Today, I attended the Y2Y Global Youth Conference 2008 in Washington, D.C.  Titled “Empowering a Generation:  Developing Skills and Capacities in Youth” and organized by the Youth-to-Youth Community of the World Bank, the conference was intended to be a conference for youth by youth.  While the morning panels heavily addressed skills for work and life, afternoon sessions presented topics such as youth-led initiatives, leveraging partnerships among multiple stakeholders, and challenges in project design and evaluation.

Though the conference attempted to highlight the importance of a holistic approach to empowering youth, few stepped outside the proscribed D.C. conference box to clarify the difference between “youth development” and “youth in development.”  Therefore, I couldn’t help but smile when Eric Rusten of the Academy for Educational Development—no longer a “youth” by conference standards—opened his presentation by criticizing the day’s buzzword of “training.”  His criticism: overemphasis on formalized job training, especially when dealing with disadvantaged youth, can actually constrain or, worse, deny the importance of genuine learning opportunities.

Mr. Rusten went on to make a second provocative point.  His number one rule in project design, he bellowed, “Do no harm!”  Well, duh, you might say.  Who’s going to intentionally harm youth if the objective is to empower them in the job market and in life?  The answer is not as much about intent as it is about process—a point Sam raised in his discussion of the $2 A Day Challenge a few days back.

After his presentation, Mr. Rusten filled me in on an example in which a non-governmental organization in northeastern Brazil developed a partnership with a corporate sponsor to provide IT training to a group of young people.  In pursuit of an output to justify their investment, the corporate sponsor gave the NGO just three months to train participants and secure the majority with jobs that would last at least three months after the training.  Desperate to produce the demanded results, the NGO immediately contacted a national supermarket chain and requested that a three-month internship be designed to receive the participants of its IT training.  Can you guess what position those young people held for three months?  My guess was cashier; at least that had to do with numbers.  Grocery bagger.  The outcome?  A group of successfully trained, successfully employed, yet humiliated young people.

While the conference pedestalled a “participatory and demand-driven approach” as key to avoiding such ineffective and short-sighted programming, I think Mr. Rusten’s point aims deeper, begging much more difficult questions about the formalization of hierarchical decision-making and evaluative procedure in international development.  For example, at what point did funding cycles and easily quantifiable outcomes start to take precedent over the intended beneficiary?