I was a child of the 1990’s, all bubblegum snapping and high-waisted jeans (who’d ever thought they’d come back into fashion?).  It was a good time to be a kid in leafy Melbourne, Australia.  Things seemed simpler, more straightforward: my country took pride in its multicultural identity and so I learned about the world from which so many Australians came from a young age.

 

The world outside my sunburnt country seemed to be comprised of easily-digestible concepts: Japan was where Pokémon came from, Turkey was the far-away home of my favorite doner kebab vendor, and India was a kaleidoscopic rainbow of vivid Holi powders and Bollywood costumery.

But what, in this world of paint-by-numbers clichés, did that make the more complicated places?

Africa was a nebulous concept to my five-year-old self; popular culture rounded the entire continent of diverse and disparate nations into one blurry cultural hegemony… and for those of us who have seen the movie Mean Girls, it hasn’t evolved much beyond that, even still.

Africa had a less glamorous image than so many other places, carved out from the charity advertisements on the television and in my mailbox that captured on camera the strained-bellied, doe-eyed starving children clad in rags and circled by flies.  Poverty - as we understood it then - was a bitter pill we were, given our position of privilege, required to swallow… over and over again.  This is what motivated people to donate to the organizations that needed funding to build infrastructure, agriculture, and educational opportunities in some of the most disadvantaged pockets of the planet.  For the time, it’s hard to begrudge it that success, for it did it well.  But in its success, Africa was depicted in an unstable and unfavorable light: it was a continent of misery, poverty, and hunger; a veritable badlands against the storybook backdrop of the world.  Void of autonomy, or a forgiving narrative, Africa was cast as a passive player on the world stage, little more than an afterthought for when we had mustered a handful of pocket change and wanted to ease our consciences with a bit of generosity to the “starving children”.

But now it is 2017, and I have found myself, some twenty years later, working in the International Development sector.  The Millennium Development Goals have given way to the Sustainable Development Goals, which are more expansive, more detailed, and more ambitious than their predecessors.  In the Sustainable Development Goals era, the notion that affluent countries such as my own can “save Africa from itself” are sneered upon, and rightly so.  Africa is not a continent that needs scrape by on mere scraps of kindness from individuals like me.  Africa is a resource-rich, populous, diverse continent that has the capacity to create enormous strides on the global stage, provided the networks in which they operate adapt to allow for this progress.

The problem? The frameworks aren’t evolving fast enough.

The Wellbeing for Women Africa advocacy platform was built to address this exact quandary.  International Development has been staffed by the same faces, same organizations, and same philosophies for so long, I still recognize the occasional tagline as one that was in use during my own childhood.  With so much changing on the global stage from week-to-week, month-to-month, and year-to-year, it’s unacceptable for change-makers in this sector to be maintaining homeostasis instead of innovating.

International Development is a sector that advises caution and consideration in every move, and this is justified; after all, too aggressive a change on any level carries serious implications for the health and wellbeing of the people it aims to serve.  But the problem with such a measured approach is that innovative ideas and new faces are inhibited by the existing structure from being able to really engage

The sector has opined for a long time – arguably, too long – about the need to empower the next generation of Africa’s leaders so that they can bolster their own countries’ development.  The easiest source of innovations is, without question, the introduction of new blood.  But the major hurdle to this is that nobody really wants to relinquish a seat at the table to somebody young and untested.  At the highest levels, opportunities to scale through funding and partnership conversations are considered too tenuous to risk on somebody who is still learning the way the sector works, or might not be interested in sticking to established processes.  This is how justification is made to inch young experts in African development out of meaningful conversations.

This mentality, in which lip service is paid to empowering youth – particularly African youth – and then curtailing their ability to make real impact is not only disingenuous, it’s exploitative.  The same system that exists to advance the rights of these very people is curtailing those very same rights out of fear of growing pains.  If young African people are relegated to the sidelines of the conversations that apply more to their own lives than to anybody else in the room, then what are we, as a sector, really saying about their value to contribute?

Africa’s youth are not mere tokens to be laid down to demonstrate representation of diverse ages, races, or levels of experience.  If youth are not given the opportunity and mentorship to drive these interactions without containment, how meaningful is the investment within them in the first place? As the expression goes: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” – so what is being gained by both parties in this context? An organization fails to back their own team member, and loses out on the benefit of their insights and imagination, whilst a young leader of African development hears the implication, loud and clear: Your time will come.  Eventually.  Maybe.  But no promises on whether we’ll let you develop the skills you’ll need to do so anytime soon.

The Sustainable Development Goals are, by their nature, audacious.  They are disruptive.  They are innovative.  They demand big ideas and meaningful solutions.  They use the word ‘accountability’ often, and mean it.

And to which demographic do we assign these very same characteristics?

Young people, of course.  The very people who have toiled in volunteer roles even though their time is worth more, put their minds and bodies through figurative (and literal!) marathons to raise funds, studied International Development for years on end, and pushed around paper in low-level administrative jobs because they know that this is the sole opportunity to get a foot into the door of the sector means starting small, and staying there… possible for years. 

And they do all of this in the hopes that their passion and potential will be recognized by somebody higher up in the hierarchy, who will in turn invest in them with a chance to prove their value.

If this is how the system must work, then the system is broken.  Sustainability means thinking beyond this year, and the next, and the next: it means ensuring that when we say, “We need to invest in Africa’s youth in International Development,” we ensure the paid hire of Africa’s youth in our own organizations in roles that apply to their skill-sets, interests, and future ambitions.

This is what accountability looks like.  This is what we owe our sector if we want to reach the Sustainable Development Goals.

Because in this era, Africa’s youth aren’t starving children, grasping for a rotten apple with nails caked with dirt.  They are young professionals who know the difference between charity and autonomy, and they aren’t accepting the former. 

Not now, not ever.

 

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