Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently delivered a speech in Tunisia that focused on the historic role young people are playing to promote freedom, opportunity and human dignity in their countries. Speaking at a youth forum in Tunis, she also took questions from the youth leaders, students and young entrepreneurs who had packed the room to hear what she had to say. Secretary Clinton's powerful message, that "the needs and concerns of young people have been marginalized too long," was also aimed at a global audience. I hope people everywhere were listening and paying attention.
Secretary Clinton championed the amazing impact that this younger generation is already having on our world. As she noted: "Young people are at the heart of today's great strategic opportunities and challenges, from rebuilding the global economy to combating violent extremism to building sustainable democracies." And she offered some concrete ways for the State Department — and many others — to expand opportunities for young people.
To address the ever-growing youth unemployment crisis, the State Department is organizing a Global Youth Jobs Alliance to bring in more partners to the table — especially the private sector, universities and nonprofits — so together we can scale up proven programs. Secretary Clinton encouraged business leaders to visit and invest in Middle East countries; she wants to expand exchange programs to assist young entrepreneurs; and she aims to foster more creative ways to ensure young people's voices are meaningfully heard at the top policy levels of all of our governments.
Only a few days before her speech last month, the Baltimore-based International Youth Foundation and the Arab Urban Development Institute had convened a three-day conference in Amman, Jordan, where more than 400 leaders from the public, private and NGO sectors came together to discuss how to tackle the region's youth unemployment crisis. It was thrilling to see so many policymakers, corporate heads and development experts working collaboratively to find the most effective solutions to these urgent challenges. Young people were very much engaged in these discussions, from start to finish.
The energy and ideas generated at this meeting in Jordan, coupled with the secretary of state's forceful remarks, left me wondering: Have we reached some kind of "tipping point" when youth issues are finally being elevated to the top of the global agenda, where they belong? I hope so, as the harsh reality is that even with a growing understanding of young people's needs and aspirations, there is an enormous amount of work to do, and not much time to get it right.
I want to believe that we all recognize we are living in a unique time, when young people across the globe are taking a stand, finding their voices and feeling empowered. It is also a time when those same youths are facing major barriers: lack of jobs, lack of rights, lack of opportunities. Secretary Clinton said, "the world ignores youth at its peril." Those of us who have long been pressing these issues surely agree.
If we don't get this right, then the consequences are clear: growing disappointment, frustration, alienation and social unrest. But we also know there's an enormous return when we invest in schools, job training and programs that encourage young people to be active citizens. In other words, the youth bulge can become a "demographic dividend" of having the largest youth population in human history coming of age and ready to lead.
To make a real impact, the secretary argued, "we not only need to think differently; we need to think big, because if we don't we will miss this moment in history." I hope those words will keep ringing in our ears, as all of us recommit to working together to empower today's youth — in the Middle East and across the globe. In truth, we have no choice.
William S. Reese is president and CEO of the Baltimore-based International Youth Foundation, which works to prepare young people for better lives in nearly 80 countries. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.