Conversations With America: Global Youth Issues

Cheryl Benton
   Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Public Affairs
Ronan Farrow
   Special Adviser, Office of Global Youth Issues
William Reese, President and CEO, International Youth Foundation on Global Youth Issues
Washington, DC
April 6, 2012

MS. BENTON: Hello, and welcome to the U.S. Department of State and the Foreign Press Center. This is Conversations with America, a discussion between a senior State Department official and an NGO leader, where you can watch and participate in the exchange of ideas. I’m Cheryl Benton, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Public Affairs.

Today’s topic of discussion is global youth issues. We’ve received questions and comments on today’s topic from all around the world through our blog, DipNote, and on Twitter, and we have selected several for this broadcast.

Now, let’s meet our guests. We are privileged to have Ronan Farrow, Special Adviser to the Secretary of State for Global Youth Issues. Thank you for taking the time out of your very busy schedule to participate in this program.

Bill Reese is the President and CEO of the International Youth Foundation, an organization committed to the development of young people and their engagement in society around the globe. It is based in Baltimore, Maryland. Thank you, Bill, for taking the time to join our discussion.

In June of 2011, Ronan, you were appointed by Secretary Clinton as Special Adviser for Global Youth Issues. Can you tell us why this is an important issue to focus on?

MR. FARROW: Well, Secretary Clinton, going back to a commencement address she gave at NYU as she started in her tenure as Secretary of State, has said if we are going to solve our generation’s greatest challenges we need to tap the majority of the world’s population that is under the age of 30. So the importance of this agenda is about tapping the tremendous potential for entrepreneurship and innovation. It’s about making sure that young people are harnessed to create the jobs around the world that, for the most part, come from new business initiatives and where youthful creativity is going to be essential. It’s about harnessing them to be champions of good governance and overturn old enmities and obstacles to progress, as we’ve seen young people do in such a powerful way in the past year.

MS. BENTON: Very good. I want to ask you, Bill, in what areas have youth involvement proved valuable, particularly internationally?

MR. REESE: In our foundation, we’d like to think that young people are problem solvers and not just problems to be solved. And too often we tend – in government and out of government – to stigmatize young people and talk about them being out of school, out of work, on the streets, on drugs, in jail – all these challenges that are real for youth in the United States as well as in any country in the world. But they’re also part of the challenge of building new societies. They are assets to be tapped, and we’d like to see them part of the conversation, part of the solutions, and active and not just beneficiaries of development issues, but – or activities, but really participants in their own development.

MS. BENTON: Very good. So I’m curious, how do you, as the Special Adviser for Global Youth Issues and your organization – how do you all work together to engage youth?

MR. FARROW: Well, the NGO community has been the essential set of implementers for much of our engagement with young people. When we talk about our focus on both the political side of youth empowerment, where we work with a range of local NGOs around the world that have credibility on the ground, and with a range of international NGOs that can mentor some of those local groups, that NGO community is essential. And IYF is a great example of that.

When we look at job training and skills training that can empower young people to take part in global markets, a lot of that is coming from groups like IYF, which has a tremendous program called Youth Work, which is sort of one of our flagship initiatives that does prepare young people for a global job market that too often is devoid of opportunities. And that’s one of the dynamics that’s at the heart of what we’re confronting here.

MS. BENTON: Very good. So back in February of this year, Secretary Clinton held a town hall in Tunisia for Tunis youth. She mentioned the creation of youth councils at American embassies abroad. Could you talk a little bit about that effort and what it is intended to do? And then, Bill, I’d like to get your comment on what you think that effort has yielded.

MR. FARROW: We now have these youth councils in every region at embassies and consulates across the world, and the idea is very much in the vein of what we were just discussing – not just looking at young people as passive recipients of our engagement, but actually tapping them for solutions and for policy guidance.

So I’ve seen launches of these councils around the world, and they’ve been truly inspiring. We turn to young people – yes, young people that we usually deal with, the usual suspects of people who speak English, people who engage in our programs, but maybe more significantly young people who don’t always see eye to eye with us. And we bring them together to the table, regardless of divisions between themselves and between themselves and us, and we say, “What are your formal policy recommendations? How do you think the United States should engage?” And I’ve launched these with ambassadors and – we make the commitment that we bring those policy recommendations back to Washington, and we let them inform an embassy’s engagement.

