“Youth? Oh yes, our new intern Sam has that as part of his remit. He is down the stairs, along the corridor in the room next to reprographics…” This is the front-desk response we (Jim Cogan, our founder, and I) received in 2000 when we went to discuss with a major aid agency in Dar-es-Salaam, our conviction that the role of youth in development could be transformative. It was a similar response in London, New York, Delhi, Kampala, Johannesburg. We had other ideas.
Two weeks ago, 15 years later, we hosted the Secretary of State for International Development and a group of some of her most senior staff, who wanted to spend the afternoon with Restless Development to assess the role of youth at the heart of her Department’s work and policies globally: we looked together at Sierra Leone where, supported by UKAid, 2000 young mobilisers have been the difference between the success and failure of bringing Ebola to zero (see a blog from my recent visit – Twelve Years On); at Nepal where young people are setting up 300 temporary shelters to act as centres for community-led recovery; at the Case for Space – a collaborative piece of research looking at the enabling factors for youth engagement in global development; at the extraordinary Big Idea which is testing the facilitating role young people can play in monitoring the entire gamut of the soon-to-be-launched UN Sustainable Development Goals; and at the UK government’s own International Citizen Service scheme which they will be tripling over the course of the next five years.
Those two paragraphs from each end of my career to date at Restless Development tell a wonderful story (the journey between the two needs a novel). It tells of how much we have achieved, and how much the youth agenda has shifted.
I am stunned and extremely proud to have been awarded an OBEin the Queen’s Birthday honours this week. I am humbled by the role we have played over the last decade and a half to bring young people out of the shadows. From Freetown to New York; from Kathmandu to last week in London.
I am proud too, to have played my small part for the past 16 years at Restless; indeed well before Restless I have held to the conviction that young people are the solution not the problem: since my first experiences working in Jamaica in 1989 and after in Guyana, Bolivia, El Salvador, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Sierra Leone, Nepal. It has been clear that there is a massive role for young people to play: as the human bridge between people and their communities on the one hand, and their governments and the aid and corporate sectors on the other.
At last the world is seeing this conviction is not just right but essential. A demographic reality of extraordinary proportions that began at the turn of this century and will continue for another 15 years. It is what Restless Development has defined as the era of Peak Youth. A moment in human history of the largest generation of young people that will define pretty much everything that matters on our planet. Restless Development has become an agency at the heart of that story to come. I am proud to have played my part. The OBE will spur me on.
I dedicate my award to my wife (who is a better developmentalist, a greater expert on youth and shrewder thought-leader than I will ever be) and to all the thousands of staff and hundreds of volunteers who have made the impossible happen.