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The Caribbean Youth Development Challenge
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The Caribbean Youth Development Challenge

by Henry Charles,  Commonwealth Youth Programme

A paper delivered at a public lecture in Nassau, Bahamas on October 8th , 2007 on the theme “towards a paradigm shift in youth development policy” is still relevant today, 4 years later.


Today, we are at a very critical juncture in the evolution of human civilization. It is indeed a time when the emerging global technological, economic, social and political ethos has created many challenges but also significant opportunities for mankind.

It is a time when many experience unprecedented improvements in living standards, unparalleled developments in Information Communication Technology, an apparent unfettered consolidation of capital, mind boggling wealth creation and a plethora of protocols and bench marks for good governance.

Yet it is also a time when we witness alarming degradation of our environmental, social and political ethos.

Indeed, one may even describe the current global environment as a theatre of contradictions.

But in real terms how are these prevailing challenges and opportunities manifested?


  • Persistently high levels of poverty in many parts of the world.
  • The widening gap between rich and poorer nations.
  • High and rising levels of unemployment in especially developing countries.
  • The negative effects of globalization on many developing countries.
  • Armed conflicts in many regions of the world.
  • Growing signs of religious and ethnic intolerance and conflict.
  • Terrorism
  • Unfair trading arrangements between developed and developing countries.
  • HIV and AIDS epidemic.
  • Pervasive impact of the international drug trade on the global social, economic and political landscape.
  • The negative consequences of unbridle neo-liberal economic and social policies on significant sections of the population in many underdeveloped and developing countries.
  • Unsustainable environmental practices.


Unprecedented developments in technology and telecommunications have created new avenues to expand access to education and information which are critical for building sustainable livelihoods.

  • This phenomena has also created unprecedented opportunities for economic development, employment creation and public advocacy
  • The growth of democracy in many regions previously dominated by totalitarian regimes has created new opportunities for citizens to participate more meaning fully in national political and economic processes.
  • The insistence by multi-lateral institutions and agencies that governments should uphold and practice the principles of good governance has led to some successes in the fight against corruption, nepotism and wastage.
  • The establishment of human development goals and social mandates by international institutions and agencies has created an enabling environment to address the negative consequences of globalization and ineffective governance.

Notwithstanding the relative improvements in the global economic and technological landscape, the prevailing global challenges highlighted herein continue to impact upon human civilization in the most profound manner.

In their quest to optimize the existing and emerging opportunities; and to better manage the challenges governments, civil society, multi-lateral agencies are currently engaged in a profound dialogue on, and search for sustainable solutions.

However due cognizance must be given to an indisputable reality.

Many, if not most of our development challenges, impact upon young people in a very diverse, profound and disproportionate manner.

Clearly, therefore if we consider young people as equal citizens and indeed our most valuable asset the search for sustainable solutions to our development challenges; and strategies to optimize the benefits of existing and emerging opportunities must unambiguously involve a thorough analysis of pertinent youth development issues; and must of necessity mainstream youthful energies, talents, opinions and interests into any international, regional or national sustainable development strategy.

In particular we must thoroughly examine to what extent global and national challenges impact on the youth and the nature and character of its manifestations within our national and regional spaces of existence.

There is also a compelling necessity to constantly review, evaluate and interrogate existing youth development strategies and architecture, to ensure these remain relevant and cutting edge in nature.

Most importantly governments and the relevant agencies must visibly demonstrate the appropriate consciousness, vision and political will to adopt and implement more sustainable youth development strategies, wherever necessary. Indeed a major development objective would have been accomplished if the courage and foresight to embrace and implement an effective youth mainstreaming strategy is visibly demonstrated.


I will outline some of the major issues and challenges confronting the young people in the Caribbean.

I also intend to present a case for youth development to be accorded even greater focus and significance within the broader national, regional and global development context. In this regard I will propose a paradigm shift from the existing social-welfarist approach to youth development to a transformational paradigm.

Finally, I will explore some strategies, mechanisms and policies which should characterize this shift from the social –welfarist to transformational paradigm.


Within recent times there is growing panic among the citizenry regarding the negative manifestations of youth socialization and development. Throughout the Caribbean- from Belmopan, Belize to Georgetown, Guyana the widely held view among many commentators is that we seem to be facing a virtual crisis in youth development. Such concerns and opinions have dominated national and regional conferences and meetings, newspaper columns, the various ‘TALK SHOWS’ and other popular media. Consequently Governments are under increasing pressure to formulate and implement effective strategies to address this perceived crisis.

Indeed a 2003 World Bank report on youth in the Caribbean and more recently a report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and crime have revealed some very startling statistics and confirm our worst fears, regarding regional youth development challenges.

The truth is that youth development in the Caribbean has assumed a far more complex and challenging character over the last two decades.

