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Friday, January 25, 2008

Injaz’s helping hands raise Arab youngsters’ potential

Financial Times

In the UK, the median age is roughly 40 years old. In the US, it is 35. In Jordan, it is 23.5. With almost 40 per cent of Jordan’s population under the age of 15, creating employment and entrepreneurial opportunities for its youth is an urgent, constant challenge.

One innovative organisation, Injaz, is meeting this challenge head on. Injaz, which means “achievement” in Arabic, aims to inspire and prepare Jordanian youth to compete in the global economy.

In collaboration with businesses, educators, and government officials, more than 2,000 private-sector Injaz volunteers work through Jordanian schools and universities to teach young people marketable skills, from economics to entrepreneurship to ethics.

The dynamic exchange between students and business leaders benefits both sides; for youth, abstract theory is brought to life, and for volunteers, engaging with Jordan’s young people provides a vibrant window on their future employees and consumers.

Since its successful start in Jordan, the Injaz model has spread to 12 Arab countries. When a Kuwaiti businessman first heard about Injaz, for example, he was struck by its potential. “It’s about time we stopped blaming government for the state of our youth and accept some responsibility,” he said.

One month later, he had convinced many prominent business leaders to support Injaz and join him in training Kuwait’s best and brightest, sharing business acumen, and revealing lessons learned. Since then, 65 public schools have been transformed into entrepreneurial training hubs, which proudly reclaim the mercantile spirit of Kuwait’s forebears.

As one of Kuwait’s corporate volunteers so passionately put it during the launch of Injaz Kuwait in 2006: “Today I present to you a discovery more important than an oilfield. Today, a group of private sector volunteers gift Kuwait 1,000 students with whom to build an economy.”

Across the region, more than 300,000 students have enrolled in Injaz courses. Saudi Arabia is launching its own Injaz programme this year. Yet helping hands such as Injaz are still out of reach for too many young people in need. In the Middle East, youth unemployment stands at or above 25 per cent – nearly twice the global average. And worldwide, the 1.2bn young people between the ages of 15 and 24 need practical support if they are to become productive contributors to the global economy and the communities they call home.

That is why the work of organisations such as the International Youth Foundation (IYF) is so important. The IYF is equipping young people in nearly 70 countries with the skills, training and self-confidence to be outstanding employees, lead healthy lives, and give back to their communities.

I saw these efforts myself when I visited a “Dream Workshop” in Turkey, where teenage volunteers were using a combination of teamwork and arts-based education to teach disadvantaged children how to communicate effectively, think creatively, and solve problems co-operatively. More than 32,600 children and young adults in Turkey have benefited so far from such workshops, which are part of a global initative of the IYF and Nokia.

Similar successes are being written through youth-focused endeavours worldwide. In Egypt, thanks to the IYF, college graduates can now access training and job placement services at two pathbreaking career development centres.

In the Philippines, out-of-school youth, including former child combatants in the war-torn area of Mindanao, are gaining confidence and paychecks by learning how to build houses for families who have fled the violence or lost their homes in natural disasters.

In Indonesia, more than 3,000 young people are benefiting from entrepreneurial and job training. In Delhi, India, more than 600 children of parents with leprosy are receiving vocational training as well as social and emotional skills to help them compete for jobs.

Life-planning, teamwork, communication, and problem-solving capabilities are often called “soft skills,” but they have a very real long-term impact on young people’s lives and prospects. In one study of the IYF’s life skills programmes in more than a dozen countries, 43 per cent of young people in nine countries scored higher grades in school after participating in their programmes, and 66 per cent in 11 countries aspired to higher levels of education.

One life skills programme in Mexico, supported by the IYF and General Electric, halved school drop-out rates, while another in Latin America and the Caribbean has equipped nearly 20,000 at-risk youth with IT and life skills training, with more than half securing employment.

Now is the time to intensify such investments and scale up such successes – widening the embrace of youth support programmes, encouraging more young people to participate, and persuading more private sector experts to share their time and talent.

As I have told groups of young people from across the Arab world who are working to advance their personal growth and achievement: “You are the tools of change, and change must start from within.”

To that end, at this week’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, I am launching the Injaz “One Million Voices” campaign, which aims to reach a target of 1m young Arabs by 2018 – educating, energising and equipping them with the skills and motivation to lift the region’s prospects and become productive, engaged global citizens.

Today, I am urging you to do your part to help. Be a mentor. Volunteer. Offer financial support. Provide internships at your company. Hire youths. Help make a difference in a young person’s life – and build a brighter future for us all.