As I was flying out of Liberia last November, after being in the country for almost 5 months serving as a volunteer on the campaign team of an opposition Presidential candidate, by sheer serendipity, I sat beside someone who I later came to find out was a bigwig at USAID Liberia.
From my vantage point in an opposition camp during the elections campaign, and having the opportunity to thankfully leave the illusory enclave of Monrovia to travel around the country, I had been rudely awakened by the piercing cacophony of the unsheathed despondency and destitution of the multitude of Liberia’s youths from whatever slumber ignorance may have formerly afforded me.
And it weighed heavy on my mind and made me wonder: How could we talk about securing a prosperous and stable future for our nation when those on whose shoulders this future is supposed to be realized, were not being empowered in any radically transformative way?
During the flight, the USAID bigwig and I became engaged in a general conversation. We talked about family, about life, and of course, about Liberian politics. And, as the conversation ensued, I expressed my concerns about the dire conditions of our youths and how I thought it was a recipe for a brewing cauldron of volatility that could pose a veritable threat to any prosperous and stable future for our beloved nation.
And the USAID bigwig replied: “Believe me, I am very much aware of this troubling issue, and part of my job involves spending countless hours thinking about solutions that could be employed to urgently address this untenable situation among Liberia’s youths.”
Maybe it was because the environment was a relaxed one, causing the USAID bigwig to respond in a momentarily unguarded manner, but I remember feeling that the USAID bigwig’s comment was peppered with a profound dose of honesty, and might I add, even empathy, for the contemptuous conditions that Liberian youths, whom politicians love to wax about as “the future of our nation,” were wallowing in.
Fast forward time to a few months ahead, and USAID Liberia has just launched a five-year, $35 million Liberian youth initiative called Advancing Youth Project, which “will provide increased access to high-quality, alternative basic education services, social and leadership development, and livelihoods for out-of-school youths aged 13–35 who have marginal or no literacy and numeracy skills.” And all I can say is: Kudos! Kudos! Kudos, USAID Liberia!
Our youths have been put in an untenably difficult situation, not so much by their own negligence or lack of motivation to do well for themselves, but they have suffered ignoble disenfranchisement mostly at the hands of an older generation that waged a so-called revolution where they were used as pawns…
It is more than heartening, and certainly inspires hope, to see that such a critical development partner comprehends the urgency of youth empowerment in Liberia, and rather than just playing intellectual gymnastics with such a grave issue, they have made a major investment to address the issue.
But, even as I was moved with enthusiasm by the news of such a major investment initiative in our youths, in the same news cycle, I read about our President traveling around the country to speak to citizens to engender their participation in the forging of a so-called Vision 2030 agenda to make Liberia a middle income country, and my enthusiasm was immediately dampened.
Obviously, I am not suggesting here that, in and of itself, there is anything wrong with forging a long-term vision to serve as a developmental blueprint that we can only hope successive governments will adopt. What I am struck by is the apparent lack of urgency in launching, first and foremost, a nationwide initiative to engage broad citizen participation in developing a framework to deal with the immediacy of the youth crisis plaguing our nation.
President Sirleaf herself said in her recent address to the nation: “Many caution that this youthful demographic is our greatest risk, the most likely source of instability. As I see it – and I’m sure you’ll see it – our youth are the future of our country, and their future is in our hands. If we invest well and educate them, our future will be bright; if we invest poorly, fail to nurture and develop our young talent, then our future will look dim.”
But therein seems to lie the problem. It is not that our leaders are not aware of the precarious youth problem in our country, but theirs seems to be a clinical awareness, not buttressed by the necessary urgency and evangelical fervor that is needed to address the horrendous conditions of destitution that constricts the potentials of way too many of our young people.
Vision 2030 may be a nice sounding project, but where is the government’s “Youth Vision” to radically and effectively overturn the prevailing paradigm of youth disenfranchisement to one of empowerment? I am aware of the so-called National Youth Policy Action Plan (NYPAP) released in February 2009, which, if the massive show of disenchantment by Liberian youths during the elections is anything to go by, seems to have been nothing more than one of those intellectual gymnastic exercises with no grit to back it up.
And, when I speak of youth vision, I am not talking about some youth initiative cluttered in some overarching development program, as seems to have been posited in the President’s recently announced 150-day deliverables. I am referring to a stand-alone national project, not unlike the one launched by USAID, that will inspire national action and directly engage Liberian youths through radically innovative and transformative programs to give our youths a hand-up and begin to empower them to overcome the plethora of undue challenges that otherwise threaten to strangle them from realizing a promising future.
As the President engages the nation’s participation in Vision 2030, it would seem only appropriate to me that the President and her officials would also work assiduously to engage elders and youths across the country to spark a nationwide drive to precisely address the youth crisis in our country. Ultimately, it is about creating jobs for our youths, but what about also rolling out a national youth microcredit scheme to foster youth entrepreneurship and developing a national mentoring program to facilitate an exchange of knowledge from more experienced individuals who could offer advice and guidance to our youths. Or what about establishing Youth Advisory Centers across the country, where our youths could walk in to get advice on how to start businesses, get potential financial support, or even just assisting them with preparing their resumes to seek jobs, among other things.
Let me again emphasize here the need to develop youth-specific initiatives rather than cluttering critical and urgent solutions to resolving our youth crisis as part of a general initiative because our youths deserve and need such a special attention. And, if you might ask why they deserve and need such a special attention, the answer is simple.
Our youths have been put in an untenably difficult situation, not so much by their own negligence or lack of motivation to do well for themselves, but they have suffered ignoble disenfranchisement mostly at the hands of an older generation that waged a so-called revolution where they were used as pawns, resulting in a catastrophic erosion of those most basic structures that were their inalienable right to enjoy, and which would have otherwise supported and prepared them for a brighter future.
And, not to name names, but there are quite a few people in the present administration who were directly involved in this misadventure, which has directly created the quagmire of destitution that our youths are wallowing in at the moment.
Therefore, if nothing at all, now is the time to make amends. And rather than coasting and acting like the problem of our youths can be pushed down the list of priorities until we are well and ready to deal with it, our government needs to engage this challenge head-on with nothing less than an uncommon fanaticism and commitment that it deserves.
Anyone who witnessed up close the acrimonious Liberian elections will readily grasp the foreboding wisdom behind the 5-year action plan of the USAID Youth Advancement Project. Because, especially with recent talk of UNMIL drawing down (and I can’t seem to see what security benchmarks Liberia has achieved to prompt this decision), we most certainly cannot engage in the luxury of cooling off before the next Presidential election cycle, to urgently, and in a radically transformative way, address our youth crisis, or we will fail at our own peril!