The New Isolationists?

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I have heard it all too often in youth program circles: “The United States should focus on the challenges right here between our borders. Stop trying to fix poverty conditions in other countries.”

It is tempting to sympathize with this view. It is easy to understand its roots and the anger behind it. Nevertheless, the counter-argument comes easily: “We must do both: foreign aid and domestic. It is in our national interest to invest in youth globally.”

What bothers me is not so much the debate, but the sadness I feel when I hear the new isolationists. I can remember when student movements took to the streets and promoted the idea of a global youth democracy movement. Less grandiose sentiments about the value of linking with one another are routinely expressed in global meetings, such as the last two global Youth Employment Summits.

I feel sad when I learn of hearts going cold and parochialism setting in. As a professor, I feel especially sad when I consider lost opportunities for exchange and interaction among youth workers worldwide.

I recently returned from a week in South Africa, with the help of the Massachusetts-based Educational Development Center, where I had a chance to visit what might be the most interesting employment and training program in the world: the Umsobomvu Youth Fund (UYF). I wouldn’t want the new American isolationists to miss opportunities to learn from the experiences of countries such as this one.

In 1994, the South African people welcomed their first democratically elected government, replacing decades of apartheid-based rule. The post-apartheid governments have recognized the pivotal role that young people must play in rebuilding South Africa. The governments have made youth a priority by creating a National Youth Commission, an Interdepartmental Committee on Youth Affairs and the UYF.

The government announced the creation of a special fund in 1998 to help employ the nation’s youth, and the UYF began operating three years later. UYF’s funding by itself is of interest: It got a large, one-time infusion from a tax on the sale of stock in two state-owned insurance companies. By the time the fund was running in 2001, the arrangement had provided well over $100 million to UYF.

While it has been criticized for slow spending to address the dire conditions of youth unemployment, the fund has put together a cluster of interventions that are remarkable in vision, mission and scope.

One part of UYF focuses on career information and counseling, an amazing 24/7 youth hotline staffed by trained youth workers, a youth card good for discounts throughout the country and advisory “one-stop” career centers.

Another section focuses on skills development, school-to-work efforts and community service, while the third deals with youth entrepreneurship, business development, business finance and vouchers. A “knowledge management” plan holds all this together and encourages linkages, as does an ambitious cross-program tracking system.

Through the UYF and through many colleges and community programs, South Africa has been a leader in youth worker training. There is much for the United States to learn from this sizable enterprise. Trained youth workers, including South Africa’s former ambassador to the United States, Sheila Sisulu, and writer Alan Paton, were leading forces in the battle against apartheid.
Among the numerous goals of the fund, one stands out as especially interesting: to mainstream the youth work sector by bringing in new partners, such as banks.

As in all successful ventures, leadership is central. The UYF’s charismatic leader, Malose Kekana, brings a banking and investment background to his task of promoting these businesslike strategies.

On the quality front, a set of standards for effective practices helps guide UYF work. The standards are inspired by the National Youth Employment Coalition’s PEPnet experience in the United States. More inspiration came from such U.S. programs as YouthBuild USA, which has loaned an outstanding leader to UYF, and from the training program STRIVE. The UYF’s many visitors have included American youth employment expert Alan Zuckerman, who worked for the fund for a year.

We need more of these knowledge transfers between nations. Who loses out if we become isolationists?

Only us.