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Preparing youth for the path or the path for youth?

1 April 2012 - Keynote address to the 9th Dubai International Humanitarian Aid and Development Conference and Exhibition (DIHAD), Dubai, 1 April 2012 on the theme of the role and importance of youth in humanitarian assistance and development activities

Dr Mukesh Kapila Professor of Global Health and Humanitarian Affairs, University of Manchester

What is youth? All societies and cultures have debated this question over many centuries.

It was philosophers who first mused on the concept. Aristotle, writing around 350BC thought that being young was a "condition of permanent intoxication". Some two thousand years later, the 19th century English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead reflected similarly "the deepest definition of youth is life as yet untouched by tragedy".

Later, writers and poets joined in. Many have written about youth lost, youth regained, youth mis-spent, and so on. James Barrie was lyrical; "I'm youth, I'm joy, I'm a little bird that has broken out of the egg". Evelyn Waugh was more cynical: "what is youth except a man or a woman before it is ready or fit to be seen?"

As the world got more and more scientific, greater measurement was demanded. Demographers, statisticians, and lawyers arrived on the scene. Today, the United Nations has ruled that youth are "persons between the ages of 15 and 24 years". The World Health Organisation puts the upper limit at 34 years. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, as the world's largest humanitarian and development network, is suitably all-inclusive by sub-dividing youth into children aged 5-11 years, adolescents from 12 to 17 years, and young adults from 18-30 years. There is even greater diversity at national level with different age groups from 16 to as high as 40 years being allowed different rights and privileges such as when they are to have sex, to marry, to drive, to work, to fight in an army, to be held responsible for murder, to vote, or to be elected to parliament.

So what then is youth if it cannot be described quantitatively? Biologists and psychologists know youth as the time of life between childhood and adulthood. Although that is not precise enough, perhaps it illuminates the most defining characteristic: youth is the "somewhere in-between" period i.e. a time of change and transition. And the general trend is that as humans mature earlier and earlier, and live longer and longer, this in-between phase of "youth" is being extended further and further. Perhaps, as I get older myself, I find myself agreeing with the politician Herbert Henry Asquith when he said, "youth would be an ideal state if it came later in life"

It is from this perspective of change and transition that I would like to talk on the role of youth in humanitarianism and development in a fast changing world.

Our starting point must be changing demography. Birth, death and migration trends are changing the absolute and relative size, and composition of populations everywhere. These reconfigurations offer both economic and social opportunities as well as serious challenges. The growth of world population - currently 7 billion - is slowing but is still projected to increase by nearly a fifth by 2025. This will be mostly in Africa and Asia where more than 50 countries will increase by more than a third. This will stress resources, services and infrastructure.

Advances in diet, healthcare, education, economic opportunities, and social attitudes are leading to reduced fertility and longevity. The "oldest" countries - those in which people under 30 form less than one-third of the population - will be banded across the northern hemisphere. The "youngest" countries, where the under-30 group may be two-thirds of the population will nearly all be in sub-Saharan Africa along with some others in West Asia. The world will no long be "developed" or "developing": but divided by demography into old and young. "Older" countries will see downward pressure on their GDP growth.

The ageing trend will exacerbate the dependency ratio as the relative proportion of the younger working age population reduces. People who have relied for their care on extended families in the South and on private pensions and state welfare in the North will increasingly find that neither arrangement will meet all future needs. Will there be enough younger people around to be active and productive to support the rest? Will they want to do that, anyway?

Meanwhile, in the "youth bulge" countries, where the aspirations of youth remain unmet, social unrest, political change and increased violence may follow. We have already seen that in North Africa and the Gulf, or in the streets of London.

The shifting place of youth is society is also influenced by three other key factors.

First, there is progressive urbanization. On current trends, 57% of the world population will live in cities by the mid 2020s, increasing from 50% today. By then eight megacities will be added to the current 19 - all of which except one will be in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Young people are represented disproportionality among those that leave the countryside in search for better opportunities. The positive side of this is that most cities are the engines of economic growth with urban-based economic activities accounting for more than 50% of GDP in all countries (and more than 80% in Europe).

