OpEd: We must support young people who dare

By Larry Sacks, Director of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in El Salvador
(This opinion editorial appeared in El Diario de Hoy newspaper on December 16, 2016.
This text was originally written and published in Spanish, the below is a translation.)


Not a single day passes without us reading in the newspapers about another young man killed, either as perpetrator of some act of violence or as a victim. It could be a selective homicide or an innocent kid who was shot on his way to school. We also know that thousands of young Salvadorans risk their lives to try to escape violence and an uncertain future through the dangerous attempt to emigrate irregularly to the United States.  Together, we can help.

During two days in November, more than 20,000 young people from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua were spared violence at the Generation Now Festival (GenNow) and had the opportunity to see that change and a better life in their own country are possible. Sponsored by the Government of the United States through the U.S. Embassy and USAID; Glasswing International; Istmo Music; MTV and private sector partners, the festival featured motivational speakers and high caliber artists who inspired Central American youth to become involved and become agents of change in their countries.

Coming from some communities with the highest rates of violence in Central America, many of these young people face great challenges such as lack of educational opportunities, poverty, family breakdown and violence, which makes it difficult to hope for a better future in their countries. GenNow gave them that hope. We saw the young people take over the slogan “I dare” and make a commitment to dare to transform their lives, communities and countries. The magnitude of this festival is unprecedented in the region.

But now that the music is over, how do we maintain the energy and optimism of these young people? How do we provide the educational and economic opportunities to build a meaningful life right here, in your countries?

Already there are plans such as the three Northern Triangle countries Alliance for Prosperity and Plan El Salvador Seguro that recognize that addressing the needs of youth is key to the security and prosperity of the region. For this reason, USAID projects focus on the youth of municipalities with high rates of violence. We collaborate with the Ministry of Education to extend the school day and offer flexible classes for those who have dropped out of school. Together with the municipalities, we support a network of Outreach Centers for children and young people where they practice sports, learn computer science and work on a life plan with goals for their future. Our vocational training programs provide young people with the skills they need for the job market.

Private sector support in all these projects has been valuable. However, it is time for us all to redouble our efforts. For example, a company, just sponsoring a school or receiving interns from their communities or renovating a public space where young people can participate in healthy and safe activities, can make a difference in the lives of these young people and, ultimately, generate more security and prosperity for El Salvador.

Also, government institutions and organizations working directly with young people need to identify innovative programs where young people are not just beneficiaries but active change agents with opportunities to excel and improve their lives. We do not forget that this is the generation from which El Salvador will get its next great writers like Salarrué, Claudia Lars, Alberto Masferrer and Manlio Argueta; their next great sportsmen like the Magic González, Evelyn García and Agustín Ruiz; and their next great artists like Fernando Llort, Julia Diaz and Rosa Mena Valenzuela. All of them have left an indelible mark that makes every Salvadoran proud.

GenNow showed that young people want alternatives and are willing to dare to change their lives. But this generation cannot do it alone. Let us not give them up to violence and other dead ends. El Salvador and the international community must push them forward. It is our turn to act. Do you dare to join?