The 2023 Global Youth Economic Opportunities (YEO) Summit in Silver Spring, Maryland, was a testament to the power of youth and inclusion and the pivotal role both play in sustainable development and economic growth. The Summit was an intersection of youth-led action and innovative ideas from 250 young leaders, policymakers, and practitioners from 50 countries across the globe. From May 16-18, participants exchanged lessons learned through over 30 sessions across three tracks, generated solutions, and forged partnerships to advance meaningful youth economic opportunities.
We used Pre-Summit activities to set the stage for young leaders to be the drivers of meaningful conversation and solutions to challenges they feel are affecting their ability to access sustainable economic opportunities. Those solutions were explored through a number of lenses, including mental health support, a positive youth development approach, entrepreneurship, skills development, financial inclusion, and job creation. Youth focused on capacity strengthening, building peer-to-peer networks, and connecting with adult allies; transitioning into the main Summit’s inspiring youth-led agenda that included three days of plenaries, panel discussions, workshops, and interactive sessions.
The spirit of our theme, YEO Reimagined: Powering Youth-Led Action Towards 2030, infused the Summit with a contagious collaborative energy that inspired us to think bigger and bolder, and take decisive action toward accelerating SDG 8. Participants explored the workforce of the future by delving into the current trends and potential of digital platforms, green jobs, emerging technologies, and inclusive business models to bridge the gap, primarily in skills and access, between youth and dignified work.
Kim Kucinskas, Director of Community Strategy at Humentum, challenged us to view our influence as currency, urging us to assess our values, skills, and contributions. When we view how the development sector and our organizations can strengthen economic opportunities through this lens, it brings a whole new meaning to ‘pay it forward.’ As we delve into the standout moments and key insights from the Global YEO Summit, we invite you to consider the synergy between your role as an adult ally and your affiliation with a partner organization, and how they align with the solutions explored during the event. Join us in pledging your commitment to advancing together as we forge a path toward a more inclusive, sustainable international economy.
Attendees received a multitude of key takeaways on Day 1, but three highlights made for a strong Summit opening: the call for space for youth decision-makers, providing a face to the digital divide still facing many young job seekers in low- to middle-income countries, and empowering youth agency through the Positive Youth Development Framework.
At the opening plenary, aptly titled Shifting Power Dynamics through Youth-Led Development, power differentials between adult-led and youth-led institutions was at the center of an informative talk with thought leaders from IREX, the United Nations, and VSO International. Marija Vasileva-Blazev, Special Advisor to the United Nations’ Secretary General's Youth Envoy, passionately emphasized the urgency of creating dedicated spaces and allocating resources specifically for young individuals. Drawing attention to the staggering 244 million children lacking access to education, the session underscored the need to provide decision-making opportunities to bridge this education gap.
In the digital plenary session, Digital Disruption: Exploring the Future of the Digital Economy and its Implications for Youth Employment, the spotlight shifted to the pressing issue of the digital divide. Castra Pierre, an alum of USAID’s Digital Council, put a face to the digital inequities plaguing youth living in underserved communities and the imperative. She shared her personal journey as an immigrant from Haiti to the United States and the stark disparities in technology access she encountered.
The afternoon session, Empowering Youth-led Action: Pedagogical Best Practice for Strengthening Youth Agency, proved to be a thought-provoking deep dive into bolstering youth agency through effective pedagogical methods. Participants were encouraged to embark on a journey of self-discovery, aligning their identities with their purpose in the world. The session stressed the significance of listening and learning, shifting the focus from mere instruction to cultivating a space that encourages youth to share their experiences and contribute their unique perspectives.
That sentiment was on full display during the Why Intersectional Inclusion is Essential for Development talk. The intergenerational dialogue between youth activists and industry leaders, such as Regina Mwangi of Sightsavers Kenya, recognized that persons with disabilities are not just dealing with physical barriers, but also systemic obstacles, environmental challenges, and those with limiting beliefs about what persons with disabilities can bring to the job market. Mwangi said instead of launching solutions, employers need to have persons with disabilities in the room to create solutions that are actually beneficial to them.
Attendees eagerly delved into Day 2, which held three sessions within the Global Workforce track and honed in on green jobs and self-employment. The morning commenced with an enlightening session on green jobs. Dan Baker, Growth Markets Managing Director at Accenture Development Partnerships, shed light on the sobering reality that 90 percent of energy in South Africa is still derived from coal, igniting a conversation on the urgent need to transition towards a circular economy. Participants explored the potential of the informal economy surrounding waste management and recognized the critical challenges faced by young individuals in the labor market, such as the necessity for specialized skills and limited awareness of job opportunities in the green economy.
It was an excellent precursor to the Green Jobs Plenary hosted by USAID where panelists prompted attendees to share their thoughts on green jobs. The session emphasized the significance of solution-oriented activities while raising awareness about the risks climate change poses to job security. Manuela Radelsboeck, Programme Specialist at UNICEF’s Generation Unlimited, shared that nearly 40 percent of jobs are at risk, underscoring the urgency to foster public-private partnerships that can drive the creation of green jobs. Christina Kwauk of Unbounded Associates drew attention to the existence of "green learning opportunity deserts," both in the U.S. and partner countries, where isolated and marginalized young people lack access to green learning opportunities. Kwauk called for a greater focus on inclusion and equity within climate programming to bridge this gap.