Maybe most significantly, though, we then actually turn to them and say, “How can we empower you to build your own grassroots solutions to the problems you’ve just identified?” So around the world, we’ve seen initiatives from community healthcare projects, to job training portals online, to – I just got back from launching a council in Latvia, where two of our young members started an e-petition system that’s now used by 20 percent of the population, that’s written into the law of the country where if a young person has an idea and launches a petition, gets a certain number of votes, that has to be passed into law.


MR. FARROW: So that’s the story we want to see paid forward all around the world. That case is the perfect example of how it can be paid forward, because those two young men, who received that initial grant as part of that youth council process, are now sitting on that council overseeing the next round of projects. We announced a $10,000 innovation grant for young people that they’ll be helping to steer.

So hopefully, it will be a legacy of young people continuing to mentor each other and to produce initiatives that come from them, not from us.

MS. BENTON: Yes, good idea.

MR. REESE: And we’re thrilled with the Secretary’s new strategy, and with Ronan being out there as a voice for this. In fact, the United States Government has been dealing with young people for years and years, but having the Secretary come out with a new strategy and having the first-ever Special Adviser for Youth, I think sends a message that hopefully will cross all parties and administrations going forward. And I’m sure it will.

The councils are just one piece, and they’re a great piece. They play right into public diplomacy, because what’s an embassy for but to associate with the government leaders, the private sector leaders, the cultural leaders, the business leaders, the academic leaders? Well, why not the youth, too? And not segment them off in a corner, but admit that they are, in fact, an important constituency. And in fact, they’re one we ought to invest in because they will be – they – everyone says young people are leaders of tomorrow, and I’m sure these members of the Youth Councils will be. But they’re leaders of today, too.

MS. BENTON: I know. Yeah.

MR. REESE: Why not tap them? Why not give them space and legitimacy? And that’s what public diplomacy ought to be all about, is creating government to government, people to people, and all those different private sector relationships that connect our country with other countries. And we ought to be, then, connected youth to youth.

MS. BENTON: Yeah, that’s interesting. You both made a similar comment. It’s opening up to constituencies that don’t always agree with us, don’t always side with our policies, but who really need to be exposed to what the Secretary is trying to do, what the President’s trying to do.

And – so going with that, we’ve received a number of questions over DipNote and Twitter. And Davron in Uzbekistan writes: How are you going to prioritize youth-adult partnerships within the Department of State in order to ensure that youth are not only seen as a target group or beneficiary, but are meaningfully involved in Department of State strategy, development, implementation, and monitoring?

MR. FARROW: Well, I think the story we’ve just discussed, of how all around the world we are looking to young people as problem solvers and as important interlocutors in our policy process speaks to that commitment. In Washington, we’ve built a new Office of Global Youth Issues to steer that process. It’s led by a young person. I know it may be shocking to hear. (Laughter.) I am, in fact, young.

MS. BENTON: Young.

MR. FARROW: And we have, in undertaking all of these new initiatives, really tried to look to young people for answers, for dialogue, for guidance. So I think that is an incremental process, for sure. It’s counterculture.

But I’ve seen in our leadership, in this president, who, when he wanted to strengthen ties to the African continent, pulled together not senior leadership, but young emerging leaders for his Forum with Young African Leaders. And this Secretary, who has launched this new office, who – going back to those speeches prior to being the Secretary of State, has spoken about the potential that this demographic has to solve all of our greatest challenges.

I’ve been really heartened as someone who was an activist on the outside, who came into this job, who very often felt young voices weren’t being heard, to see, no, we don’t have all the answers; no, we don’t level with young people with the amount of respect that ultimately is needed, but we are moving in that direction.


MR. REESE: And a great Department of State wouldn’t send an ambassador to Latin America who doesn’t speak Spanish or Portuguese, and so the youth office needs to be led by a young leader.


MR. REESE: And he has to have the legitimacy and authenticity that any other sectoral office would have within the State Department, where you bring in voices and experts who can lead your policy.

I find today that young people, Americans or Uzbeks or Brazilians or Filipinos, I think are less ideological than my generation that came of age in the ’60s.

MS. BENTON: Right.

MR. REESE: And I think they’re looking for practical solutions. They’re – our – my generation in the ’60s liked to brag that we didn’t trust anyone over 30 – a cute phrase, not real practical in most social and political situations. This younger generation is saying to us, “We just want connections to you guys who are 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 years old. We want some space. We want mentoring. We want some legitimacy.” If we reach out to them, we’re tapping a resource that is there.

