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  • Writer's picturePeter Saling

To The MSS Class of 2019...

In this blog Peter Saling discusses concerns in how international develop often takes an, “I know better” approach when designing and implementing projects. While the blog focuses on youth, Peter raises a broader concern about how development practitioners and donors often pre-define a solution or outcome that they have decided is appropriate. Although well intended, from a systems thinking perspective, it is not good practice for a project to predefine and deliver a single solution. Rather, systems thinking approaches should catalyze and amplify connections and emerging behaviors that harness a system’s own human (and other) capital to innovate solutions that work in that system’s context. In systems thinking, a country becoming self-reliant is sexy.


In the United States, May and June is graduation season, when America’s youth mark an important milestone in leaving behind known comforts and pursuing economic independence. The occasion is observed with platitudes from community leaders, politicians, business leaders, and celebrities about seizing the moment, the endless opportunities ahead of them, and being the change they want to see in the world. The messages are at once familiar and totally forgettable.

To my knowledge, not one of these speeches encouraged young Americans to be smallholder farmers. President Barack Obama spoke at my graduation in 2010. Can you imagine if someone had told his father his future was limited to smallholder farming?

Yet, this is the future envisioned by donors, development leaders, and programs throughout transitioning economies. Why should the young people of Kenya, Senegal, or Vietnam have their opportunities defined by programs meant to give them those same opportunities for economic independence? How can we, as development partners and implementers, encourage the boundless ambition and creativity of today’s youth?

At the Market Systems Symposium 2019, practitioners and thought leaders from throughout the development community met over three days to discuss the challenges young people face in agriculture, experience in designing and scaling interventions that create opportunity for youth, and how to engage young people as the leaders of transformational change, not those to whom change happens.

In keeping with the tired tradition of the graduation speaker, we arrived at a list. But not a list for young people; rather, a list for the adults in our industry intending to empower them. So to the donors, the developers, the designers, and the doers, these are our development rules for engaging youth in agriculture:

  1. Don’t tell young people their future is only in smallholder agriculture. While a growing global population means the world needs more produce in the future, this does not mean the future needs as many farmers. The role of development practitioners needs to expand the possibilities for young people, not to define them.

  2. Youth are not all the same. Development can’t treat youth as a homogenous group, under which a single treatment will impact everyone the same. Rather, development programs need to reflect the dynamic populations they hope to engage.

  3. Let youth lead the solutions. How many programs expect implementers to “target” young people? Perhaps the best way to engage young people is to offer them opportunity to lead program design and interventions instead of merely being subject to them.

  4. Don’t tell youth to wait their turn. Another common refrain in development programs is the need to develop solutions and systems to support the youth of tomorrow. How about letting today’s young people develop the platforms from which future generations can benefit for sustained growth?

  5. Not all young people are entrepreneurs. The solution to job shortages throughout the developing world is not for everyone to become an entrepreneur, but to develop systems that support entrepreneurial youth so they can employ those for whom self-employment is not desirable.

  6. Youth are rational decision-makers. OK, not all the time and not in every situation, but do you always make the right decision? Rather than being built on the assumption that if only young people had more information they would do the right thing, development programs need to recognize that young people will pursue their rational interests and our job is to encourage them and give them the tools to support them if it fails.

​A recent New York Times article boldly proclaimed, “Millennials ‘Make Farming Sexy’ in Africa, Where Tilling Soil Once Meant Shame.” The article went on to explain how young people in Ghana, driven by technology, social commitment and, yes, profit, are causing a cultural shift around attitudes toward agriculture in Ghana. As development practitioners, let’s expand the opportunities for young people in agriculture, not define them. Let’s bring sexy back.

If that had been President Obama’s message, perhaps I would remember more of what he said.



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