Prevailing economic, social and political ethos, as well as encroaching cultural influences have not only conspired to undermine the capacity of the state to perform its role as a medium to facilitate economic and social justice but has unfortunately contributed to the diminishing relevance of traditional modes of socialization and indeed the influence of institutions such as the state, family, church, schools and other symbols of social order.

Yet despite this ever changing and challenging socio-economic, socio-political and socio-cultural environment none can honestly deny that many if not most young persons in the Caribbean have successfully managed the challenges posed by this new ethos. Many young people continue to make significant contributions to the development of their communities and societies.

However, there must be concern that disturbingly significant numbers of young people are increasingly becoming the victims of social injustice, social irresponsibility, and economic marginalization and; an increasingly violent and dysfunctional political culture.

It is now well established that this prevailing socio-economic and, socio-political ethos is a major contributing factor to the escalating youth poverty and unemployment and indeed many other social and political challenges such as the high HIV/AIDS prevalence among young people, youth violence and crime, drug abuse and drug trafficking among the many other youth development challenges, which threaten to destroy the very fabric of our societies.

Consequently despite the significant contribution to development by most young people the youth development landscape within the Caribbean is replete with manifestations of:

  • Increasing hopelessness among many young persons.
  • Increasing engagement of significant numbers of youth in risky behaviors.
  • Increasing apathy and disinterest in personal, family and national development.
  • An apparent exodus away from involvement in mainstream national and community based activities.
  • Disproportionate trends of poverty among urban youth as a percentage of the employable population, and the related increasing poverty of rural youth affected by the failure of traditional rural-based sources of livelihood.
  • Disturbing trends of disrespect and disregard for symbols of authority and officialdom.
  • Reported underachievement and escalating social exclusion of young males in the Caribbean region.
  • Disturbing trends of disrespect for the female gender.
  • Deep seated confusion in manifestation of their masculinities, among many young males.
  • Deitification of weapons (guns), drug culture, social deviant behavior and symbols of criminality.
  • Adoption of non-traditional and often times controversial methods of expressing their frustrations, issues and concerns.
  • Increasing impatience with established procedure, processes and bureaucratic systems and structures.
  • Increasing involvement in and dependence on their own social systems and structures for recognition, kinship, sustenance, recreation and bonding. Often times these systems are in direct conflict with mainstream social norms and regulations and present a direct challenge to the status quo.
  • Another disturbing trend is the effectiveness of criminal organizations and socially deviant, fundamentalists, misguided political forces and agents in filling the gap created by the declining influence of the once bastions of social order and civic responsibility.

There are those who argue that many of these challenges are either the consequence of the pervasive influence of popular but usually socially degrading and often non-indigenous sub-cultures and norms or that these serve to exacerbate the problem.


Faced with such challenges Governments and the citizenry have to a large extent switched to panic mode. However to be fair to the governments of the Caribbean no one can honestly deny that most if not all have demonstrated some measure of concern for the youth. However, with very few exceptions their response to the youth development challenges remains very much social-welfarist and ad-hoc in nature. Further in many instances youth development agencies and structures that have been created to manage youth policy and development are inadequately funded and accorded very little importance in governments’ hierarchy. More often than not it is only the sheer commitment and dedication of youth development workers which prevents the total irrelevance and collapse of the youth development architecture.

An examination of some of the responses and initiatives governments and some youth development agencies have adopted will reveal the following.

  • In most jurisdictions National Youth Policies have been formulated but these to a large extent have remained simply statements of philosophical principles and intent.
  • A plethora of Youth enterprise programmes and diverse models and concepts of youth employment schemes have been implemented. Unfortunately many of these are under funded and neither adequately aligned to broader national development nor sustainable livelihood goals. To compound the problem, in most cases there is no credible mechanism that allows for evaluation and adjustment of the impact of these initiatives on the lives of the most vulnerable and marginalized of youth. How then do we determine whether or not these are having any significant impact on youth unemployment and economic empowerment?
  • Convening of Youth Parliaments is now a very commendable initiative. However there is little evidence to suggest that the issues, concerns and strategies discussed therein in any way informs or influences national development agendas.
  • Most countries have adopted various models of youth participation and empowerment, including but not limited to appointment of youth representatives on boards and various committees. However the optimum impact of these initiatives is usually undermined by the disproportionate influence of other entrenched interests, lack of technical support and the inadequacy of youth networks themselves.
  • Commemoration of youth weeks and months is now a common feature of the national calendar in most countries. Though commendable these are not supported by appropriate strategies to ensure sustainability of youth support and active participation around the various themes.
  • There are now many school based initiatives presumably to stem violent and socially deviant behavior among students. Yet many of these initiatives are not evidenced based and suffer from insufficient youth engagement in the planning, execution and evaluation.
  • Reported increased expenditure in law enforcement and penal services. Yet there is crying need for reform of the penal system and juvenile justice systems.
  • Ironically while many governments may have increased investment in sporting infrastructure, in many regions there still is an evident decline in comprehensive sustainable sporting and healthy lifestyles programmes.
  • A plethora of HIV/AIDS awareness programmes exist in the Caribbean. Yet many of these programmes are neither youth driven nor asset based in approach.

