There is no group more qualified to lead solutions to our world’s most pressing problems than the communities who directly experience them.

For young people in emerging markets — who are disproportionately affected by issues such as climate change, gender inequity, education disruption, and economic upheaval — this sentiment rings truer than ever before.

But too often, youth programming understates — or outright excludes — the valuable perspectives of the communities it purports to help, leaving young people feeling disengaged and unsupported in their quest to build healthy, meaningful, and productive lives. To drive transformational change and empower a generation of young people, funders must invest in youth-centered programs and then let them lead.

Enabling youth protagonism — where youth are seen as the leaders of their own lives and are capable of designing, leading, and implementing change — is where true empowerment lies. This principle is what guides my work as the president and CEO of EMpower, a foundation that has supported young people in emerging markets for over 20 years by backing programs that advance economic wellbeing; mental health and sexual and reproductive health and rights; and inclusive learning.

Our belief is simple: young people should be treated as the smart, dynamic, and resourceful individuals they are, not as victims or charity beneficiaries who lack agency. This means we must listen to and amplify their varied voices, needs, and desires and encourage them to lead on their terms. It also means improving their access to financial and educational resources so they’re equipped with the tools they need to live their full potential. This is where funders can play a key role.

At EMpower, this ethos guided our creation and longstanding support of the Learning Communities model, a global programming framework now in its tenth year, which champions girls and young women to lead change in their communities. Learning Communities do this by facilitating conversations around the barriers girls and young women face and the solutions they want to see; nurturing their confidence and self-esteem around developing and leading interventions that address these barriers; and connecting them with mentors and community members to enable lasting change. These efforts are led by local organizations who best understand the cultural, social, and economic contexts the girls and young women are navigating — an intentional and key component for success.

Read the full article about empowering young people by Cynthia Steele at The Center for Effective Philanthropy.