Together with twelve other young people from around the world, Isco traveled to Germany in May 2023 to take the stage at the 4th Global YouthCan! Conference hosted by Deutsche Post DHL Group. One hundred and fifty stakeholders, including YouthCan! participants, corporate partners, volunteers and experts, met in Bonn to share their experiences and form a common vision for the future of the programme.
YouthCan! is SOS Children’s Villages’ global partnership for youth employability and entrepreneurship. It offers skills training, mentorship and various other educational and professional opportunities to young people growing up without adequate family support. Active in 50 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Europe, YouthCan! aims to address the employment challenges of young people, which are especially pressing in low- and middle-income countries and marginalized communities.
Globally, more than one in five people aged 15–24 years are not in education, employment or training (NEET). COVID-19 has disrupted education worldwide and hurt young people more than any other age group on the labor market. Young people’s education and employment challenges are exacerbated by multiple crises: armed conflicts, climate shocks, rising poverty and inequalities. Women are particularly affected - in 2022, young men were almost 1.5 times more likely to be employed than their female peers.
The transition from school to decent work is particularly difficult for young people growing up in alternative care or in families facing hardship, for example due to poverty or discrimination. These young people may need to become financially independent earlier than their peers. At the same time, they often lack the guidance, networks and financial support others have as they get qualifications and enter job markets.
“Lack of work can have dire consequences for young people, as it puts them at risk of poverty, social exclusion, and exploitation. This is not just a personal loss but a missed opportunity for society as a whole,” said Dereje Wordofa, President of SOS Children’s Villages International, during the conference in Bonn. Dr. Wordofa highlighted YouthCan!’s contribution to the Sustainable Development Goal number 8, which is to “promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all”.
A shared responsibility
As a multi-stakeholder partnership, YouthCan! engages non-governmental organizations, the public sector and private companies on national and global levels in the work towards a common goal.
“Young people need more support, especially in the post-pandemic times”, said Banalata Sen, Global Head of the Go Teach Program of Deutsche Post DHL Group. “We can do a lot individually, but together, we have real power. We grow stronger driven by the same purpose. The effects are clearly visible – in 2021, we reached double the number of young people from the year before. We have not slowed down since, and this is just the beginning “. In 2022, YouthCan! Supported over 14,200 young people from 47 countries. 80% of them said they felt more optimistic about the future and had plans for the next steps in their lives.
Salimane Issifou, National Director of SOS Children’s Villages in Benin, said: “Government and the private sector working with non-governmental organizations to address complex challenges - this is what we have achieved in YouthCan!. Diverse perspectives lead to comprehensive solutions and a more effective use of resources. A multi-stakeholder collaboration gives partners a sense of shared ownership, which fosters lasting solutions in the area of youth employability.
“In Benin, we as SOS Children’s Villages listen to the needs and dreams of young people in our care. We share this expertise with companies that bring their resources, know-how and networks. The government’s role is to create and reform policies. Together, we work for learning, development and job opportunities for young people in SOS Children’s Villages’ care and other young people from vulnerable backgrounds,” Mr. Issifou explained.
53% of last year’s YouthCan! participants grew up in SOS Children’s Villages. Going forward, YouthCan! aims to expand beyond alternative care programmes, reaching more young people from surrounding communities, focusing on those involved in our family strengthening activities.
"It is important that YouthCan! recognizes the challenges young people in the communities face and supports them in building self-reliance,” said 23-year-old Vanessa from Rwanda during the conference in Bonn. “With wider access to education, skills training and job opportunities, young people will be able to gain stability for their families and break cycles of poverty.”
How can SOS Children’s Villages and partners reach more and more young people with YouthCan! activities? Safe and effective digital tools are a crucial part of the solution. The YouthLinks Community, a virtual platform for networking, mentoring and training, is key for the expansion of the programme. The platform brings together over 1,700 people at the time, and the number of users is increasing quickly.
