Many countries around the world are struggling with the ‘how to’ in implementing effective policies and interventions to address the multitude of challenges facing young people today, particularly the poor and marginalised who are generally out of school and out of work. From high levels of youth unemployment to increasing rates of alcohol and drug abuse, teenage pregnancy and growing rates of new HIV/AIDS infections, these challenges represent enormous economic and social costs to society.
As a country, we are no different from the rest of the world in addressing these challenges efficiently and effectively. Promoting youth service as a strategy for youth and national development offers a meaningful and sustainable solution to these challenges.
While there is no silver bullet to address the triple challenge of poverty, inequality and unemployment, it is important to consider effective weapons of mass development such as the national youth service.
Many countries have made use of their national youth service programmes to build decent houses, fight HIV/AIDS and improve literacy.
Youth service programmes provides an opportunity for young people to address social ills in their communities while gaining valuable skills, assuming responsibility, learning a work ethic and interpersonal skills.
Through volunteering, youth become part of a national solution and are able to identify strategies to alleviate problems in their communities.
Youth service is often defined as a range of activities that enable young people to participate in civic life for community and self-benefit. The range of youth service programmes can span from formal service through structured programmes in exchange for minimal or no monetary compensation to informal service, which is often the result of an ethic of service to others that is passed on through families, schools, civic organisations and popular culture.
Fundamentally, youth service is about ensuring that young people are at the forefront of promoting development in their communities. Youth should not be regarded as victims or burdens to society but rather as vital assets in promoting development and delivering services. Youth are agents of change and youth service programmes such as the National Youth Service programme run by the National Youth Development Agency (NYDA) helps to empower youngsters to play an active role in improving their lives and that of others.
Investing in programmes that promote youth service can have many returns. In fact, national youth service is an effective strategy for youth and national development. In the past we have often debated whether to legislate National Youth service or not.
However, a better option may be to mainstream youth service into all aspects of society so that all government departments, private sector, labour and community organisations start to think more about developing and implementing youth service programme that coincide with their day-to-day work.
Mainstreaming youth service is critical to the country’s development agenda and therefore every department should develop and implement youth service programme. The NYDA currently implements the YouthBuild Youth Service programme in partnership with the Department of Human Settlements, which allows young volunteers to be involved in building and maintaining community amenities and RDP houses.
Theses volunteers are involved in an infrastructure development project for the period of one year and then receive certified training in bricklaying, carpentry and electrical work. Many youth exit this programme and gain employment as artisans, while others start their own businesses. It is therefore imperative that other government departments start considering similar youth service programmes for young people to participate in different aspects of development.
Mainstreaming youth service offers many returns to the individual, the community and society as a whole. One of the most important advantages is the value it provides to the participant in the form of valuable experience, knowledge and skills that will facilitate the transition into paid employment. In this way, being part of a youth service programme can improve a young person’s ability to successfully make the transition from school to work. Whether acquiring skills through on-the-job training the will serve their in the future careers or simply adapting to the workplace environment, service can help young people be absorbed into the open labour market. Therefore enhancing the overall employability of youth.
Youth service also provides constructive alternatives to risky behaviour and can provide a means for reintegrating out-of-school and unemployed youth. These groups are at a much greater risk of behaviour that is harmful to themselves and their communities. A sense of hopelessness from being out of school or out of work leads many people into a life of crime, social unrest or alcohol and drug abuse. These programmes provide a structured environment while reducing the space and time to think about risky behaviour.
Participating in youth service programmes empowers young people to become active citizens in addressing a wide range of community needs. Many young people are actively involved in cleaning up their communities, tutoring and mentorship or particular forms of social work. This helps in positioning young people as active agents for community development as opposed to passive recipients or being part of the problem.
The programmes can also serve as cost-effective tool for addressing a wide range of development priorities. With limited budgets and staff, they can be used to mobilise and organise young people to build infrastructure, fight HIV/AIDS, improve literacy rates and facilitate green economy interventions foo protecting the environment. Decisive measures must be taken to mainstream youth service in order for the development of local communities and society as a whole.
Opportunities to volunteer are plentiful and youth can actively contribute in the various fields they find themselves in. Young South Africans need to take more of interest in youth service while on the other hand more structured opportunities need to be created to help them develop the skills, knowledge and values necessary to become productive members of society.
This article was written by The National Youth Development Agency and first appeared in the New Age newspaper.