The spotlight then shifted to the remarkable first-year achievements of the YEO Action Teams, who took the stage in the main Great Hall to deliver Lightening Talks. Led by youth champions, these action teams have dedicated the past 12 months to developing guidance notes, tools, and research to accelerate Sustainable Development Goal 8. Their accomplishments will serve as a foundation for the next cohort’s youth-led initiatives. Action team products will be available at YEO2030.org later this summer.
Continuing the day's momentum, Sightsavers and Africa Disability Forum hosted a profound session titled Being Guided by Youth with Disabilities as Knowledge Experts. This insightful discussion explored the need to reimagine youth employment programs for individuals with disabilities, addressing crucial aspects, such as physical accessibility, combating stigma and discrimination, and tackling certification challenges faced by youth with intellectual disabilities. Attendees rallied behind recommendations for grants to be made available for youth with disabilities and the creation of accessible career paths, acknowledging the imperative of fostering inclusivity and breaking down barriers.
As the afternoon unfolded, the Self-Employment track shed light on the struggles faced by budding entrepreneurs, with particular emphasis on the challenges surrounding receiving payment for their work. This candid discussion provided a platform for participants to exchange insights, share experiences, and explore potential solutions to empower and uplift young entrepreneurs in their journey towards sustainable self-employment.
Day 2 wrapped with a provocative panel comprised of representatives from USAID, Millennium Challenge Corporation, the U.S. State Department, and a youth leader discussing U.S. government youth and inclusion policies and priorities, moderated by ChildFund International. Panelist Taibat Hussain, Founder of Rising Child Foundation shared a poignant call for the U.S. government to work directly with youth-led organizations. “As a young leader, I have seen how U.S. support is selective and inaccessible...it is better to work with a youth-led organization directly because you’re saying to them, ‘We trust you. We believe in your capacity. We believe in your ability, and we are here to support you.’ The U.S. government should provide direct support to youth-led organizations because of the grassroots connection and the local expertise. If you are not empowering them, you are telling them that ‘you guys are great, but we don’t trust you yet with thousands of U.S. dollars.’”
Day 3 of the Global YEO Summit proved to be a dynamic and thought-provoking day, featuring a wide range of presentations and working sessions on vocational training, social entrepreneurship, financing models, regional challenges, and alternative pathways for education and skills development. These diverse sessions underscored the pressing need for tailored approaches and inclusive strategies to address the multifaceted issues that young people encounter in the workforce.
The session on The Promise and Pitfalls of Skills Training Programs, hosted by J-PAL, provided valuable insights into 20 randomized evaluations related to vocational training programs. Participants gained a nuanced understanding of the mixed evidence surrounding the longer-term impacts of such programs. While job training programs have proven successful in equipping job seekers with new skills, including technical knowledge and cognitive abilities, it became evident that these trainings are not a one-size-fits-all solution. Organizations were urged to consider a context-specific approach when designing and implementing vocational training initiatives.
In a compelling plenary session led by Catholic Relief Services, attention was drawn to the potential of new financing models to drive social impact and promote social inclusion for young people. Rather than solely seeking additional funding, organizations were challenged to explore how existing funding can be utilized more effectively. This shift in perspective encourages innovative thinking and a focus on maximizing available resources.
The topic of Youth Responsive Programming in Sensitive Contexts was explored through notable examples from Making Cents International's work in Ukraine, Serbia, and Jamaica. Aleksa Savić, Executive Director of Grupa Izadji (Group Come Out); Dwayne Gutzmer, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Institute of Law & Economics (ILE); and Inna Lubynets, Team Lead for Ukraine at Making Cents International, shared their insights on the unique challenges and approaches in different regions. Moderated by Economic Opportunities Specialist Lauren Littles, the panel delved into crucial aspects, such as the integration of mental health support into programming and the pivotal role of implementing partners in navigating sensitive contexts. Lubynets provided firsthand accounts of the impact of the war in Ukraine, highlighting the regional consequences of youth fleeing to safety and businesses relocating to ensure their survival.
In the afternoon, the innovative "17 Rooms" model focused on topical areas associated with the second phase of YEO's Action Teams. Participants were divided into eight tables, each dedicated to a specific topic such as Gender Equality and Youth-Led Entrepreneurship. Vibrant discussions ensued, exploring how each of these areas ultimately contributes to advancing Sustainable Development Goal 8.
The Global YEO Summit concluded on an inspiring high note, leaving attendees energized, inspired, and fortified with fresh insights. The event closed with a Youth Manifesto on equity read aloud by Saje Molato and Mia Tadesse. The declaration employed adult allies to minimize inequity and injustice and let young people define what meaningful economic opportunities look like for themselves, as “we are experts in our own lives.”