Nothing about us without us
Meaningful youth participation is at the core of YouthCan! - a partnership with and for young people. At every stage of the programme, from strategic planning to evaluation, YouthCan! coordinators listen to young people’s feedback and act upon it.
“We are the key stakeholders in this partnership,” said 22-year-old Sneha from India during the conference in Bonn. “If young people are not part of the decision-making, what is the benefit for them and what is the use of all the resources provided? Having a seat at the table means we can speak up about our needs. When young people can raise their voices and actively participate in decision-making, they grow confident and learn to take responsibility.”
Sneha was part of the first YouthCan! Youth Advisory Board. When it was launched in 2021, 10 young people from different regions were selected for a term of two years. Young people like Sneha who have grown up in alternative care and have first-hand experience transitioning from school to the job market know best what challenges this stage of life brings and what kind of support can be most beneficial. They are also the most effective agents of change who can lead by example and engage their peers in YouthCan!.
The purpose of the Youth Advisory Board is to let young people take action on national and global levels and provide strategic advice to the programme coordinators, while at the same time becoming YouthCan! co-creators themselves. “Our main goal is to represent young people and help YouthCan! understand our needs – this cannot be done without us,” said Vanessa from Rwanda during a youth-led conference panel in Bonn. “I joined the Youth Advisory Board to be the voice for young people who are afraid to talk about their problems and needs,” added Alexandra, 20, from Romania.
YouthCan! encourages participants to speak up for their rights, bring change to their communities, and engage in peer-to-peer training and mentoring. After completing his DHL internship and digital skills training, 28-year-old Hack from Benin not only started his own business but also became a teacher and mentor himself.
Hack said: “My role does not end after a class. Young people come to me with their questions and talk openly because there is no barrier between us. I grew up in front of them and was in the same position before I got to where I am now. My experience makes them believe that they too can do it. Whenever I can, I give them advice, help them deal with their problems, and share my experiences - and not only the positive ones, because I believe we need to learn from bad experiences in life.”
Entrepreneurship – a new YouthCan! focus
Hack is a member of the Youth Advisory Board that started its term in 2023. The new board members, some of them young entrepreneurs themselves, want YouthCan! to focus more on entrepreneurship education and support for young people willing to start their businesses.
Already in 2020, YouthCan! participants asked for more entrepreneurship training, which was piloted in 18 countries the following year. Cristina Soreanu, YouthCan! Global Project Manager from SOS Children’s Villages International, said: “YouthCan! is now both an employability and entrepreneurship programme. This is what young people requested. We have taken this direction in response to their needs and the realities of job markets. In many countries, entrepreneurship is a necessity, not an option. There are no job opportunities, so the only way for young people to make a living and succeed is to start a business.”
During the conference in Bonn, young people explained how difficult it is to turn their ideas into business initiatives without experience, capital and support networks. They stressed the importance of mentorship and expert guidance. They also called for initiatives that can help young people see entrepreneurship as an option for the future, become mentally prepared to take risks, believe in their abilities, and face the business world with resilience.
“Through entrepreneurship, we can combat the rising global issue of youth unemployment,” said 22-year-old Emma from South Africa. “I believe young people and their sustainable business ideas can make the world a better place. If we set the foundation for youth entrepreneurship in our communities, the future will be less intimidating, more secure and exciting for our peers. Together, we can create a world where being a young entrepreneur is a norm”.
By the end of 2022, over 270 YouthCan! participants started their own businesses. The number of entrepreneurship activities in the programme increased by over 70% last year, with a particular focus on social entrepreneurship.
Alexander Bernhard, Managing Director of Impact Hub Stuttgart, explained the concept of social entrepreneurship during the conference: “We are talking about the development of innovative products and services that tackle social and environmental challenges and address existing needs instead of creating new ones.”
Young people engaged in YouthCan! see eye to eye on their role as agents of positive change in their communities. “Many people tell us that we are the future leaders, but we are not waiting for the future. We are leading today,” said Vanessa from Rwanda closing the youth-led panel in Bonn.