Building a Strong, Sustainable Future Requires a Foundation of Dialogue, Empathy and Inclusion

By Pavan Bhatia and Ashok Regmi, Reprinted from the International Youth Foundation

After the clock strikes midnight on January 1st, 2021, people across the globe will have, against the odds, made it through one of the most trying years of the 21st century.

As that hour draws near, practitioners across fields—policymakers, health workers, educators, business leaders, and grassroots changemakers—are anticipating the new year with far more questions than answers. But, as we bid farewell to 2020, one thing should be perfectly clear: the commitment and hard work of individuals to make the world a better, safer, more equitable place is unshakeable.

Thanks in large part to the social innovations brought about by the internet, the world of the 21st century is more connected than at any other time in human history. Of course, there are some pit falls. Too often, individuals and communities find themselves isolated in internet echo chambers and online silos, surrounded only by those that share the same opinions and world views as themselves. Sometimes, they may not know how to discern credible from noncredible information or may be left out entirely due to lack of access.

Nevertheless, the positives outweigh the negatives. Social and geographical borders pose less of a barrier to cultural exchange. The internet has allowed the world to witness—and collectively address—social injustices that would otherwise be restricted to the communities where they happen. The lines between global and local are fading and, more and more, challenges and solutions are shared.

Not surprisingly, young people—politically engaged digital natives who don’t shy away from letting their voices be heard—are using new technology as a powerful, effective tool for expressing opinions and championing local and global change. In the next decade, as the 2030 target date for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals approaches, we must surely capitalize on the agency of young people to shape the future for themselves, and all of us.

We in the development sector must be cognizant of how we can support, equip, and inspire young people to drive change in the 21st century. Below are three approaches that should be considered as we move forward.

  1. Facilitate dialogue to break bubbles and bridge divides. We need to bridge divides by building a sense of belonging and connectedness—especially among young people. In a world where technology can create silos, we must ensure that different worldviews are heard through engaged dialogue. When young people are provided the opportunity to understand differences, they can find common ground. Open, honest dialogue also contributes to upward social mobility by allowing individuals from a variety of backgrounds, with varying interests and skills, to connect and network.
  2. Embrace co-learning to foster collaboration and teamwork. Through the innovative use of peer-to-peer learning and support, gone are the days of isolating learners and penalizing them for working with others. We need to cultivate dynamic learning environments—starting early in a young person’s academic life—by pairing learners and allowing them to work together and cooperate when problem solving. This also means providing them with the tools needed to develop high-level social competency skills—organization, planning, teamwork, and decision making.
  3. Promote empathy as key to how development work is done. Empathy must be regarded and promoted as a key ingredient for community change and development. Finding the win-win proposition of social justice requires that we double down on building opportunities for young people to develop empathy skills. From human-centered designs to kindness campaigns, we have witnessed increasing focus on understanding the “other.” The technological revolution can contribute to building empathy at scale by connecting young people of different backgrounds to share experiences, perspectives, and knowledge. The time is now to go elevate empathy as both an outcome of development work and a critical part of the process. Development organizations should explore and embrace the role technology can play in facilitating empathy-building dialogues.

The future belongs to our youth. But without the proper access to opportunities that will enable them to grow into the empathetic leaders of tomorrow, they will struggle to realize their full potential.

We must be dedicated to ensuring that young people have the platforms they need to strengthen their social competency, celebrate differences while identifying common ground, and ultimately build more resilient communities. Investing in this vision has never been more urgent.

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