People ask me all the time, how do today’s young people, especially those living in the most chaotic and violent regions of the world, find the strength to overcome the enormous challenges and disappointments in their lives? How do they regain their balance, build up their confidence, and imagine a brighter future? There are no simple answers, of course. But we do know programs that give young men and women a sense of empowerment and hope are making a real difference in lives and communities everywhere.  

Meet Hamza, a young Palestinian from the town of Hebron who even with a college degree hadn’t found a job after a yearlong search. Increasingly desperate and disheartened by Palestine’s 44 percent youth unemployment rate, Hamza enrolled in an entrepreneurship training and career guidance course. More important than learning how to start and build a business, he gained the skills he needed to restore his self-confidence. For the first time in his life, he realized he had a future. Driven by his newfound ambitions, Hamza redoubled his efforts and is now the proud owner of a chicken farm. “Step by step,” he says, “it’s possible to reach your goals.”
As a young teenager living in a small coastal town in Morocco, Khadija was alienated from her classmates and discouraged about her future. “I didn’t really have a goal in life; when you live here, you lose hope,” she says. She also feared her conservative, overly protective parents would not let her continue her studies, and instead keep her at home. Impatient for a new start, she enrolled in a life skills class that helped her communicate more effectively and feel more self-reliant. Khadija was soon an accepted member of the group. “I quickly got rid of the complexes that were holding me back,” she says. Her father, too, sees a positive change in his daughter. “She’s growing,” he says. “She asserts herself; before I was scared to let her go by herself into town.” Khadija plans to be a doctor one day—an ambition reflecting her new sense of purpose in life. She’s excited that next year she will make the long walk into town to attend her first high school class.

Adina felt lost and useless. “I didn’t think I had anything to contribute to society,” says this 16-year-old from a rural village in the Kyrgyz Republic. “I wasn’t focused on developing myself, setting goals, or achieving success.” Joining a youth volunteer club changed all that. As part of her community service training she learned how to design and manage projects and partner with local groups. As a result, Adina, along with her team, began improving conditions in their impoverished neighborhood—organizing river clean ups, launching book drives, and tutoring younger students. She was learning by doing. “Volunteering is a school that teaches discipline and makes you matter to society,” she says.

Like millions of their peers around the world, these young people didn’t believe in themselves and had nearly given up on life. Yet as a result of the training they received, they gained the skills and self-awareness they needed to turn a critical corner in their lives. In the process, they learned how to manage conflicts, solve problems, communicate more effectively, respect differences, and adjust to a workplace environment. That they felt hopeful about the future made all the difference.

Ten or 15 years ago, few leaders in the international development world saw the importance of providing young people with these “soft” or “life” skills. Nor was there wide recognition that community service programs taught young people invaluable citizenship skills that encouraged them to lead positive change in their communities.

Today, these life skills training programs are finding far broader support. Whether I’m talking to the CEO of a Saudi company, an HR manager in Mexico, or a philanthropist in New York, more and more people understand that young men and women need to acquire these life and employability skills as much—or sometimes more—than the technical skills that enable them to get and keep a decent job. After all, if you don’t have confidence in yourself and believe life can get better, why stay in school or even bother to look for a job? If you don’t have that sense of agency to realize what you do can make a difference, how can you become an effective community leader? If you haven’t learned to develop long-term goals, how can you have the resilience to keep going after you’ve failed the first or second time?

Over a decade ago, H.M. Queen Rania of Jordan called on global leaders to do more to close the “hope gap” among young people. Never has that message been more relevant. No society can build stability and peace if its youth can’t dream of a better life or feel empowered to change the status quo. Yes, we must redouble our efforts to tackle the enormous economic and social inequities that are at the root of so much dissatisfaction and unrest. But let’s also ensure that millions more young people, of all ages, backgrounds, and cultures, can learn that their lives matter, and that they, too, can shape their own destinies.