There are a lot of exciting things happening in the development world these days. We could talk about community-driven development, in-country fund-raising, viral online movements, etc. These are all things that excite me, because they all indicate a shift of decision making power. More people are learning about how they can change their own communities and countries, as well as getting involved in that process.
But the two most important changes on the scene that I see are youth-driven movements, and technology. The two are actually intimately tied, because it is young people who have grown up with newer forms of technology, and know how to manipulate them in order to communicate information, and mobilize. It is no coincidence that youth now make up more than 50% of the population in the developing world, and are using technology to more actively participate in the changes occurring in their countries. They are using technology to learn about what is going on in the world, inform their own communities of what they think, and mobilizing mass meetings in order to discuss, protest, and create change.
I think we all know that there is still little place for youth in the formal development process. General Ban Ki Moon has tried to do a lot to change this, including prioritizing youth and youth involvement in High Level Forums, creating the first ever Youth Observer at a recent General Assembly and also creating the first ever Youth Ambassador – who just happens to be a friend of a friend and who was involved with the International Youth Council, of which I am an active member (join all these youth organizations, people! The people in it are amazing and are going places and doing great things). However, as much as formal institutions have created activities and posts for youth – and I as well as many people I know have taken advantage of these outlets, attending Forums and trainings and summer schools – they do not actually empower youth within the existing development process system.
Instead, what I see is youth empowering themselves.
I’m going to tell you a story. Last year, I went to study in New Delhi. I did it for myself, because I knew that the studies would not count towards my graduation. I wanted to learn more intimately about social issues in India, and especially those concerning women. I expected to intern with the International Center for Research on Women, whose East Asian headquarters is in New Delhi. I knew that New Delhi had a great deal of problems, such as widespread poverty, enormous pollution, and insecurity. However, I did not expect it to be so incredibly unsafe as a woman. I learned that I could not be comfortable nor safe walking around the streets even during the day in many parts of the city. Although I made incredible friends at Jawarhalal Nehru University and at different moments in New Delhi, and wanted to finish the semester, I decided to leave the city after approximately four months because I was becoming paranoid about sexual harassment and having multiple nervous breakdowns.
This year, New Delhi exploded after the horrific gang-rape and subsequent death of a young Indian woman in the capital. For what seems to me to be the first time ever, the entire city protested the enormous insecurity for women not only in the capital, but in the entire country. Indians are outraged about the violence against women that exists in the country, and especially young people, who have grown up in a world where women are used to more rights and freedoms. I learned that my Indian friends still living in New Delhi took the streets and participated in the protests. One of them started a blog, where she began documenting the subsequent events in the country, including the new law that penalizes rapists and still-existing attitudes about women in the country.
This new spotlight on gender equality in the country has been largely driven by India’s youth. And I notice that in many conferences that I attend, that there are always young people from India who are passionate about creating opportunities for youth in their region and in creating a different perspective in the development process – not only from the Global South, but also from the youth perspective.
In this sense, I am optimistic. Perhaps too optimistic given the very slow change in the formal development structure. But these days, if youth want to change something and empower themselves, they can. They have technology, they have information, and most importantly, they have each other. Young people are perhaps the most socially active and connected people out there. There’s no reason to be pessimistic about young people always being on their cell phones if at least once in a while, they use their cell phones and internet to speak out, get together, and fight for a world that they want to live in. That’s something to get excited about.