Building Youth, Serving Communities -Youth Challenge Guyana: 15 Years and Counting History This Week
By Cecilia Mc Almont
Stabroek News
November 24, 2005

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From Youth Challenge International to Youth Challenge Guyana

Youth Challenge International (YCI) was established in 1989 by a group of past participants of Operation Raleigh who decided to create an organisation which would give the opportunity to youths between 18-25 years to perform community service in remote parts of the world and experience real challenge. The Youths, called Challengers would face four hands-on skills oriented challenges - a challenging selection process, fund-raising, a three-month project focusing on community development, science and health projects. On their return home, they would use their skills in civic action in their home communities. With funds acquired from CIDA'S Youth Initiatives Programme, Guyana was selected as the site for YCI'S first field project in 1990. YCI committed to conducting several co-operative projects over a five-year period.

Youth Challenge Guyana International Ltd. was launched with a Board of Directors drawn mainly from the corporate sector and civil society. For the first three field projects Guyanese challengers were recruited, selected and prepared by a Canadian project management team. However, the selection and preparation of local participants was soon undertaken by the quickly growing pool of local alumni and an active and enthusiastic Board of Directors who also assisted in the all-important task of fund-raising. In 1993, a permanent Youth Challenge Guyana Office (YCG) was established with a past challenger from PG1 as Executive Officer. In 1994, Youth Challenge Guyana replaced Youth Challenge Inter-national Guyana Ltd. Its Mission Statement and Vision remained the same - to facilitate the development of youth and communities in Guyana through meeting the challenges of work, social action and cultural exchange. Young Guyanese would also experience the four challenges.

Strengthening and

Perfecting the Alliance

By the end of 1996, Youth Challenge had implemented ten Projects throughout Guyana. The national office was primarily concerned with recruiting, selecting, and supporting Guyanese youth volunteers preparing to parti-cipate in the projects. Its secondary activity was fund-raising to supplement that of the challengers. It was used to run the office. However, by early 1997, it was clear that YCG lacked the financial and human resources with the necessary skills to effectively carry out its mandate. The two other Youth Challenge national offices in Australia and Costa Rica faced similar problems.

Since the youth challenge programmes depended to a large extent on the capacity and stability of all four partners, YCI as the founding organization, received a grant from CIDA to implement a two-year programme, - Strengthening the Alliance. The goal was to build the stability and the capacity of Youth Challenge's indigenous partner organisations in Guyana and Costa Rica. It also aimed to strengthen and more fully integrate YCI'S International Alliance. To this end an Alliance Council was established.

Under the Strengthening the Alliance programme, YCG received funds to support an expanded office.

During its seven years of activity in different parts of Guyana, Youth Challenge had observed the intensely negative impacts of the structural adjustment programmes on vulnerable groups especially Amerindian youths. YCI therefore sought funding from CIDA to implement a programme, Building Youth, Serving Communities. The goal was to provide some of the broad-based skills necessary for entering the workforce; to promote awareness of health and social issues directly affecting youth and to develop critical life skills. These were to be achieved through the implementation of eight Community-Building Projects in eight remote communities and five regional Youth Skills Summits in regions 1, 2 and 4. The six Youth Skills summits which were implemented in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sport and regional development authorities and were sponsored by donor agencies and private enterprise, ultimately benefited nearly 1,000 youths from the three regions.

A SWOT analysis identified among YCG'S major weaknesses and threats, the high dropout rate among challengers from the time they were selected to the time they actually went on projects, its narrow sponsorship base and that too few Guyanese went on projects. Among the steps it took to build its own capacity was to approach the Japanese government to fund equipment for the office and field programme. A grant of US$50,000 was used to purchase a vehicle and other field equipment. YCG also benefited from a grant from the FUTURES FUND and was identified by its successor the Building Community Capacity Programme (BCCP), to benefit under the new programme. This took the form of equipment and technical assistance to complete and implement an approved Business Plan. Two important suggestions came out of its collaboration with BCCP. Firstly the importance of attracting corporate sponsors was pointed out and secondly, it was suggested that YCG's programmes should be diversified and shorter ones implemented. This might make it easier for young volunteers to be released to participate as challengers.

