Mike McCabe, USAID’s Senior Advisor on Youth, was an IAF Foundation Representative in the mid-1990s. We reached out to Mike on August 12th, International Youth Day, about his thinking on how the pandemic is affecting youth and how funders can help youth reach their potential.
How do the challenges facing youth today in Latin America and the Caribbean compare to what you saw back in the nineties at the IAF?
My answer would have been somewhat different in February of this year, before the pandemic. Now people often refer to “when we get back to the way things were.” We shouldn’t be aiming to get back to where we were. We should be taking advantage of this very challenging year to spur new ways of working.
Just consider the implications of COVID-19 for youth employment, education, and engagement.
We know that youth are about twice as likely to be unemployed as adults since youth are “the last in and first out,” generally having more precarious and insecure jobs. With COVID, that figure is now almost triple in some countries.
We need to be thinking about different approaches to helping young people get through the crisis. Cash for work, national service models, or public works models, for instance. And really helping young people with digital literacy and online learning and appropriate technology, areas where we’ve been surprisingly struggling in the U.S. and other countries, including in Latin America.
Closures of schools and other learning spaces have impacted 94% of the world’s young people. That’s about 1.6 billion young people. According to certain surveys, a lot of young people, especially older ones, won’t go back to school because their families are going to be income insecure and they’ll have to work.
COVID has forced us to consider approaches to education that we might not have looked at a year ago. For instance, we’re finding that radio distance learning can still be used very effectively in some cases. We also are consolidating more of the distance learning resources globally to make it easier for governments and partners to find and use good resources.
Then we go to engagement. If you have more youth who are out of school and out of work, they’re also very likely to be easily exploited for illicit activities and violent groups, including across Latin America.
How should funders be reaching out to youth?
A recent ILO survey of the impact of COVID on youth unemployment reported that 65% of youth have been involved in some aspect of COVID response. They’re helping with awareness campaigns and the distribution of masks, PPE, and hand sanitizer. So there’s a lot more that young people want to do and are doing so suddenly.
We’ve got young people who are wanting to do something, but we just haven’t structured it in a way that it’s easy for young people to feel that they have the opportunity to take action.
When we support programming, we should start with the opportunity that we’re trying to design for. We often start with training upfront, instead of taking a step back and identifying an economic opportunity or a civic opportunity, for instance, and then work backwards to capacity building and where that should best occur. And obviously we’re looking at this positive youth development model that includes what we call the “enabling environment” of caring adults, of constructive social norms, and a sense of belonging.
What were some elements you remember from your time with the IAF that you found promising and perhaps especially relevant today?
One element was how we partnered with other organizations to do some really innovative work. We supported cooperatives that were working with young people. That was a break from the notion that cooperatives were only for older farmers. Cooperatives were working in different ways, including some focused on microenterprises run by young people. I think what was important about a lot of our programming at that time was understanding just how much you could do with a very modest investment (grants averaged about $40,000 then for the Venezuela portfolio that I managed).
The IAF was working with youth when many other donors were reluctant to involve youth and young leaders given their lack of experience. And yet they’re often at the front line of what’s going on in violence prevention in Honduras or El Salvador and elsewhere. They have tremendous long-term potential.
We know that the younger a person gets involved in voting, volunteering, and civic organization, the more likely they are to vote, volunteer, and be civically engaged throughout their lifetime. We can take advantage of a “democratic dividend” and strengthen democratic governance by getting young people engaged as early as possible.
What can the IAF model of grassroots development provide given the development challenges we’re experiencing worldwide?
We’re living in a more complex and uncertain world with health pandemics, rising numbers and intensity of hurricanes and other natural disasters, and rising food insecurity. The pressure for migration is massive. We can help people create a sense of connectedness to their community through disaster preparedness and mitigation. Anything that strengthens that community sense of identity and preparedness is key. And there’s a lot that we leave on the table because we don’t think that young people are mature enough to be part of that preparedness, mitigation and response.
Working with communities, strengthening this local social capital—including with young people at the table—is what the IAF does best.
Thank you so much for your time and your insights!