Consequently whereas at the micro level there are some success stories however from a macro perspective the impact and relevance of the prevailing youth development strategies remains at best speculative. It must be noted further that whereas some jurisdictions have crafted and approved various evaluation tools and mechanisms to quantify the impact of youth development programmes in the main their application remains non-existent. This may very well be one of the reasons why the prevailing youth development strategy framework is overpopulated with ‘feel good’ programmes and projects which have little or no profound impact on the Commonwealth youth development landscape.

In the circumstances it would appear unless there is a fundamental shift to a transformational paradigm the pursuit of sustainable national and regional will remain but a fleeting illusion- to be pursued but never attained.



The reform imperative

Given the magnitude of the challenges facing the youth development ethos in the Caribbean and indeed the critical significance of a sustainable youth development strategy to a sustainable national development ethos, there is a compelling need for this paradigm shift in the youth development strategy, framework and architecture. Governments, development agencies and youth networks must therefore proceed with due diligence and urgency to adopt a transformational approach to youth development.

Of course this proposed transformational strategy cannot evolve without the appropriate enabling environment. It must be supported and guided by the requisite political, social and economic reforms.

In this regard governments, political parties, civil society and policy makers generally must develop strategic partnerships to urgently revisit existing systems of governance, with particular focus on issues related to prevailing power relationships, the existing political culture, the role of the state and its relationship to civil society.

Equal significance must be accorded to formulation and implementation of economic strategies that empowers the marginalized sectors of society.

The social development agenda must be informed by an ethos of tangible regard for our heritage, cultural identity and; indeed respect for diversity, human rights, human dignity, positive values and social inclusion. A critical success factor is to rescue existing education systems from the brink of irrelevance to become dynamic crucibles of enlightenment, social and political consciousness; and spiritual enrichment.


With specific reference to the elements of this transformational approach these must be considered in two broad spheres.

First there is the macro aspect which speaks to the philosophical foundation and secondly at the micro component which outlines the programmatic agenda.

Macro Strategy

The transformational paradigm demands an evidenced based approach to youth development work. The idea of youth work strategies being informed mainly by myths, emotions and stereotyping must be abandoned. These strategies should instead be based upon empirical data and fact.

Secondly a rights based approach to youth development must be adopted. Policy makers must disabuse their minds of the idea that young people are problems to be addressed and instead embrace the fact that they like any other citizen have a right to sustainable livelihoods; they have a right to advocate their needs, desires, fears and opinions; and they must be accorded appropriate and adequate opportunities to fulfill their needs and aspirations.

Perhaps most importantly the time is overdue for governments and youth development agencies and indeed youth networks to adopt a strategic approach to youth development. This requires the formulation of a strategic youth development plan which includes a clear vision, definable and attainable goals and objectives, precise performance indicators and credible evaluation strategies. The vision and goals of this strategic plan must be aligned to the broader national development goals and clearly articulate a youth-mainstreaming approach in its outlook and operationalisation. Clearly defined implementation mechanisms are critical to ensure policy goals and objectives are translated into action.

Above it all the national and regional youth development strategy should also be informed and guided by credible, internationally acceptable youth development tools and protocols.

In this regard I wish to recommend the Commonwealth Plan of Action for Youth Empowerment (PAYE).


  • The Commonwealth’s framework for cooperation on youth affairs
  • Underpins all work of the Commonwealth Youth Programme
  • A blue-print for government to engage youth and civil society for change – linked to the Millennium Development Goals
  • Embraces youth mainstreaming approach


PAYE’s specific contribution is to stimulate an asset based approach to youth development:

  • Recognising young people as an asset to their societies;
  • Building on young people’s capacities and agency to overcome poverty;
  • Engaging young people in decision-making, as partners in democracy and development.

Also while due cognizance must be taken of the economic and budgetary constraints confronting many Caribbean countries, governments must however demonstrate the requisite political will to allocate adequate resources and increased investments in youth development. In this regard they will be well advised to reflect on the fact that inadequate investments in youth development may contribute to increase risky behavior among young people and that the cost of such risky behavior may very well, present even more complex budgetary constraints and economic challenges.

Finally, there should be no doubt that governments have a moral responsibility to create the enabling environment and assume the vanguard role in ensuring the existence of an effective youth development agenda. However the preferred modality is the engagement and building of sustainable partnerships with the youth networks and other stake holders, including corporate society, the media and other non-governmental agencies to formulate and execute effective youth development strategies.

