Matthew Breman currently serves as Africa Regional Director and member of the Senior Management Team at the International Youth Foundation (IYF). Previously, he held leadership positions at Chemonics International, Citizen Schools, Peace Corps and Catholic Relief Services. He is a former Peace Corps Volunteer, as well as a SAIS alumnus.

Over the last 25 years — the time that has passed since I was a graduate student at SAIS — the world of work has changed significantly. The frequent rise of new technologies and the ever-decreasing shelf life of technical skill sets have made the future of work feel more uncertain than ever before. Young people, all 1.2 billion of them around the globe, are in a particularly precarious position because, as the International Labour Organization (ILO) notes, they are three times more likely than adults to be unemployed.[1] Moreover, even when they find employment, it is too often in the informal sector, which is less stable and offers little to no security; in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), for example, an alarming 80% of employed young people work in informal jobs.[2]

So, what should international youth development organizations do to encourage long-lasting and sustainable solutions? Undoubtedly, part of our role involves equipping young people with the skills they need to secure employment. Specifically, as we’ve heard from employers across sectors, training in “soft skills” — e.g., problem solving, conflict management, teamwork, and communication — is especially valuable. However, as we know at the International Youth Foundation (IYF), we must also work to transform the systems that exacerbate, and sometimes create, the challenges faced by young people. Only by aiming to change systems themselves — market systems, educational systems, and cultural systems that determine who can and cannot hold certain kinds of job — can international development organizations truly promote secure and sustainable livelihoods. Below are three recommendations based on IYF’s youth-inclusive systems approach. 

1.    Consider local perspectives in the design of interventions. Too often, international organizations rush into communities, albeit with good intentions, without first gaining a nuanced understanding of the unique underlying challenges. Imagine this scenario: an international funder and organization, for example, set out to construct new schools in a local community in order to address what they perceive as an access-to-education problem. However, they learn after the project’s completion that the real issue was not access, but rather inadequate teacher training or prevailing sociocultural norms that de-prioritize education and schooling for women. Identifying the root cause of a challenge at a systems level is difficult from an outside perspective. For organizations like IYF, success depends on locally-staffed and led country teams gaining credibility, building trust, and cultivating enduring relationships with government, the private sector, and civil society. It’s especially important for youth-serving organizations to identify critical barriers they face and ensure that their voices and opinions are integrated into corresponding solutions.

 2.    Build strong ecosystems within the international development community. International development organizations have more to offer than just programming. In SSA, for example, IYF is providing training using our hallmark Passport to Success (PTS) curriculum: a suite of market-driven products and services responsive to the needs of businesses, educational institutions, governments, nonprofit organizations, and young people themselves. But, just as important, we are connecting various stakeholders in the youth employment ecosystem. Channels of communication between the private sector and training institutions that prepare young people to enter the job market are limited. The result is a mismatch between the skills needed and the training offered. In addition, young people themselves are often excluded from important exchanges of information regarding the kinds of employment opportunities in their regions. By bringing together an ecosystem of actors around a common vision, we can equip young people with skills that help them secure employment in the short-term, while simultaneously connecting key stakeholders to work together on future initiatives.

 3.     Embrace a long-game strategy for systems change. Most often, programs and initiatives run no more than three to five years, at the end of which organizations measure success according to program outputs (e.g., the number of people who received job training or completed a program). Metrics such as these are no doubt important, but they don’t necessarily correlate to long-term benefits. In addition to considering outputs, development organizations need to take a longer view on what success looks like. This could involve ascertaining the percentage of young people with increased income or identifying key activities that enabled positive behavior changes. After the end of a program — 10, 15, or 20 years down the line — we should ask: what positive outcomes have emerged? Based on the answer to this question, we can learn a lot about how to iterate and expand any future programming. But for these adaptive strategies to work, funders and donors must be informed about why the return on investment is well worth the extended time horizon.

In order to create lasting change, international development organizations must take a systems approach to inform programming. This requires reframing how we think about success, adopting a more adaptive approach to management, identifying the critical barriers young people face on their path toward economic opportunity, and ensuring their ideas are integrated into corresponding solutions. 

This isn’t easy, but we should remember that systems change and positive intermediate results are not mutually exclusive — in fact, they’re inextricable. When young people are equipped for employment through skills training, they are better able to contribute to improving systems. On the other hand, when the collective behaviors of system actors become more youth-inclusive and responsive, young people are better able to unlock their agency and thrive economically. I am proud to work for an organization that realizes this and that has included systems change as a strategic objective for how we conduct our work.

[1] International Labour Organization, “Global Employment Trends for Youth 2017,” (November 2016).

[2] Kezia Lilenstein, “Does informality help inclusive growth in Africa?World Bank Blogs, June 30, 2016.

PHOTO CREDIT: "Youth" by Youchao Wang, from Flickr Creative Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) License.