YCI received funding from CIDA to implement A Youth Internship Programme. Under this programme, young Canadians with skills were sent to work in all the partners' national offices to help bridge the skills gap while local staff were trained. In late 1998, a new proposal Perfecting the Alliance received funding. It made possible the recruitment of Guyanese interns to work for three months with the project management team, three months in the field and three months at the YCG office. A decision was also taken to merge the two offices and institute a new modular programme with three rather than two projects annually from May 2000.

After ten years of existence, the activities of Youth Challenge in Guyana had given nearly a thousand youths from Canada, Australia, Costa Rica and over 150 local youths, who participated in the projects, a rich cross-cultural experience. They also had an opportunity to acquire greater self-confidence, life and work skills and to increase their marketability. It also helped to improve the quality of life of, and empower many youths and women throughout Guyana.

Youth Challenge Guyana in the new Millennium

In concluding an article on Youth Challenge Guyana in 2000, this writer stated; "however the benefits [of YCG's activities] have accrued mainly to our youths in the urban centre. Amerindian youths, for example, have usually been beneficiaries of, rather than participants in the projects and the numbers for challengers} do not really reflect Guyana's ethnic diversity. Not enough efforts have been made to tap into the significantly larger pool of less educated, often functionally illiterate and usually unemployed youths who desperately need the skills youth challenge has to offer. Very little effort has been made to network with other organisations as the source of potential challengers ".

Much the same conclusions, in addition to several others, were drawn in the Assessment of the Challenger Programme" commissioned by BCCP in 2001. That assessment made several recommendations for action. In the four/five ensuing years how many of those suggestions and recommendations have YCG implemented?

Youth Challenge has certainly made significant strides in terms of focusing and reorienting the nature of its programmes and has shown significant flexibility in sculpting those programmes to suit needs identified in the country and in the regions. For example, YCG has largely shifted away from construction projects and its area of operation has also, to a large extent, shifted to the interior regions 1, 2, 7, 8, 9.

In 2001, a High School Challenge programme was launched in five schools with a view to sensitising youth on issues of the environment and health and as a possible source of potential challengers. Unfortunately, after only two years, the lack of funding and interest of some of the youths caused the programme to be suspended. What is significant about this attempt was that the most successful of the five clubs were located in three pilot schools attended by students who were more likely to drop out of school. Today, a significant number of Youth Challenge's peer educators for its HIV/AIDS programmes are drawn from those very clubs. YCG is now involved in two main programmes USAID/Guyana/HIV/AIDS Reduction and Prevention Programme and a Rural Women's Training and Networking Programme aimed at providing for the greater social, economic and institutional empowerment of indigenous women. To date, more than 300 participants, both men and women, have attended the conferences from 6 sub districts of region nine. YCG also recently launched an Employability Programme. It is aimed specifically at unemployed youths between the ages of 15-26. Its purpose is to encourage young people to create new innovative career opportunities.

Undoubtedly, the Guyanese people, in general, and youths in particular continue to benefit significantly from the operations of YCG. However, YCG's promise to give young Guyanese an opportunity to participate in its programmes to help build self esteem and self awareness remains still largely unfulfilled. While many Guyanese youths work as group leaders on projects, as peer educators and volunteers in several areas of activity, over the last four years, of the 318 challengers who have participated in 12 projects only 20 or less than 7% have been Guyanese. This year, only one of the 56 challengers is a Guyanese. Youth Challenge Guyana's biggest challenge therefore remains to make more Guyanese youths participants in rather than beneficiaries of its programmes. Its first task might well be to seriously attempt to implement, despite its human resource and financial constraints, the main recommendations of the 2001 assessment of the Challenger Programme since the few it has implemented have made little difference in its main areas of weakness. But Youth Challenge cannot do it alone, it would only be successful if, as it reaches out to fulfil its mandate, it finds willing and active partners in those private, public and corporate organisations that claim to have the interest of Guyana's youths at heart.