Micro Agenda

Governments should consider the following:

  • Engage in a process of reforming and re-positioning youth development Ministries and agencies to improve their relevance, efficiency and effectiveness. Perhaps it maybe an appropriate opportunity to engage in a dialogue on the suitability and capacity of existing/traditional Civil Service structures to efficiently and effectively deliver quality youth development services.
  • There is need to develop and engage a competent cadre of trained youth development professionals, youth work volunteers and leaders.
  • At the national and regional levels there is a relative dearth of credible research on emerging trends of youth poverty, youth socialization and behavior. Therefore as part of the reform process consideration must be given to developing and enhancing the research capacity of Ministries, departments and youth development agencies. This will facilitate the development of a credible body of knowledge on youth development which should serve to inform and enhance the policy formulation environment.
  • Many of the traditional tools of intervention are becoming less and less effective. It is therefore necessary to consider, develop, adopt and implement new and more effective tools of intervention. Here the use of popular education and communication techniques should be given prominence.
  • There is also an urgent need to adopt effective evaluation tools and mechanisms to assess and quantify the impact and relevance of adopted programmes and initiatives. This will assist in ensuring more efficient use of scarce resources and greater accountability.
  • There is little evidence that the various youth entrepreneurship and employment programmes as they are presently configured will achieve any sustainable and profound impact on youth unemployment and satisfy youth desires for economic and social justice. Hence it is imperative that a more comprehensive and better coordinated approach be adopted in the execution of these initiatives. Such programmes must of necessity respond to changing global economic arrangements while at the same time providing opportunities to progress from micro to medium and full fledged enterprises and industries. It is also extremely important to explore and exploit the opportunities provided by the rich cultural heritage of these countries.
  • The existing avenues and mechanisms to ensure and facilitate youth participation are mainly ad-hoc and tokenistic in nature. Therefore appropriate legislation and policies must be adopted to ensure that youths are adequately empowered to participate as equals in the various decision and policy making forums and organs of the state.
  • Too much of the vital youth resource is squandered in the abyss of existing penal and juvenile justice systems. Consequently the issue of penal and juvenile justice reform must become a priority youth development goal.
  • Consideration should be given to the establishment of day care centres for at risk youth. These should be safe, holistic environments for young people seeking to escape the influences of risky environments.
  • We must also revisit our mental health systems to reduce the stigma attached to diagnosis and treatment of mental health challenges and ailment.
  • Develop appropriate national and regional systems of youth awards to recognize and celebrate excellence among our youth.
  • Consider the establishment of modern systems of national youth service which links education with apprenticeships, community service and civic responsibility.
  • Develop and implement a comprehensive programme of leadership development for young people. Consideration must be given to incorporating leadership development on the education curriculum.
  • Implementation of appropriate skills development programmes. These should not be limited to the traditional trades and services but should be creatively fashioned and structured to include the development of artistic and creative abilities of young people.
  • There is need for comprehensive policy and action to expand the access to new technologies for expansion of educational opportunities, creation of new business opportunities and increasing space for advocacy and information exchange. An integral component of this strategy must be the transformation of users from merely being consumers to become developers and producers of ICT products and services.

Youth Networks should themselves consider the following:

  • These are in the main ineffective, inefficiently managed and unattractive to significant numbers of youth at risk. This has served to undermine their ability to be effective advocates and representatives of young people. Consequently there is an urgent need to engage in a process of capacity building and re-positioning. In this regard opportunities must be provided to youth leaders to acquire new and cutting edge leadership and management skills and competencies.
  • As indicated above in many countries the majority of youth are indifferent to the existence and functioning of youth networks. Consequently there is an urgent need for these networks to engage in a comprehensive mobilization and recruitment programme. Beyond this their must ensure there is adequate transparency and participation in their policy and decision making process to ensure sustainable youth participation.
  • These networks need to also engage in a process of identifying adequate sources of sustainable funding for administrative and programming functions.
  • Youth networks must also engage in a comprehensive programme of rebuilding community based youth groups and clubs.


The proposals and ideas contained herein are not intended to be a panacea for all the challenges and problems of youth development in the Caribbean. Rather the assumption and expectation is that it will provide the launching pad for a comprehensive re-examination of the youth development agenda and ignite the search for a more strategic and sustainable youth development ethos.

In essence the clarion call is for a paradigm shift from the social –welfarist, ad-hoc approach to a transformational youth development strategy.

Perhaps the major deciding factor between the existing laboratories of despair and hopelessness and the cradles of creativity and empowerment envisioned and desired is the decisiveness with which we pursue this paradigm shift in youth development.

The time is now!



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