“We are approaching the year 2015 and with that the famous Millennium Development Goals,” said Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, Archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras. “One of [the MDGs] is reducing poverty in the world by half,” he said, speaking in New York on Sept. 24. “Unfortunately the reality tells us that poverty is increasing, and many of its victims are young people.”
Cardinal Rodriguez said that one fifth of the people in the world are between 18 and 24 years of age. He called that vast population “an amazing pool of talent we must tap into if we are to relieve poverty in our lifetime.”
He listed child labor and the use of child soldiers as among the foremost problems affecting the world’s young people, but primary among them, he said, was unemployment. According to the cardinal, owing to the current new world “disorder” arising out of the global economic crisis, 75 million young people worldwide are unemployed, four million more than in 2007. Even in much of the economically developed world, youth unemployment reaches nearly 30 percent, he said. “In Spain and Greece,” Cardinal Rodriguez reported, “youth unemployment is now over 50 percent.”
Cardinal Rodriguez was among the presenters at a symposium on youth as agents of change in combatting global poverty, a preliminary meeting to the 77th General Assembly gathering this week at the United Nations. The event was sponsored by the Salesians as part of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Don Bosco and co-sponsored by Caritas Internationalis and the U.N. missions of Honduras and the Holy See. Cardinal Rodriquez is a Salesian and the President of Caritas Internationalis.
He said, “It is strange that in a world that has such advanced technology to help people find their way, such as the GPS, the society and the young are so disorientated.” At the heart of the problems confronting youth, Cardinal Rodriguez said, was the lack of access to an adequate education. The state of education in Latin America, the cardinal said, was woeful. In many countries in the region, the formal schooling of most children ends at the fifth grade.
“Caritas urges governments to offer material help to families, schools and other educational institutions so that they can live up to their duty to educate,” Cardinal Rodriguez said. “No one should be denied the access to education, and parents and children must always be allowed to choose the most suitable education systems for their children.”
Young people without work and access to education sometimes turn to the streets, drug gangs and violence, a problem that he noted was particularly acute in Honduras. Others choose to make a precarious migration to the north. “Five-hundred million young people in the developing world work in the agricultural sector,” said Cardinal Rodriguez, struggling to survive not only the whims of nature but the caprice of market shifts and the agricultural subsidy policies of the affluent world. Caritas, he said, supports these young people as they try to stay on the land.
“In this world of economic migration, governments must also help families separated by the need to earn a living to reunite,” he said. “This is one of the biggest challenges we are facing in Latin America nowadays.
“Everyday thousands of young people are making the journey to cross the border from Mexico into United States,” said Cardinal Rodriguez. “We must make changes in the way our global economy functions,” he said. “We must create jobs and support small farms. This means radically rethinking our casino capitalist system.”
The cardinal’s comments on violence as a driver of emigration from Honduras seemed to provoke Honduran President Porfirio Pepe Lobo, who offered some unscripted remarks on the need to change hearts and spirits as much as the need to change political structures. Honduras was, he said, a victim of geography and forces beyond its control, especially in regard to what has become a plague of drug-related violence. The nation, he said, is trapped between “the demand in the north and the producers in the south.” Reducing the level of violence within Honduras thus depended on a conversion among the people who chased the easy money of the drug business in Central America and the generators of the demand in North America, who pursue their taste for drugs with little regard for the impact the trade has on the daily lives of the average Honduran.
Another speaker at the event was Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Vatican’s secretary for relations with states. Archbishop Mamberti noted the “increasing interconnectedness” of contemporary global society owing to social media and advancing communications technology. Young people anywhere in the world, he said, are “able to learn about the joys and struggles of other young people wherever they may be and to play an active role in creating greater global solidarity,” a capacity that can transform us, as Pope Benedict said in “Caritas in Veritate,” from neighbors into “brothers and sisters.”
“Young people represent a unique resource as a new generation of leaders who are aware of the concerns and challenges facing humanity and have an instinctive ability to contribute to the global common good,” he said. It is up to global elders to see that the young have the skills and education that they need in order to make the contribution they are capable of making. But education should do more than prepare them to leave their mark on society or begin a family, it should “provide them with the ethics and morality needed to be responsible members of society,” Archbishop Mamberti said. “The financial crisis is a reminder that an economy without ethics or a government without morality gives way to utilitarian and individualistic demands of society at the expense of the common good.”
Cardinal Rodriguez lamented that the world’s young people do not have access to power and are “excluded from influencing the debates which affects their lives.” An irony since “the transformation of societies often begins with the zeal and enthusiasm of young people who challenge us to see things in a new way.” The adult world of politicians and bureaucrats and church leaders need to learn how to listen to “their aspirations, their dreams, challenges and struggles” and develop mechanisms that allow young people to participate. “‘Nothing for us, without us,’ say the young.”
He said, “Finding pathways for young people to lead healthy and productive lives is critical to reducing violence, contributing to economic recovery and creating alternatives to economic migration.” And listening to the young, according to Cardinal Rodriguez, is “a primary duty for society as a whole for the sake of building a future of justice and peace.”