Empowering People, Developing Nations

2017 World Population Day

Contributor: Michelle McKenzie

Economic development and nation building require many things, but empowering women and youth are paramount. In my work with youth groups in Niger as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I worked with young people to help them analyze the effects of population growth on family life, society and their country’s development. With one of the highest fertility rates in the world, Niger faces many development challenges, including scarcity of water, environmental stresses and religious extremism. A rising population adds to these factors, however young people must be involved in the discussion of family and the implications of population on the development prospects in that country. This is not an easy task—cultural norms in Niger tend to result in higher birth rates, over 7 children per female. In my approach to population education, I used a multi-disciplinary and innovative curriculum to help young people critically analyze the consequences of higher birth rates, the decision-making power of women when it comes to growing families, and alternatives to cultural norms.

The future of development is rooted in youth and women — we must empower them when it comes to rising populations.

The youth population in Niger is staggering with nearly 50% under the age of 15.  With such a youthful population in Niger and in much of Africa, youth is where a critical mass of change can occur if resources and support are effectively leveraged to target this population. Young people Africa are malleable and willing to learn, grow and adopt and develop new innovations that can move Africa and the world forward.

The U.S. African Development Foundation (USADF) supports young people are who starting or expanding social enterprises, creating new jobs and local economic opportunities. Many have already made significant strides to grow their businesses and create impact in their communities.  In the first round of youth-led enterprises funded in 2014, 68.4% attracted follow-on investments. USADF empowers people to be the drivers of their own development, using small catalytic capital to transform youth enterprises and helping strengthen the role of youth in the process of developing nations.

The future of development is rooted in youth and women. Empowering these two demographics should be a priority in every development strategy. Data on poverty dynamics in Bangladesh demonstrate that women's empowerment is a powerful predictor of whether a household escapes poverty and remains out of poverty versus remaining or falling back into poverty[i]. Since women play such a significant role in a family’s resilience and poverty alleviation, it is important they have decision-making power. Impactful and transformational development cannot occur if youth and women are not fully integrated and empowered as change agents in the development process.

Empowering underserved populations as change agents in their lives and communities is at the core of USADF development practice. As we celebrate World Population Day, we must keep at the forefront of our minds the actions necessary to leverage the youth boom and make them the drivers of their own development.


Michelle McKenzie served in Niger as a Community and Youth Education Volunteer from 2007-2009 where she worked with the Secondary School Inspection in Zinder.  Michelle has 12 years of development experience and has done work on Africa for the past 10 years.  Michelle worked for 5 years in Programs at the United States African Development Foundation (USADF) and managed projects in Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Senegal, Nigeria and Botswana. She now works in the Knowledge, Learning and Development division at USADF, where she is responsible for driving actions that enhance program effectiveness and promote better knowledge management and organizational learning. Michelle is a McNair Scholar and David L. Boren Fellow and has a Master’s Degree in International Development from American University.


[i] IFPRI 2016