International year of youth

Young people have tremendous energy, imagination and initiative. To deploy these traits in the service of enhancing peace and boosting economic development, the United Nations proclaimed an International Year of Youth starting on 12 August 2010.

At IFAD, we recognize that poor young people living in rural areas have the potential, as the farmers and producers of tomorrow, to help feed the world's growing population. Unfortunately, however, these young people are also among the most vulnerable members of society.

"We should remember that these young women and men, with their hopes and dreams, hold our planet's future in their hands," said IFAD President Kanayo F. Nwanze. "Helping them gain access to investment and financial services means empowering them to start and expand businesses. It means giving them the confidence to take an active part in community life. And, most of all, it enables them to contribute their youthful energy and creativity to their countries and their continents."

Unemployment is a major problem for urban youth. But for young women and men in rural areas, underemployment and outright exploitation are often harsh facts of life. Today, some 300 million young people worldwide work, but earn less than US$2 a day. In rural areas, they are often employed in the informal sector and also in unpaid family work, especially in agriculture.

"In order to make a real difference to the lives of these young women and men, governments and development agencies must invest in agriculture and boost economic growth in rural areas. They must also invest specifically in young people themselves. Three key areas of investment are education, empowerment and access to finance."

In developing countries, girls and boys know that learning to read and write, and continuing their studies, will make a huge difference to their futures. Yet still today, in many countries, one young person in four is illiterate – and most of them are young women. The proportion of young people with basic education deficits is greater in rural areas than in urban ones. Many rural children are taken out of school early to be put to work on plantations and family farms – in fact, most child labourers work in agriculture – some 60 per cent.

"In parallel with our drive to bring young people into the active workforce, we must continue to fight against child labour, to ensure that the dividing line between childhood and young adulthood is respected," said Nwanze.

When young people gain the skills and confidence they need to participate in community decision-making and take management roles in local organizations, they improve their own situations while they contribute their energy and creativity to their communities. By taking leading roles in rural youth organizations, for example, they make a difference for other young women and men in other villages and other districts.

However, education and training alone are not enough to guarantee sustainable self-employment. Targeting microfinance services to young people in rural areas is also vital, but it takes time to establish sustainable financial institutions, particularly in rural areas.

Investing in young people is an investment in our future

In many developing countries today, young women and men make up some 50 per cent of the rural population and the growth of the youth sector is expected to continue for another 25 years.

"We must not fail these young women and men," said Nwanze. "The International Year of Youth is an opportunity to raise awareness and galvanize action. With our support and our commitment, young people living in poverty in rural areas can make the change from being some of the most vulnerable people in today's world, to being active, productive and influential members of society. Today, they need our support. Tomorrow, we will need their contribution, their creativity, their commitment and their leadership."

To find out more about events planned throughout the year, and for suggestions on how to get involved, visit the official website of the International Year of Youth.

Nowhere in the world are youth more abundant than in the Middle East were nearly 2 in 3 people are under the age of 25. Creating enough jobs for so many young people is among the greatest challenges Arab countries now face. An IFAD documentary airing on BBC World News looks at one solution being posed in Egypt. For 25 years, the Egyptian government has offered landless youth and unemployed university graduates the opportunity to start their own farms. The only condition is that they reclaim the land the desert. How well have the done? Watch "Hassan and the Graduates" on BBC World News, August 21 and 22.