MS. BENTON: That’s right.

MR. REESE: And why not use all your resources?

MS. BENTON: That’s right. And youth become more and more important, as we see led the revolution, the Arab Spring. It was based around what youth were doing and how they organized and mobilized their pieces of the world.

We have another question from Maciej in Washington, D.C. Maciej writes: What have organizations such as the International Youth Foundation done in developing adequate and sustainable educational programs in developing countries to ensure an efficient balance of work and school for teens around the globe?

MR. REESE: Big question.

MS. BENTON: Big question for you.

MR. REESE: I know. Yeah. In a foundation like ours, that is really a network of large NGOs and foundations that are rooted and governed by local organizations in their countries. So we’re a network, not a vertical organization. Our partners in Brazil are Brazilians, running community-based organizations. And we think, obviously, that the NGO or the civil society sector has a place in any society and a role to play in working together with governments and with business. And what we want to do is model that, too. So we’re not alone going to get to all those answers that the questioner is asking us, but we’re part of the solution. And what we want to see is that

local community-based or national organizations in their country can work with their government to show how things can be maybe piloted and experimented with, and then taken to scale. You can’t go to scale in most of these issues without having the public sector involved.

MS. BENTON: Right.

MR. REESE: And when we’re talking about 70 percent of a country being under 30 years old --

MS. BENTON: Yes. Yes.

MR. REESE: -- then we have to go to scale.


MS. REESE: And so whether it’s an education program, and whether that’s in school or out of school, formal or informal, after school, second-chance programs the way the World Bank talks about it, to me education is not just K to 12th grade. Half of the kids in many of these countries don’t get past 6th or 7th grade.

MS. BENTON: Right.

MR. REESE: So how can we keep them in school a little bit longer? How can we get them back into some second-chance programs? And there’s where I think the private sector, the public sector, and the third sector – the civil society sector – working together – we’ve all got a stake in this – can make for the long-term sustainable solutions we’re looking for.

MS. BENTON: Right. That’s what’s so great about your office, Ronan. You do practice the full integration. It’s NGOs, it’s civil society, it’s government, but it’s a lot of entities, and that’s what I find very, very exciting.

MR. FARROW: It’s critical. I often speak to young audiences and tell them that the burden of building solutions is on our generation’s shoulder. But that means, as you spoke to very eloquently, Bill, not alienating ourselves from all of these other parties and from the old guard of leadership in the NGO world, in government – and I’d also add to the mix, in the business community.

MS. BENTON: Right.

MR. FARROW: One critical priority in this, particularly because the Secretary has made a pillar of our youth engagement building jobs for young people, is with the private sector. And IYF actually has been an incredible partner on that because they as a foundation have tremendous ties to the business community. And they’re actually – they’re advancing currently an incredible youth employment partnership in Latin America.

MS. BENTON: Right.

MR. FARROW: They’re collaborating with us on our Global Youth Jobs Alliance that the Secretary just announced. So that is an additional segment that’s absolutely critical for outreach.

MS. BENTON: Very good. We have a question that came in on Twitter. Amy Beth Ritter writes: Do you have insight about how Americans can help encourage and reach out to foreign youth using social media, Ronan?

MR. FARROW: All around the world, I’ve had the privilege of talking to young people, and very often young people in entrenched conflict settings where it is difficult to imagine how I would grapple with the circumstances that they’re up against. And for instance, I was recently in the West Bank. I gave a talk at Bethlehem University and spoke with a lot of young people out there, and then was also in Israel and talked to some young Israelis, and obviously a tremendously complex situation with fraught feelings on both sides and genuine obstacles that no amount of rah-rah youth empowerment can swipe aside.

But in the face of all of that, I was so inspired to see how young people have leveraged new tools to address old conflicts, where there’s actually a network called YaLa, which means let’s go, of young people across the Middle East that was started by Israelis and Palestinians jointly that Secretary Clinton recently recorded a video message to support and that we work with closely. They’re actually collaborating on our youth council in Tel Aviv that we’re constructing. But they now have 50,000 young people that are united for peace in the Middle East. So it’s a great example of, regardless of the circumstances, how new tools can be leveraged in powerful ways.