But conversely, rapidly increasing city populations generate major economic, social and environmental concerns. Youth in cities tend to be away from their families and have fewer family connections. This can mean greater freedom and less restriction on behavior, among both young men and women. However, it also limits social support and family breakdown, and increases vulnerability of the unprotected young to physical and sexual abuse, exploitation, and disease. Suicide rates of young people are high in cities, as is the prevalence of unhealthy and unsafe behavior be it drugs and alcohol abuse, or road traffic crashes that are now the biggest cause of death and injury among youth.

More than 100 million adolescents do not attend school. Sixteen million adolescent girls become mothers every year and 10% of all births worldwide are among adolescents who also suffer the greatest complications of unwanted pregnancies. Almost 50 per cent of the 7000 new HIV infections each day are among young people.

Finally, unemployment and poverty among youth are on the increase. Of the 1.8 billion young people in the world today, about half survive on less than US$2 a day.

The second key factor is migration which is a defining issue for our age, as more and more people are on the move today than at any other point in human history. Some three per cent of the world population lives outside their country of birth. These numbers are even greater if internal migrants are taken into consideration. Not unexpectedly, young people are a disproportionately large part of the stock of migrants because they have the extra motivation and energy to improve their lives.

By and large, the impact of voluntary migration is positive for receiving countries in demographic decline that benefit from the injection of an active new work force. But for the population exporting countries, this means a loss of vitality and talent that is only partially made up by migrant remittances.

However, there is also an ugly side. Of international migrants, some 30 million (15%) may be termed irregular or unauthorized including the millions of young females who are trafficked into domestic servitude or sexual slavery

The third and most powerful influence on the role of youth is, of course, globalisation. Globalisation means the increasingly interconnected, and hence interdependent, system of global trade and finance underpinned by the free movement of goods, services, knowledge and innovation, and shaped by open and rapid communications. Young people, in every culture, country, and continent are in the vanguard of globalisation. This is facilitated by modern communications and social media with the young being their earliest and most enthusiastic adopters.

The most significant impact of globalization on young people is the growth of a global youth culture and the emergence of a "transnational youth space" which crosses physical borders. We see this, of course, at the visible level, in terms of food, dress, and music. But it is more serious than that. Across this space also range increasingly assertive networks of young people who question traditional assumptions on why the world has to work the way it is. Such young people see themselves as idealistic agents of behavioural change. The result may well be the emergence of new and more universally shared values and norms.

It is perhaps in the emergence of these values and norms that lie the greatest positive contribution of the stirred-up generation of young people. Could they possibly give birth to a new humanitarianism. What may that look like?

On one hand this is about the stronger diffusion of liberal values of tolerance and social inclusion. And, on the other, a greater moral clarity that does not fudge the grey space between the oppressors and the oppressed.

Accompanying this is the spirit of true respect. That is to say, the treatment of vulnerable people not just as objects for charity to be consoled with crumbs and crutches but as people whose dignity needs to be upheld by dealing with the underlying causes of their vulnerability.

Driving this direction of travel would be a fitting sense of outrage over what is unfair and unjust and acting robustly to bring to accountability those who have done wrong, and redress for those who have been wronged. This will mean extending the current framework of international laws including international humanitarian and human rights laws, and clarifying or re-defining the social contract between citizen and state.

Such a new humanitarianism is not about questioning the established fundamental humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality. But it is definitely about re-interpreting them in terms of their practical implementation so that they can, once again, come to be properly upheld in our ever-more challenged and challenging world. The risk is that if we don't do that, humanitarianism itself will continue to retreat and may be lost.

Franklin Roosevelt once said: "we cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future". This then is my challenge to the youth - can they create this future humanitarianism? Are they serious enough and will their passions endure beyond Twitter and Facebook?

But the rest of us - older people - cannot get away that lightly in passing on this role and responsibility for change to the younger generation. This is because youth is not just a chronological moment but also a mindset necessary for the age we live in.

Let me end in the elegant words of Robert Kennedy: "This world demands the qualities of youth: not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the life of ease".

In that sense we must all remain youthful.

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