Young people at the heart of the (post)Covid-19 response

20 May 2020

‘After several years of hard work, I could finally see my work bear fruits. Because of the virus, we had to stop everything. I hope that my start-up will survive this crisis.’ 

Sinan from Jordan shared his worries with me recently. Yet, despite these challenging times, Sinan and other youngsters remain hopeful and turn to action. We need to invest in their prospects; now more than ever.

The Netherlands increasingly places youth at the heart of its development policy. In February Minister Kaag for International Trade and Development Cooperation launched the ‘Youth At Heart’ Strategy. The overall majority of the population in the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and the Middle East and Northern Africa, our focus regions, is young. This presents serious challenges, but also immense opportunities. Young people stand at the beginning of their lives and have the right to gain skills and knowledge to build a stable future for themselves, their communities, their countries, and the world. Our strategy aims to invest in education and employment and specifically focuses on bridging the gap between the skills acquired, and the demands and opportunities of the labour market. Meanwhile, we want to strengthen the voice of young people in society.

As young people are particularly vulnerable to the measures taken against the COVID-19 crisis, the need to focus on young people has only become more important. As the Netherlands’ Ambassador at large for Youth, Education and Work, I have been talking with young people in our focus regions, in order to grasp how they are coping with the situation in their countries.

The majority of countries have announced temporary closures of schools and universities, which at its peak impacted around 1.6 billion students. The consequences are far-reaching, particularly for the most vulnerable young people and female students, for whom a few months of absence from school could mean the end of their education. As many countries resort to distance learning, the young people I spoke to expressed their worries about growing inequalities and students falling behind in education. “In Senegal, 80 per cent of teachers don’t have the skills to work with digital learning platforms” Christian estimated. Especially in developing countries, there are limitations to distance learning. As Ahmed from Mali put it: “We cannot access digital education as only 10 per cent of our population has access to the internet. How are we supposed to have schooling via TV or radio, every household has multiple children, but only one radio.” 

Their worries are not limited to education. Even before this crisis, the labour market in both Africa and the Middle East had great difficulty generating (decent) jobs for everyone. The first analyses of the COVID-19’s economic impact point out that the virus amplifies youth workforce vulnerabilities. Worldwide, 77 per cent of the employed young people are estimated to work in the informal sector. Moreover, young people are over-represented in sectors suffering from the economic downturn. Sabrine from Tunisia shared with me “companies are allowed to cut our salaries. That is if we are lucky enough to keep our jobs”. Sinan, a young entrepreneur from Jordan told me, “after several years of hard work, I could finally see my work bear fruits. Because of the virus, we had to stop everything. I hope that my start-up will survive this crisis.”

Although they are worried, young people have demonstrated leadership in their communities and countries, often being amongst the first and most active responders against COVID-19 in many ways. The young people I spoke to, have for example set up initiatives to tackle fake news, organized online hackathons to share (innovative) ideas, and started crowdsourcing-initiatives to raise awareness. With society looking towards innovative and digital solutions, it often turns towards youth’s energy and skills. ‘We young people have taken the lead in tackling the Coronavirus, even before our government did. We have the energy and the skills to respond quickly.’ Yasmin from Tunisia said proudly. The hindrances young people face building their future are not limited to challenges in the field of education and work. Too often young people are marginalized or not heard. We need to take young people seriously as partners and leaders; especially now.

Acknowledging the negative effect of this crisis on young people, while witnessing their positive role in their communities merits a continued investment in them. When we ‘build back better’ post Covid-19, we need to continue to invest in the prospects of young people and increasingly work with them as equal partners. Our Youth at Heart strategy aims to contribute to that, and we are happy to have the ILO as our partner and take part in the Global Initiative on Decent Jobs for Youth.

by Tijmen Rooseboom (Special Ambassador for Youth, Education and Work, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands)

This article is part of the Decent Jobs for Youth Blog Series: Youth Rights & Voices. The Blog Series highlights the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on young women and men in the world of work and discusses action-oriented policy responses and solutions. If you would like to comment or contribute, please contact

To bring youth voices to the forefront of action and policy responses, the Global Initiative on Decent Jobs for Youth (DJY) and its partners are conducting a survey on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on youth rights. Participate in the survey now!