I would say in response to the question, it’s not the full answer. What we saw with the Arab Spring, for instance, is that these new social media tools can be a catalyst for organizing people. But ultimately it takes the in-person commitment, and that is something that’s going to be very important as we confront some of those old entrenched conflicts. And as these moments of revolution transition, we hope, to moments of sustained engagement, it’s going to have to be in person as well. The mutuals can be tremendous.

MS. BENTON: Very good. So you are also familiar with using social media to engage youth.

MR. REESE: I am, but I must tell you my younger staff and the young people --

MS. BENTON: There you go. (Laughter.)

MR. REESE: -- we work with around the world can teach us how to use these systems.

MS. BENTON: That’s exactly right.

MR. REESE: And they know how to use them brilliantly, and they invent new ways of doing it that even the engineers that developed all these handheld devices weren’t thinking of when they invented them.

MS. BENTON: That’s right.

MR. REESE: So it’s wonderful to see the solutions bubbling up.

MS. BENTON: Yes. Very good. We also have now a question from a gentleman in Benin. He writes: As an African, I would like to know the perspective and the key points around which the U.S. Department of State will collaborate with African youth in order to bring practical results to the problems they are facing.

MR. FARROW: Well, I personally and the Department have both done a great deal of engagement focused on African youth. We really do see young Africans championing a lot of the solutions that are going to be essential across the continent to building more prosperity and more security. I mentioned the President’s Forum with Young African Leaders in 2010. As follow-on to that, we’ve been mentoring those young leaders, learning lessons from them. We’re actually working on a follow-on young African leaders program, where more than 70 young Africans will be engaged with us in long-term mentorship as they build projects in their communities, and then we’ll be convening them for an innovation summit that I’m very excited about.

And across the continent, we have really made partnering with youth a priority. That goes for our conversations with African leadership and governments, too, and multilateral organizations. We’ve been very engaged with the African Union as they develop their youth charter. So again, as with so many things we’re discussing, it is baby steps, but I think that we’re making those steps in the right direction.

MR. BENTON: Very good.

MR. REESE: We have a big new initiative in Africa called Youth Map, and it’s created with the United States Agency for International Development. The State Department’s very involved. And the whole idea is to map the youth sector in eight African countries. The first two have been Senegal and Uganda. And then to make innovative seed grants to projects that are community and nationally based that can breed innovative ways of getting young people prepared for work and then bringing into this, coming into this are Caterpillar, Microsoft, Samsung, Nokia, Merrill Lynch, companies that also are invested in the region, that want to buy into the public-private partnership, that are fully in harmony with what the Secretary has done in creating the Global Partnership Initiative at the State Department, which works very closely with Ronan and with us in trying to build sustainable alliances across sectors that will last a long time. And it’d be a model, frankly.

Ultimately, when we talk about public-private partnerships, there are successful companies in Africa today that can learn from these role models or want to be part of it. Public-private partnerships aren’t just for the big, global companies with household name words. If we – the long-term solution, really, is to get local businesses thinking that public-private partnerships are in their interest and we’re able to model that.

But the outcomes we’re looking for are young people getting jobs, starting their own businesses, creating a livelihood, because ultimately, what I think the Arab Spring was telling us and the young people were is that we want a place, we want dignity, we want a place in our society, and we want a job. And I like to say that sustainable development, we know what that means over the last 20 or 30 years systemically for a poor person, a young person at the base of the pyramid. It’s a job you can get and keep. It’s a small business, maybe informal, that you can start and be successful at. And that will breed not just economic development, but the kind of human, sustainable development we all want.

MS. BENTON: Which need – it fits very nicely into the Secretary’s economic statecraft --

MR. REESE: Absolutely.

MR. FARROW: Absolutely.

MS. BENTON: -- policy, so that really just crosses all disciplines.

So we have – Sulaiman in Virginia writes: Since the Arab Spring, protests, riots, and revolutions involving tens of millions of teenagers and 20-somethings have shaken the global political orders. How will children and teens’ voices be heard and not ignored in other nations, such as the Arab Middle East countries?

MR. FARROW: Well, obviously, the lessons of the Arab Spring have been felt around the world, and it is interesting to see, regardless of how, of course, disparate the challenges are, from the Middle East, where obviously we’ve seen young people transform political realities so significantly, to Latin America, where young Chileans took to the streets to protest in favor of education reform, to Western Europe, where now we’re seeing unprecedented outpourings of frustration about the levels of joblessness and the austerity measures.

