As global change-makers, the youth have a key role to play in bringing about change. Although there are many opportunities they could possibly grab, certain factors stand in their way in trying to learn the necessary skills sets.
This is how 21.6% of youth between ages 15-24 are unemployed in Sri Lanka according to the latest statistics by the Census and Statistics Department. Therefore, it is in this backdrop that global bodies such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) are trying to change the narrative and engage the youth to become a catalyst for change.
In view of International Youth Skills Day which falls today (July 15), the Daily Mirror spoke to Fadhil Bakeer Markar, Partnerships and Engagement Team Lead at UNDP Sri Lanka who shed light on various programmes done by the local body to engage youth in proposing innovative solutions to existing problems and contribute to society in a positive way.
Q How do you see Sri Lanka’s youth being involved in Sustainable Development efforts?
Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) itself have recognized young people as the foremost cohort of people that we need to engage. It’s their future and they need to take the lead. This is how we as the UNDP see it. How do we provide the space? We need to look at how meaningful we are in our engagement and we need to walk the talk. It’s about looking at young people as a force for positive change. If we see young people as a force for positive change, I think that’s where the role comes in. So Rotaract, Interact, Lions, Leos are great movements that encourage young people to be civic-minded and engage in societal work. When you’re in Rotaract you see a social problem when you do a project. Our Hackadev programme is primarily based on that and it is a social innovation challenge. It is about hacking development and we want young people to come up with a solution to a problem that they see. So our Challenge takes them through a year-long programme and then if their idea is selected we give them six-month long incubation support and this is a project that we do with the Ministry of Digital Infrastructure and Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA). We have targeted over 6000 young people and our programmes reach every single district. We take them through a five-day residential design camp and get them to think. So a little thought you had in mind gets transformed into an actual, tangible solution.
Q So one doesn’t have to be involved in these youth movements to engage in Sustainable Development Efforts?
Not really. We work closely with the National Youth Services Council (NYSC) because there are around half a million members there and they come from different backgrounds. We feel that the exposure they get in a lot of areas is huge when compared to Rotaract and other groups. Two of our programmes including HackaDev and the HackaDev Academy target NYSC programmes. There are many other institutions and many avenues of engagement. We can do more to communicate that and get them engaged meaningfully.
"If we see young people as a force for positive change, I think that’s where the role comes in. So Rotaract, Interact, Lions, Leos are great movements that encourage young people to be civic-minded and engage in societal work. When you’re in Rotaract you see a social problem when you do a project. Our Hackadev programme is primarily based on that and it is a social innovation challenge"
Q In terms of youth employment, how are the statistics? Are we doing well?
If you look at some of the statistics by the Census and Statistics Department issued during the first quarter of this year, the unemployment rate between the age of 15-24 is 21.6%. This is the highest reported unemployment rate among all age groups. In terms of the disparity, the unemployment rate among males is 18.9% when compared to 26.6% among females. One other group is Not in Employment Education or Training (NEET). The earlier statistic we were looking at was 700,000 young people at any given time. The most recent statistic we have is from 2016 and it shows that over a quarter of 15-24-year-olds from Sri Lanka are in the NEET category. This is shocking. So what do they do? We talk about machine learning, blockchain, cryptocurrencies, artificial intelligence and whatnot. So we should be able to give those skill sets in order to win the world. We do have a lot of success stories but how do we translate this to everybody? There’s no time for us to catch-up. We have to use the 4.4 million young people we have here as our strength.
Q How is the UNDP involved in getting this segment of society employed and engaged in work?
We have a huge programme on entrepreneurship. We want to tell them that they can do something different than being employed in a government job. They could be self-employed. If we take a step back, we started a programme called Youth Lead which is about getting young people involved in our programmes. So we hire four young people, fresh out of school or college, to come and disrupt the processes- to think outside the box. They spend 50% of their time innovating, and 50% of their time doing day-to-day work that is part of the cluster team. This is how we infuse youth energy into our programmes. On the other hand, HackaDev which I mentioned earlier is about building social entrepreneurs.
"We hire four young people, fresh out of school or college, to come and disrupt the processes- to think outside the box. They spend 50% of their time innovating, and 50% of their time doing day-to-day work that is part of the cluster team "
Q Tell us about some success stories.
The HackaDev Academy is about combining technology and entrepreneurship- Technopreneurship. We piloted a programme last year in 20 locations around the country with 1000 young people and we wanted to give them 14 hours of e-learning with a Sysco module. We got some amazing results, for example, Prasanna Maduranga from Uswewa, Tangalle started his own curd business, two days after the programme. Then there’s a handicraft home decoration business in Naulla, a girl in Anamaduwa started a cake shop, Tilshan from Akkaraipattu started his own event management company. So it’s about how we use different tools. We have young people delivering these courses in Sinhala, English and Tamil. This year we are doing another similar programme targeting another 1000 young people including a training programme for trainers.
Q Most of the youth want to study abroad and they have a tendency to settle down. How can we retain this segment of youth?
Some young people may want to go abroad and study and some may want to settle. But what we should focus on is the opportunities we provide and what’s our learning environment like. We need to ask whether we are up to the global standards. We need global exposure as well. The exposure they gain going abroad and what they bring back is also important for us because we are a globalized world. We need to have top-notch learning and skills development programmes here. In the near future, we will be starting a few programmes with the Vocational Training Authority and this is all about bringing new skills sets. So it’s all about the opportunities we have.
"The exposure they gain going abroad and what they bring back is also important for us because we are a globalized world. We need to have top-notch learning and skills development programmes here. In the near future, we will be starting a few programmes with the Vocational Training Authority and this is all about bringing new skills sets"
Q So do we have opportunities?
We can do more. We do have opportunities and the talents among University students are exceptional. I have no doubt about that. It’s about guiding and providing them with the right skills sets. We need to embrace changes, not be averse to changes.
Q As a young leader, what is your message to the youth of Sri Lanka?
Keep engaging and look for opportunities. Contribute to society in a positive way.
Pics by Damith Wickramasinghe