A young dancehall artist named Lil Rick made his debut in 1989 with a song in which he wondered: “Me ain’t know how de youth get so.”
In his ground-breaking song, The Youth, he lamented young people falling prey to drug abuse and lawlessness. Thirty years later, our policymakers are still trying to find viable solutions to counter the major issues facing our young people.
Minister of Youth Affairs Adrian Forde reported that 30 per cent of the population under the age of 30, 70 per cent of whom are fresh out of school, are unemployed. There has been much talk about entrepreneurship as a way forward for the youth, especially in the uncharted waters of the “green economy”, the “blue economy” and the “cultural industries”.
But these would-be entrepreneurs need money, proper guidance in the fundamentals of business, a market in which to sell their products and services, and a community that does not frown upon such activity and then tells them, “go get a real job!”
In the early 1990s, we established the Barbados Youth Service, which was aimed at channelling people between the ages of 16 and 22, who might not have done well academically at school and were considered “at risk”, into more positive activities. The Youth Service is a 12-month programme offering personal development, academic and sports development, cultural arts, vocational training, and internships in certain career paths.
In a quarter of a century in existence, the Youth Service has indeed turned out many graduates, who have done well in their chosen careers. For a generation, the Youth Entrepreneurship Scheme and the Barbados Youth Development Council have also helped many young people to get off their duffs, off the streets and on a path to meaningful work and productivity.
But what of some of the other state-run programmes that have surfaced from time to time to help those whom we refer to often condescendingly as “the boys on the block”? What has become of the Youth Commissioners, Project Oasis and other programmes over the years?
We have the sterling work of youth commissioners, such as Peter Skeete, who we single out for his efforts with the young people in Haynesville, St. James. But there are other untold stories of these interventions in other communities.
Project Oasis, which has produced a fine crop of talented digital artists, seems to have gone the way of the Arthur administration that introduced it when it demitted office in 2008.
Programmes of this nature were aimed at helping their target audience to get off the block and into business ventures. But was their impact as effective as their intentions were noble? We have often the inadequate level of studies and surveys to determine whether any social programmes meet their goals.
But politics aside, if the folks on the block were truly benefiting from these programmes, would they have not been left stranded when these were discontinued without warning?
Did anyone ever ask the participants what they thought of the initiatives and what improvements could be made? Was any follow up done to see how the businesses they set up were progressing? And if there are any plans to modify existing programmes like the Youth Service, have the authorities sought information from students, instructors and other people involved in it, both past and present, to inform their decisions?
And the focus of these programmes should not be seen as welfare for the young and poor. There are many young people who have done well in school, gone on to tertiary level education, and live in what we consider more upscale communities who, too, have difficulty finding jobs and securing finances to start their businesses. Middle-class youngsters are not immune to winding up in trouble if they find themselves in a major bind in much the same way as their less-well-off counterparts.
Other than the usual career guidance, mentorship, financial assistance and entrepreneurship, more consideration need to given to teaching young people soft skills for life’s hard knocks. Many of them are parents; are parenting classes part of the package? Anger management, conflict resolution, effective communication, health and wellness programmes, including sexual and reproductive health, substance abuse avoidance, religious education and how to apply religious principles to everyday life – all of these should be part of any ‘youth development package’ as well. Retired educators, church leaders and other elders in society can be an invaluable source of guidance.
As he addressed the opening of the National Youth Forum held last September as part of the National Youth Week of activities, Minister Forde told the young people in the audience: “Contribute actively to the sessions, and I promise you this will not be another talk shop. Your views will be included in the communique which will be used to inform Cabinet on the concerns raised and how they should be addressed.”
We must also accept that the world is constantly changing and the policies of 20 years ago may no be longer relevant to today’s youth. Hence, whenever the new National Youth Policy is drafted, policymakers must conduct surveys to ensure that any youth development initiatives are meeting the needs of their target audiences, and revamp and upgrade where necessary following further consultation with them.
Given how fast the pace of change is now, fuelled especially by technological leaps, these surveys and upgrades must be done at least every six months if not annually.
But let’s hear from our young people, before we introduce policies in their name.