A common feature of all great civilizations, nations, and societies is that they take their futures seriously. They do this largely by investing significantly in their young. They realize that the most valuable contribution that any generation can make to posterity is to build conditions of lasting security and prosperity so that the productive capacities and creative abilities of its children can flourish. When a people fail to invest in their young, they seal their fate as a viable and thriving human community. Year after year, reports from international organizations such as the U.N. Development Program and the World Bank, continue to paint a bleak picture for Africa’s future developmental prospects. Much of the pessimism is anchored in the fact that the continent’s most important and vital asset – its young, constituting up to 70 percent of Africa’s almost one billion people – continues to lead the rest of the world with the highest figures for infant mortality, child illiteracy, school dropout rates, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, unemployment, and more. Add to these the sense of despondency, disempowerment, and disillusionment felt by Africa’s youth and we have a highly flammable mix. Is it any wonder that Africa’s youth are restless, to the point of offering themselves up as foot soldiers of social discord, crises, and wars? If ever we seek a glimpse of what the future holds for us, we need do no more than to reflect on the condition of our young people today. This is a frightening thought, especially knowing what we do about the egregiously sorry state of our young people today. Meanwhile, our leaders display such deplorable levels of shortsightedness and indifference where our youth are concerned that for society to depend on them for guidance and leadership on this grave issue would be to abdicate our individual and collective responsibilities to our young as caring and progressive citizens. The ardent wish of any responsible and progressive society is that its children will mature into compassionate, responsible, and successful adults, and that they will experience greater social harmony, economic prosperity, and cultural vitality in their time. But until we take up the mammoth challenge of helping our youth, the prevailing attitude—best exhibited by our leaders—of wishing that the youth question would go away will remain in ascendancy. In truth, our abysmal culture of neglect and irresponsibility towards our youth are indeed the weeds that would soon strangle us. It is no coincidence that those who have been on the frontlines of small and large scale civil insurrections and internecine conflicts and wars in Uganda, Liberia, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Rwanda, Sudan, and lately next door in Cote D’Ivoire are youth. What a waste of precious productive capacity. While Western countries invest billions in their young people to keep the wheels of wealth-creation turning, we in Africa spend billions on sophisticated weaponry for our youth to destroy each other and their communities in senseless conflicts. Most of us in Ghana display obscene smugness about our supposedly peace lovingness and abhorrence for conflict. Let us not kid ourselves. Just because we have managed to avoid major conflict—whether by sheer luck or by design—does not preclude its possibility. Let us remember that our neighbors in Cote D’Ivoire entertained similar notions. Make no mistake, until we emerge some creative ways of addressing the needs of young people, who constitute the vast majority of our populations, we can be sure that all social crises and instability will be waged on their backs. Ever precocious, young people’s passion and energy can either be directed towards good or towards evil. Pitifully, at a time of remarkable technological advancement in the West with youth as the drivers, too many African youth are filled with dashed hopes and dreams, disillusionment, despair, and dormant rage. We see them on every street corner in any given African city panhandling and selling trinkets, imported apples, and dog chains. My youth development colleagues and I continue to advocate for the necessary and deliberate inclusion of youth perspectives in all aspects of governance, nation building, and sustainable development practice and processes. For good governance to deepen and be sustainable, its principles must be engrained in the youth. For nation building, development, and growth to occur, youth must be full and active participants. Why? Because eventually there will be a transition of power from the old to the new. To avoid reinvention of the wheel or repetition of past errors, it is imperative to have a full, participatory and mentorship process in place prior to the rites of succession. Only when students, young entrepreneurs, workers, and professionals become active contributors at decision-making tables is when we truly can say that the development and nation building process is sustainable. In the words of a development colleague, Dr. Virginia Gobeli, who heads the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National 4-H Program, “Youth are a small percentage of the decision-makers of the present but they are 100 percent of the future. Bringing them into the analysis and decision-making process is critical for sustainable development.” Fortunately, we have a few African-inspired models that can be adopted. Some ‘new vision’ African leaders, such as President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal, have always recognized the critical role of youth, not opportunistically as a strategic electoral asset, but rather as an essential element in consolidating the nation building process and effecting sustainable growth. Throughout his professional life up to his decision to run for his country’s highest office, President Wade has been a principled youth advocate, mentoring and involving youth in all of his productive endeavors. It is therefore hardly surprising that some of his closest confidantes and advisers are young professionals, students, and workers. In fact, the President appointed a brilliant 29-year-old professional, the Hon. Modou Fada Diagne, to his cabinet as Minister of Youth shortly upon his assumption of office in 2000. Because young people constitute a disproportionately high percentage of Senegal’s population, the Minister literally has his finger on the pulse of the nation. Add to this the fact that he has the Ministry organized in such an interactive way with youth groups that it is has instant access to intelligence on the ground on the perceptions, concerns, and aspirations of the majority of the Senegalese people. This is an example of a mature and caring leader exercising political savvy and genuine concern for the youth and by extension the future of his country. There is no doubt in my mind that we can do better. While we may value our children, we however seem not to recognize acutely enough the connection between our failings today and how they impact our collective future. Many youth-focused groups in Ghana are doing the best they can to make a meaningful contribution to our young people, and kudos to them. But it is going to require a concerted national effort, with assistance from policy makers, to begin a profound process of change. Our youth must be made a priority on the national agenda. Failure to do so today could gain us a failed state in the near future. Charles S. Hamidu Washington, D.C.
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