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Young people integral to solving the world’s intractable problems

The world’s challenges are snowballing. National Youth Day serves as reminder that educated youth are key in ensuring that the world survives – and thrives.

All is not well. The youth of today carry the burden of a world in decay. According to UNICEF’s reporting on child poverty, young people are more likely to live in poverty than adults, and are more vulnerable to its effects. The byproducts of poverty such as pervasive violence, , unequal and inconsistent access to education and healthcare and food insecurity all affect the youth disproportionately.

The mere thought of this is disheartening. But taking a moment to peel away the negative sensationalism that often accompanies these issues reveals that it’s not all doom and gloom.

There exists an irrepressible force of exuberance, innovation and solutionist thinking among us. This force is the approximately 1.6 billion young people around the world.

Youth wonders of the world

When social entrepreneur Becky Scurlock described the youth as an ‘untapped resource’ back in 2017, she was on to something.

She states that in a world that is adult-dominated, the opinions and ideas of the youth on how to address society’s greatest challenges are discarded or overlooked. Yet, she goes on to say, young people have an ‘acute sense of justice when it comes to society’s issues,’ and the ability to contribute to grassroots and high-level social justice efforts.

Scurlock also believes that the youth are ‘unconstrained by deep-rooted societal norms,’ which allows them to ideate creatively to formulate solutions that would not occur to ‘world-weary adults’.

Perhaps most critically, she points out that when young people have a defined role in addressing social issues, ‘they begin to see themselves as capable leaders who can make important contributions to the lives of others’.

A prime example of just how impactful and coordinated youth activism can be is seen in their approach to climate change.

Who could forget Greta Thunberg, who started skipping school in 2018 to strike for climate action outside the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm, or Somali-American high-schooler Isra Hirsi, who co-founded the U.S. Youth Climate Strike?

On the African continent, scientists predict that climate change will have devastating consequences. In light of this perturbing eventuality, pioneering African youth have joined their contemporaries in making positive change for the planet.

Twenty-two-year-old Vanessa Nakate spends 66 hours a week selling solar batteries in her father’s shop in Kampala, Uganda. Sustainable design thinking prodigy and Forbes Africa 30 under 30 member, Leroy Mwasaru, co-founded Greenpact, a social enterprise offering clean, renewable Biogas solutions to institutions and homes in Kenya.

And at home, 150 young South Africans have so far contributed to the country’s first-ever Youth Climate Action Plan. Compiled by the youth arm of the South African Institute of International Affairs, the plan aims to consolidate young perspectives on climate change.

These are but a few examples.

Discourse and action on climate change is nothing new among the youth, but for the current cohort of campaigners, climate change has become a matter of generational social justice. They are positioning it as an issue that affects gender and race relations, employment and poverty. They recognise that the protection of the most vulnerable people on earth through climate activism is  ̶  and has always been  ̶  a fundamental human rights pursuit. This paradigm shift, led by the youth, is what gives this already legitimate cause the gravitas to propel ordinary people (yes, the adults) to act.

How many of the millions of Gretas, Isras, Leroys and Vanessas among us will reach their full potential for the benefit of humanity?

So while we’re in awe of the achievements of these exceptional young minds, we should also be aware that they are just that: anomalies who have ignited a process of change.

We know that tangible, lasting change can only be achieved through a collective commitment to action. So, for this reason, every single child must have the opportunity to become a productive member of society, sufficiently assured to vehemently oppose injustice in any form and ready to forge a better world.

The first port of call in ensuring this must be high-quality, equal education for all children. It’s no secret that quality education is essential in creating an equitable economy, sustainable development, social and political enrichment and, most of all, a life of dignity and contribution. A high-quality education shapes youth changemakers that go on to become adult changemakers.

A leader in the transformation of education in South Africa is leadership and education non-profit, Symphonia for South Africa (SSA). SSA places the onus for creating an equitable future for the youth squarely at the feet of each and every adult. SSA’s flagship programme, Partners for Possibility, continues to work towards making quality education a topic of national importance and calls on active citizens to mobilise around the critically important goal of addressing challenges within the education system in South Africa.

Let 2021 mark the start of an era in which the needs of the youth truly take precedence, where their voice is heard and where their education is a priority. We, the adults, are duty-bound to make this happen by supporting the youth in their endeavours to create #TheFutureWeWant.


About the author:

Zah’Rah Khan heads up the editorial team at Symphonia for South Africa. Her focus areas are education, politics, law and research.