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Activist sees opportunity in capturing the energy of Caribbean youth at forum


Courtesy of Asha-Gaye Cowell

Engaging young people in the future of the Caribbean is a numbers game for Asha-Gaye Cowell. With 60 per cent of the population under the age of 30, she says it’s critical to harness the energy of youth to help address the region’s development challenges.

“Young people have something to contribute to make the Caribbean better,” says the youth activist and development professional from Kingston, Jamaica. She is part of the Youth for Innovation and Resilience Forum—or Youth FIRE Forum—happening at the 54th Annual Meeting of the Board of Governors of the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) being held in Ottawa from June 17 to 20.

Cowell is co-chair of the Future Leaders Network established by the bank, a regional financial institution that helps Caribbean countries finance social and economic development programs. She says the network is intended to honour the CDB’s commitment to ensuring that young people living in the bank’s 19 borrowing member countries are recognized and engaged.

Asha-Gaye Cowell smiles at the camera
Asha-Gaye Cowell is a youth activist and development professional from Kingston, Jamaica.

Credit: Courtesy of Asha-Gaye Cowell

“This is how we are able to contribute actively in terms of actions that are delivered by the bank,” she says. “We have to be able to get the voice of youth incorporated into the policies, strategies and the work that’s being done.”

The Youth FIRE Forum will showcase the innovative capacity-building that is being led by youth, Cowell says. There will be a Youth FIRE Solutions Room, with dialogue on problem-solving for development challenges in the region, which she says will lead to an outcome document.

“A lot of times you have a lot of talk, but not an outcome,” she explains. “We want to ensure that youth are able to contribute their voices in an important space.”

Cowell has a passion for international development, and she’s done work in fields including climate change as well as crime and violence prevention. She calls youth leadership in the region “the missing link that we don’t often pay attention to.”

She sees challenges related to the high numbers of youth in the Caribbean, including unemployment and especially underemployment. This has led to “brain drain”, with young people seeking opportunities elsewhere, as well as social problems including risk-taking tendencies among youth.

“We have a lot of exuberance that is available, but not necessarily tapped into,” comments Cowell. Her own community in Kingston has a tendency to be volatile, she says. In 2016, she played a pivotal role in bringing young people together through community development organizations and established a performing arts company to engage and redirect them. This, among other collaborative community efforts, brought crime levels there to zero that year, she says, after record crime rates over the previous years.

The Future Leaders Network is brainstorming initiatives to propose to the CDB that focus on economic development and entrepreneurship for young people, says Cowell. This could include a special fund to support a business incubator for youth, for example in areas such as agribusiness. “We’re looking at projects that are youth-centric, youth-beneficial and have long-term sustainable and exponential benefit regionally.”

Cowell says the annual meeting in Ottawa is an opportunity to gather the voices of young people from across the region and to connect with youth organizations in Canada.

“It's going to be very solutions-oriented, very innovation-oriented and not just a talk shop,” adds Cowell. She says the resulting outcome document will become “something that is actively submitted to the bank as a deliverable that will be implemented.”

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