Moines, I was invited to give talks to 3 groups of young people: the Borlaug Fellows, the African Youth Institute, and the Global Youth Institute. I was delighted to do so. The first group was the oldest—early career researchers and policymakers, the second being young African entrepreneurs, scientists, and scholars and the third group being high school students from around the world.

The addresses were tailored a bit to each group, but they had many common elements and here they are.

  • You are the future. But you are also the present. Too often we stop at “you are the future” and of course that is true, but whether a high school student or an early career professional, these young people are the present. They have agency. They have tools like social media to mobilise and organise and speak out, they have computer literacy to design apps that can promote accountability and transparency, they have an ability to multitask and they have numbers—the we are approaching a youth bulge in many parts of the world. Many of these young people are already entrepreneurs, leaders and consumers. Many of them will soon become voters and employees. They have power, individually and collectively. Let’s support it and help focus it.
  • Learn your craft, but live broadly. If you hone your skill, whatever that is, people will beat a path to your door. This requires hard work, focus and dedication. Think of the dozens of performances the Beatles gave in the Cavern Club in Hamburg. But you have to live widely too. That means read outside your area of specialism (blogs, websites, newspapers, nonfiction books), talk to people who are in different locations, sectors, political spaces. Get a rounded picture of a situation because it will help you deploy your specialism. Understand how to tune into the frequency of those who do not think like you because this is the only way you will ever persuade them to think differently. Also be open to your own views being challenged. The global financial crisis of 2007-8 made me think hard about some of the assumptions economists make about development (I even wrote a paper about it).


Adolescent portrait Bangladesh November 2018

Adolescent girl in front of her school in Bangladesh. © Yosuf Tushar / GAIN

  • Understand how change happens and don’t be afraid to be a part of the process. If you are reading this, the chances are that you have chosen your profession because you want to leave the world a better place than you found it. That means understanding how chance happens. Sound evidence is not sufficient to spur change, it may not always be necessary, but it sure is helpful. Master it better than the person you are trying to influence. Watch for opportunities to effect change. Usually these opportunities manifest themselves if there is a change in leadership or some big crisis (i.e. every crisis is an opportunity). But to contribute to that change you need to be brave and insert yourself. Make that presentation to the group of parliamentarians, find investors for your idea that will change the world, write that op-ed, brief your local political leaders, organise that rally.

  • Develop a wide range of skills that are not always taught in school or university. Communication—oral and written—is so important. This is about listening as well as speaking. Keep it simple. Short sentences, no jargon. Like you are writing home to your folks. Once you are in the bubble it is difficult to remember that most of the people you need to persuade to do something are not residents of said bubble. Be an entrepreneur—find people to back your ideas. Talk to them with evidence, passion but patience and they will come around. Broker relationships. It may not be easier to get things done when you are in alliances and movements and partnerships but it is more enduring.

  • Treat people well. This sounds obvious, and often we have to work with people we do not like or respect. But as well as being the right thing to do, if you are kind, treat people like you want to be treated yourself, don’t give in to the temptations of hierarchy, and put the issue before yourself, you will find people want to work with you, listen to you, take brave decisions with you and act alongside you.
  • Identify people who inspire you. Try to learn from them, emulate them and also don’t be afraid to challenge them. I was lucky enough to have some of these fantastic people around me and they helped me grow up fast. They know who they are.
  • Finally, don’t forget who you work for. Ultimately it is not your teacher, parent, line manager, programme leader or even yourself. If you are reading this, you have already decided to work for and with those who are less fortunate than you in large part because of the randomness of where on the planet they were born. They are the ultimate boss. It is easy to forget this. Don’t.