Just a few weeks ago, U.S. President Barack Obama held a Town Hall with youth from ASEAN member nations as part of his Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative. I was delighted that President Obama selected Cambodian delegate Soukim Lay to pose the very first question. She asked, “What was your dream when you were in your 20s, and did you achieve it?” In response, President Obama described how he started out as a community organizer ensuring people in his community received job training and help in getting a university degree, and he concluded by saying, “I think the most important thing for all the young people here is to realize that you really can have an impact on the world.”
The President’s story really resonated with young people in Cambodia. Many of them left comments on the Embassy’s Facebook page expressing an eagerness to contribute their own ideas and energy to improving the lives of others in their communities, while several readers sent me questions regarding expanding opportunities for young people. One question by Ousakphea really struck me in particular. He wrote, “People like to say that the youth are the leaders of tomorrow, but I want to know how can we become empowered to also be the leaders of today?”
Empowering youth is critically imperative in Cambodia given that nearly 70 percent of the population is under the age of 30.This demographic, which experts call a “youth bulge,” is a potential driver of economic and social progress in the country, but it is also a potential challenge to stability and security. As an official in India recently said, the youth bulge will be a dividend if we empower our young, but it will be a disaster if we fail to put in place a policy and a framework where they can be empowered.
Young people can be powerful agents for good in their communities. They possess the potential to transform society and find solutions to the challenges that face not just Cambodia, but also the region and the entire world. To play positive roles, however, young people must be informed, active participants in their societies – economically, civically, politically, and socially – but this will only occur if the needs and aspirations of the youth are more fully recognized.
To help me understand the concerns and perspectives of Cambodia’s young people, I formed a Youth Council almost as soon as I arrived in the country more than two years ago, and I meet with this outstanding group of young leaders every month. From my discussions with them, it is clear that having good employment opportunities is a top youth concern given that an estimated 300,000 young Cambodians enter the job market ever year. Young people are three times more likely to be unemployed than older people, and they are finding that, even with graduate degrees, they may not have the skills that the marketplace is seeking.
The Youth Council isn’t just for talking about problems, however; it’s about empowering the members to find solutions to challenges. To address their concerns about employment, the Youth Council created an internship program in partnership with the American Chamber of Commerce in Cambodia that provides qualified Cambodian university students with on-the-job training and work-related skills to prepare them for future employment. Since the program began last year, it has placed dozens of interns with leading companies. And the Youth Council hasn’t stopped there. The members are also driving the development of innovative action plans on a range of other topics, including civic engagement, education, and environmental protection. By collaborating to create positive changes in their society, these motivated young people are serving as role models for their peers and demonstrating what youth can accomplish when they are empowered and supported.
Of course Cambodia’s government and politicians also have a vital role to play in creating the conditions for the country’s young people to thrive. New programs like vocational schools and apprenticeships are needed to better prepare and train the youth so that they have the skills needed in today’s highly competitive global workplace, while access to job search assistance would help them get matched up with appropriate employers. Meeting these challenges requires the full support of Cambodia’s political establishment, so I urge both of the major political parties to work together and listen to the concerns and ideas of young people in order to open up doors of opportunity for all Cambodians.
The energy, creativity, and optimism of Cambodia’s youth are inspiring and give me tremendous hope for the future of this great country. But it is incumbent on the leaders of today – in government, civil society, business, and education – to mentor and to cultivate the next generation. It is only through partnership that we can equip young people with the skills, resources, and networks they need, while also empowering them to be agents of change in their communities. Cambodia can’t solve the challenges it faces– things like climate change, strengthening human rights, and boosting economic growth – without the full participation of its young citizens, so it is critical that we all work together to engage them as partners and listen to their ideas, concerns, and aspirations.
Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to answer your important questions. Please continue to send me your questions at AskAMBToddPP@state.gov and leave comments on my blog at http://blogs.usembassy.gov/todd.
- Editor’s Note: this opinion piece originally appeared in the Cambodia Herald