This has been a year of unprecedented youth activism and involvement, and what is striking is that, regardless of those disparate circumstances, there are common needs and frustrations, and I’ve heard this all around the world. Bill spoke to this quite eloquently just now. Young people need to have a voice in their communities, and we feel we want to shape our futures. And we need to have a source of livelihood as we do it. I was just in Algeria, launching our youth council there, and talking to young people and talking to their government about how they can create space for young people to be heard.

And I think of a young woman named Majda (ph), who is 20, who I talked to who spoke to how she had left her hometown to seek opportunity in the big city, how she in the capital had gotten into university and had made the most of every opportunity while she was in school, rallying her fellow students around personal goals she had of increasing youth participation as they lead up to their country’s critical next election, and then how, in spite of it all, when she left school, she couldn’t find a way to support herself, couldn’t find a job. And she said there are no jobs; how can we make our voices heard if we can’t find a livelihood?

So I think that, as you pointed out, our economic statecraft policy, which applies to people of all ages, but does particularly reach out to young people who have been hit so hard by the economic crisis, who are two to three times more likely to be out of work than their over-30 counterparts, can help to address that fundamental need, and that an opportunity of greater economic – an environment of greater economic opportunity, and an environment in which young people can make themselves heard can filter into all of these regions, not just the Middle East and North Africa.

MS. BENTON: I agree, totally agree. And the global recession has really impacted youth a lot harder than some of the over-30s, so the work you’re doing is just amazing and just so well put together.

This is the time in the program that I don’t like a lot at all, it’s when we have to conclude our Conversations with America. Ronan Farrow, will you just share your final thoughts? And then I’d like to turn to Bill to see if you could give us your final thoughts.

MR. FARROW: Sure. I mean, it is – it’s inspiring to sit down with people who lead on this in the NGO community. We talked about the significance of business leaders, and of course, our partnerships with governments are incredibly significant around the world. But I think the lesson of this conversation and the theme that keeps coming up is how important young people’s voices are in this, how important ongoing involvement from young people will be.

Secretary Clinton said, in her recent address to the young people of the world where she outlined this new focus, we ignore youth at our own peril. And I would say that it goes both ways. This is a moment where our leadership is listening. So the ball is, to some extent, in the court of our generation, the young people. So I would urge you, young people of the world, to take advantage of that. Build solutions in your communities, make your voices heard, and don’t stop.

MS. BENTON: Very good. Bill, your final thoughts?

MR. REESE: Well, my final thoughts are I’ll come back to the economic side you just mentioned, because with this youth bulge that people talk about – and we’ve understood the last 10 years that there are – there is the largest cohort of teenagers in the history of the world, so soon they’ll be the largest cohort of 20-year-olds, then 30-year-olds. They are more unemployed, as Ronan said, than their parents, if their parents are lucky enough to be employed.

It was calculated that we needed a billion new jobs over the next 10 years to just absorb these people.


MR. REESE: Now that’s a great opportunity if that many more people can come into a global economy and pay taxes and be – and themselves be sustainable and help their communities be sustainable. But we’ve lost probably a hundred million jobs in a global recession, so we’re – we’ve lost some space. We have to make that up.

A week from now in Cartagena, where President Obama and Secretary Clinton are both going for the Summit of the Americas, the biannual meeting of the heads of state of the democratically elected countries, we will be announcing with the IDB and the U.S. Government a series of global companies, not all of them American.

MS. BENTON: Right.

MR. REESE: A huge Mexican company will be part of it, a large public-private partnership, to create – train a million Latinos and Caribbean young people for jobs over the next 10 years. And I think that will be part of the solution, as well as bringing people into the civic lives. They have to feel they have a space. We want to see that energy of kids protesting also turn to work, to civic activism, to community activities that can improve their way of life and their families and their communities, and that’s just a resource we all need to tap.

MS. BENTON: Very good. Well, this concludes this session of Conversations with America. Ronan, I’d like to thank you for taking the time out –

MR. FARROW: Thank you.

MS. BENTON: -- and Bill, for sharing your thoughts and your knowledge.

And I’d also like to thank each of you for joining us today. We hope that Conversations with America will continue to inform citizens about the Administration’s efforts to address the challenges of the 21st century. We look forward to engaging with you again very soon. Thank you.


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