Today’s Arab youth are growing up amid sweeping change and profound challenges, including high rates of youth unemployment, concerns over extremism, and income divides. At the same time, increasing numbers of young people are taking development issues into their own hands as social entrepreneurs. In Jordan alone, youth are pioneering clean energy production and improving access to healthcare. Driven by values of inclusion and equity, youth-led ventures are empowering women, creating equal opportunities for the disabled, and educating refugees.

Over seven years, BADIR, a program of the International Youth Foundation and part of its YouthActionNet® global network, has supported 89 such youth-led social ventures, providing young Jordanian change-makers with training, mentoring, networking, and financial support. Our 2017 BADIR Fellows are funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) through a grant from the USAID Civic Initiatives Support Program implemented by FHI 360. Collectively, BADIR Fellows impact more than 247,300 lives annually through both for-profit and nonprofit ventures. Their stories form part of a much larger narrative of entrepreneurially-minded youth creating positive social impact across the region.

What more could they—and others like them—do with the right enabling environment? We recently surveyed our BADIR fellows, all in their 20s or early 30s, to learn more about their motivations and what they need to maximize their social impact. Their answers reveal five key steps society can take to better support the youth social entrepreneurship sector as a whole—in the Middle East and globally.

  1. Invest in meaningful opportunities for young people to learn about and be exposed to social challenges. A majority of survey respondents were inspired to become involved in social change activities from age 16 through their early 20s. Two-thirds report being motivated as a result of direct exposure to a social challenge in their family or community. Fourteen percent became sensitized through volunteering, and five percent though learning about social issues in school. By increasing volunteer opportunities and exposing students to challenges in their communities, more youth are likely to become civically engaged in the future.
  2. Leverage institutions of higher learning to cultivate a generation of socially conscious and entrepreneurial youth. Ninety-four percent of survey respondents had completed undergraduate or graduate degrees. That said, only 30 percent felt strongly supported by their educational institutions in pursuing social change goals. Connecting classroom learning to real-world challenges is one of the best ways to inspire and engage students as change-makers for life.
  3. Provide young people with access to flexible funding, skill-building opportunities, and media exposure. Not surprisingly, fellows cited lack of flexible funding, including loans and grants, as the greatest barrier they face in creating long-term impact. Lack of trust in youth and the need to gain experience and deepen knowledge and skills also pose challenges. Among the skills youth most seek to develop are proposal writing, financial management, marketing, strategic planning, and evaluation—all of which could be cultivated through increased training and mentoring opportunities.
  4. Engage government in creating an enabling environment to support youth. Less than half of survey respondents report receiving “fairly” strong support by institutions in their community. When asked which sectors of society have been most supportive of their work, two-thirds of respondents cited civil society organizations, 18 percent businesses, and 11 percent the media. None referenced public sector support. This aligns with data from IYF’s 2017 Global Youth Wellbeing Index, which found that two out of three youth globally believe their government does not care about their wants and needs. Nation-building begins with establishing trust between government and citizens. There’s much to be gained in providing socially-minded youth with training, start-up capital, conducive policies, and technical assistance.
  5. Build a community to support audacious young leaders. For many aspiring change-makers, pursuing a bold vision and learning on the job can be a lonely endeavor. Fellows place a premium on the peer-to-peer network they gained through BADIR, as well as relationships with prominent stakeholders. For example, Friends of BADIR includes private sector leaders who provide support and mentorship. Such networks are vital to strengthening the youth entrepreneurship sector as a whole.

None of these proposals, rooted in the real-world experiences of youth, is difficult to achieve. Each offers long-term social benefits. When asked what they value most about BADIR, fellows typically respond, “Being part of something larger.” We need to join today’s youth in being part of a much larger vision for a just, sustainable, and equitable future. 

Hafez Neeno is Regional Director, Middle East & Country Director, Jordan.