Banana-Leaf Balls and Coat-Hanger Cars: The Promise of Youth on International Youth Day

By: Gene Roehlkepartain

August 12 is International Youth Day, and this year we have something to celebrate. For decades, the dominant and sometimes only story about children, youth, and families in developing countries has been about the latest crisis or the poverty, disease, and hunger that can consume their lives. Those hardships are only part of the story, but these problems have grabbed headlines—and raised money for charities.

I know there has always been another story about developing countries. I grew up in East Africa, mostly in Tanzania, where I saw some of these challenges among my neighbors. But I also saw the ingenuity, spirit, imagination, and fortitude that were key to surviving and thriving, often against the odds.

I recall the enthusiasm for playing football─what Americans call soccer─for hours with a ball made up of dried banana leaves. And the triumph of creating a working toy car by reshaping wire coat hangers. And the laughter and hospitality that I experienced when visiting people’s homes and villages. And, in a time of trauma, the kindness of strangers on a rural roadside ensured that the diamond wedding ring of my unconscious mother was safely returned at the hospital after a debilitating car accident.

So it is personally and professionally rewarding to see an emerging recognition of the strengths and character of young people and community leaders around the world on this International Youth Day.

We at Search Institute had an opportunity last year to study developmental assets among young people in four developing and post-conflict countries with our partner Education Development Center. Two findings jumped out. First, even those young people who face severe challenges also have critical strengths. Second, those strengths, as measured by the Developmental Assets Profile, mattered for social development priorities, including workforce readiness, health, education, and civil society.

That study—along with great work by many others—influenced the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to emphasize asset-based, holistic youth development as a key principle in its recently-released Youth in Development policy. That policy states:

    Preparing youth for adulthood occurs within and across multiple sectors and domains by strengthening capacities and building assets. Mounting evidence holds that holistic or integrated youth programming can be particularly effective in addressing the complexities of young people’s lives.

All of us lead lives that are a mix of relative challenges and strengths. That is true for the children in refugee camps where we, with our partner, World Vision International, are measuring and building strengths as a way to nurture normalcy and resilience. It is true for the girls in rural Bangladesh, who, with support from Save the Children, were able to meaningfully increase their well-being through a strength-based empowerment program. And it is true for the thousands of youth who will be part of the just-launching Youth in Action program that Search Institute is part of in five African countries with Save the Children Canada.

Identifying and building strengths does not magically take away the challenges. But it reminds us that, wherever we work, people in communities have strengths that will be key resources for overcoming the challenges they face. On this International Youth Day, I’m delighted to celebrate the evidence that this positive story may also make a few headlines as we become a more globally connected world.

Publish Date: 

Monday, August 12, 2013

Share this page: 

1 Comment