Canada’s major international development agencies focus on the most needy, particularly women and children, in the poorest communities and in the developing world. They are good at it. They are also very good at crisis intervention — whether the emergency is caused by floods, other natural disasters or famine. They have major presence on the ground and can move quickly. Our government uses and supports their expertise and presence. They are heavily donor supported.

This laudable focus leaves a gap. Few have paid attention to ambitious young people in these countries, who often have some secondary education but meagre job opportunities. With developing tech literacy and increasing access to cellular technology, this connected generation is the force behind the Arab Spring and other social movements — some dangerous, some positive.

In Africa, over 40% of the population is between 15-29. The “youth bulge” in less developed countries has peaked, at the same time as the arrival of what the World Economic Forum calls the Fourth Industrial Revolution: a digital movement that shapes our economic, social and political realities. The revolution can either exacerbate tensions related to inequality, disappearing jobs and social unrest or be harnessed to create hope and opportunity. The impact of this revolution is most evident among the world’s youth. Digital technology enables a wave of grassroots movements, social innovations, widespread networking and amplified youth voices.

The United Nations is paying attention — major attention. In 2014, it laid the groundwork for the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals. Various UN agencies are now fully engaged in trying to solve the global youth unemployment crisis, which affects over 75 million youth. “(The United Nations Industrial Development Organization) is committed to harnessing the potential of youth and women entrepreneurs, as they build the backbone of successful, inclusive and sustainable industrial development,” Li Yong, head of UNIDO stated. “By applying innovative business ideas, youth and women can address prevailing social and economic challenges, including unemployment and economically driven migration.”

Over 15 years ago, I met with a small group of like-minded people, including David Johnston, then president of the University of Waterloo, and came up with the innovative idea to deliver development assistance to opportunity-starved communities by training and engaging local young people to teach information and digital technology and entrepreneurial skills to youth and women in their own communities. The Ottawa-based Digital Opportunity Trust’s (DOT) successful youth-led movement is now demonstrating how it offers an entirely new model of international development and represents a proven force for change. Over ten years, DOT’s approximately 4,000 trained “interns” have taught over one million young people IT and business skills in sub-Saharan Africa

The willingness of companies like Cisco Systems, Google and IBM to support our work and the major support we have received from Global Affairs Canada through its Partnerships in Development Innovation Branch lead me to believe that Canada can be a world leader in doing just what the UN is suggesting. In making youth entrepreneurship a new priority, development groups can have several areas of focus: women, digital technology, innovation and partnerships.

Across the globe, women are underrepresented in digital participation. While the Internet is becoming increasingly accessible, a lack of digital skills and low rates of knowing how to take full advantage of mobile devices) prevent many women from harnessing its full potential. Prioritizing women’s empowerment and rights begins with policies that recognize women as important agents of change within developing nations. Our staff in Africa and the Middle East identify three support areas necessary for women’s economic empowerment: confidence building, skills training and exposure to networks and resources. Digital technology can address these areas at scale.

Canada can be a leader in promoting digital technology as a key driver for facilitating economic growth and social change in developing nations and marginalized communities — and youth are the key. Equipped with mobile phones and a hunger for change, youth across Africa and the Middle East represent a powerful force for economic development. Conventional development assistance, too often focused on numbers and bricks and mortar, and not depth of impact, must leave space for innovation, risk and new directions. We must promote a more holistic approach to innovation. Innovation networks and platforms take years or decades to build, so donors should move away from funding individual projects to funding system-based initiatives with longer-term investments. Our Digital Livelihoods grant from Global Affairs is unique in that it provides for research and innovation-based renewal of the Digital Opportunity Trust model. For instance, we are currently working on a more widely available internet based teaching tool.

In the digital age, public-private partnerships have great value in promoting innovation and accelerating economic growth in developing countries. Canada is a natural to take the lead as the convener of public, private and nongovernmental organization stakeholders in both Canada and recipient countries, to bring new approaches to persistent problems and to articulate value propositions that will underpin new partnerships.

By embracing innovation and risk, focusing on the underutilized talent, energies and enthusiasm of youth, promoting technology, teaching entrepreneurship and launching new networks and partners, Canada can champion new approaches to the persistent problem of youth unemployment.

Photo: Digital Opportunity Trust

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Janet Longmore
Janet Longmore is CEO and Founder of Digital Opportunity Trust (DOT). She is a recipient of the CATA Alliance Sara Kirke Award for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and recognized as a Trailblazer and Trendsetter by the Women’s Executive Network Top 100 Women in Canada. Janet is recognized by the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship and as a Senior Ashoka Fellow. In 2016, Janet was decorated with a Meritorious Service Cross by the Governor General of Canada.

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