The Poverty Challenge in a New Millennium – Defining Roles for Youth and the Next Generation of Leaders

Shamillah Wilson, 2005

The World Bank Institute recently held a global e-conference with more than 1200 youth participating from 100 different countries to discuss strategies for successful poverty reduction involving the ideas and energy of young people. The objective of the e-conference was to capture the views of young people on the importance of building sustainable development with a new kind of leadership and in turn alleviating poverty. These ideas will be shared with key decision makers at the Shanghai conference in May 2004. Shamillah Wilson was a Commentator for part of the discussion and shares some of her insights from the process.

Reinventing Leadership for the 21st Century

In the current world climate, young people are asking “Do we lack leaders? How does leadership impact on poverty eradication? Why do we need to re-invent it?” As a starting point, participants acknowledged that leadership is vital to addressing the issues we are facing today, and that anarchy is not necessarily a sustainable solution. Reinventing Leadership for the 21st Century would mean leadership that prioritises human security, i.e. sustainable development, social justice, human rights, gender equality and democracy. It would include a value system that places people’s welfare at the centre and where power is viewed as expanding energy not as a limited commodity in the capture of the few and played out at the expense of the many.

Some of the pillars of leadership are good governance, accountability, responsibility (power) and transparency. Participants also highlighted that much emphasis is placed on individual leadership. This is important. However, there is a need to explore the concept of collective leadership, collective visioning and collective problem-solving.

Who are the leaders being referred to? Reference was made to the government level, the corporate sector and civil society (those organised in society to tackle certain issues or causes). Some of the challenges identified included: What are the roles of the different sectors for achieving ‘leadership of the 21st century’? How do these different sectors interact? In the context of a world without borders, what would be the nature of these different sectors at the different levels – nationally, regionally and globally – and how do they remain accountable to society. Currently, there is more influence from the global to the regional and national – how can this be shifted to ensure the reverse, – where the influence is from local (national) to regional and global?

Where do young people fit into the leadership paradigm? How do we get young people into all the sectors mentioned? And once we get them there – how do we support them to be effective and accountable? First of all young people need to be recognised as agents of change, not recipients. Secondly, mechanisms need to be instituted to ensure that at the national or regional levels young people are part of the decision-making process to enable them to conceptualise and realise their visions for society.

What are the key challenges that poverty presents to young people?

Poverty has different manifestations, patterns and causes in different regions, countries and cultures. Lack of job opportunities, lack of access to government services (health etc.) and lack of access to adequate and appropriate education and training are the most common features of poverty. The cycle of poverty is deepened by other challenges that have their roots in poverty and reinforce it (i.e. violence, unsafe sex, vulnerability to STI’s and STD’s among others). Furthermore, certain groups within society are even more vulnerable because of the conditions created by poverty, such as women and the disabled.

Searching for solutions and harnessing the potential of young people

There are many different perspectives on how to solve the challenges presented by globalisation. Many prioritise economic solutions while others prioritise social solutions. The solution may ultimately be a complex mixture of approaches.

Globalisation does provide an opportunity to harness unity and solidarity in efforts to make the world a more just and secure for all people, through a restructuring of global relationships that responds to the growing interdependence of the world’s nations and people.

What is the relationship between poverty alleviation and leadership? The two processes are critically linked.  At the level of level of leadership, effective policies are needed to combat poverty and create opportunities for young people. Leadership should be held accountable to create the enabling environments that address the problems of society and this should not only extend to developing policies, but to ensuring the political will to implement them and allocating the necessary resources to do this.  On the other side of the equation, youth leadership and participation (strategic needs) should be fostered, but the process needs to address basic needs such as food, peace and health. The process should recognise that youth in any context are not a homogenous grouping and it must take into account their different realities, i.e. gender, race, economics etc. – because to each of them poverty alleviation means different things. The ultimate goal is a situation where people are locally constructing strategies to tackle poverty (being creative and innovative) and these would take into account resources, capabilities, skills and situation. The key is to get people to a point where they are able to start building their own responses.

Strategies to address youth poverty and leadership

Some of the key strategies to address the above were:

  • Foster entrepreneurship through micro-credit possibilities. Increasing income and employment opportunities for young people is an important element but not a solution in
  • Facilitate access to information. Illiteracy, language, location are some of the issues that impact on access to information about opportunities. The possibilities to access information will impact on their participation and leadership in constructing alternative strategies to poverty
  • Mentorship – support from other individuals and organizations to learn about good governance, new opportunities and education on several topics about poverty reduction.


Virtual e-conferences are becoming a common tool to engage a broad range of participants in important discussions. What is important to remember is that although many more people have access to technology, the constituencies who are still disadvantaged in this area, are probably the voices that need to be heard the most. A young woman from Ethiopia, took on this challenge and facilitated discussions in her community concurrent to this e-conference; feeding her consultations into the process. This is one of the innovations that young people are bringing to the table as they engage with the issues facing society. However, it is important not to dismiss the potential to form networks and groups that can communicate and exchange information of these kinds of strategies as they deal with the contextual specificities of poverty.

From the contributions in this e-conference it is clear that there is no blue-print for addressing poverty alleviation. What is needed is to re-invent leadership, to re-visit existing strategies and to think outside of the usual responses to create effective and comprehensive approach to combat poverty and facilitate growth. Young people clearly have many perspectives and visions that could make a valuable contribution to not only leadership but to the issues at hand.

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