Mobilizing New Generations: Engaging Youth in International Development

Harvard International Review, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Mobilizing New Generations: Engaging Youth in International Development


Free The Children emphasizes mobilizing youth to help youth. What is the motivation behind this, and how does it make your impact unique?

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The greatest challenge facing our world is that we're raising a generation of passive bystanders. And what we're trying to do is engage young people to free the children in both senses of the word: freeing them from slavery and exploitation, and freeing them from the idea that they're too young to bring about change. For a young girl in a tiny village in rural Africa, education, clean water, and health care provide her with the power to transform her community. For a young boy in the United States, engagement gives him the power to change his global community. In both cases, this empowers children. Instead of seeing children as problems to be solved, we see them as problem solvers. I think that's the greatest investment you can make: to shift a generation here at home from thinking of charity as something you do at a later stage in life to seeing it as a lifelong commitment.

Is the goal to encourage youth to go into nonprofit development work?

We don't expect most people to want to go into development work, but the goal of our engagement in North America is trying to convince young people to be aware of the world, to engage the world, and to continue to make an impact through philanthropy and community service. A third party research group called Mission Measurement tracked the alumni of our organization who are now in the workforce and post-secondary education. They found that 80 percent of our alums continue to volunteer every year, 83 percent continue to support a charitable cause, and 79 percent voted in the last election. I think that there's a spectrum of ways that people can be involved, from dedicating their lives to non-profit work, to a hybrid model, to a for-profit model where they support a charitable cause.

Could you speak more about the hybrid model?

I think you'll see the non-profit sector booming more into social 'enterprise, particularly with the need for innovation in how to raise funds and how to maintain responsible administration rates and high-impact projects. I think that social enterprise will serve as a way to recruit and retain a new generation of engaged young people.

The "voluntourism" phenomenon has been criticized for indulging volunteers more than helping communities in need. How would you respond to that?

I think that volunteering overseas absolutely does help the person doing the trip more than the community. The reason that you go overseas is to change your own life. That has to be first and foremost. But if done well, a volunteer going overseas can help create employment and provide Funding for the projects that run all year round. Me to We organizes its volunteer trips in a way that seeks to be as respectful as possible of the community. We always speak from the perspective that the trip is only one part of a bigger journey--that you have to carry back to your home communities what you learn about international development. It helps shift the perspective of the world from this idea that people are expecting somehow to be rescued to sharing stories about people that you've connected with.

Why address multiple facets of development rather than focusing on one in particular?

Many organizations will just do one thing, and there's an advantage to just doing one thing well. But development often can't be delivered in a sustainable way in a piecemeal fashion. When Free The Children started, we initially literally kicked down doors to free children. And we found that the children would often end up back in the same situation because they had no alternatives. So we started building schools, and we found that our schools wouldn't achieve gender parity, often because of something as simple as lack of clean water. Girls had to walk to the wells during daylight hours. …

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