US programs to support Caribbean youth

U.S. President Barack Obama stops to greet members of the audience during a town hall meeting at the University of the West Indies, Thursday, April 9, 2015 in Kingston, Jamaica.
Associated Press / Pablo Martinez Monsivais

On his short visit to the Caribbean last Thursday, United States President Barack Obama launched the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative (YLAI), aimed at expanding opportunities for emerging entrepreneurs and civil society activists.

Building on the success of the President’s young leader initiatives in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, the White House said YLAI –launched at a town-hall meeting at the Mona Campus (Jamaica) of the University of the West Indies – will “incubate and accelerate” the work of young business and civil society leaders from Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States.

It said YLAI will provide 250 fellowships each year to enable participants from the United States and the region to develop joint business and civil society initiatives.

The preponderance of the fellowships will take place at universities, incubators, and non-governmental organizations across the United States, while follow-on exchanges will send Americans to Latin America and the Caribbean to continue the collaboration.

YLAI fellows will receive ongoing support through a continuum of networking, mentorship, and investment opportunities, said the White House, noting that 58 percent of the population in Latin America and the Caribbean is under 35.

Despite important economic gains over the last decade, the U.S. said significant challenges – including limited access to jobs, capital and advanced educational opportunities, and the availability of illicit employment opportunities – hold many youth back from reaching their full potential.

“YLAI will help address the opportunity gap for youth, especially women, by empowering entrepreneurs and civil society leaders with the training, tools, networks, and resources they need to transform their societies and contribute more fully to economic development and prosperity, security, human rights, and good governance in the hemisphere,” the White House said.

It said building linkages between young leaders across the hemisphere is a central objective of the initiative.

Through its fellowships, the White House said YLAI aims to foster over 50 formal business and civil society partnerships each year between emerging entrepreneurial and civil society entities in Latin America and the Caribbean with their counterparts in the United States.

As part of the President’s Spark Global Entrepreneurship initiative, YLAI will contribute to the United States’ global goal of generating US$1 billion for emerging business and social entrepreneurs by the end of 2017, by helping fellows attract new support, investments, and in-kind resources for their business or organization each year, according to the Obama administration.

“For startup businesses, social enterprises, and civil society organizations, this infusion of funding, resources, and support will play a critical role in enabling their development, expansion, and sustainability,” it said.

The U.S. said the fellowship will include six weeks of training, immersion at an incubator, accelerator, or civil society organization, and a summit in Washington, D.C. to facilitate mentoring, networking, and investment opportunities.

The summit will provide participants with the opportunity to showcase their initiatives and attract new investments, learn from others, network with leading figures in their field, as well as hear from top business, government, and civil society leaders, it said.

Additionally, the White House said YLAI will provide participants returning to their countries and communities with access to virtual resources, training, mentoring, and, most importantly, platforms to continue their collaboration, disclosing that the first class of 250 fellows will begin in 2016.

Washington said YLAI will commence in 2015 with a pilot program involving 24 participants from Latin America and the Caribbean, including Cuba.

The pilot program will focus on the creation and expansion of business and civil society initiatives that utilize technology by embedding participants in incubators and accelerators across the United States.

The US said participants will work on new technological applications that their host company or organization uses or seeks to develop.

American participants will also have the opportunity to travel to their counterparts’ countries as part of the pilot program.

The White House lamented that there remains a significant need in Central America and the Caribbean for youth to access high quality education and vocational training.

Through US$68 million in new funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Department of Labor, and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), the United States said it is expanding education, training, and employment programs for youth throughout the region.

Starting this year, USAID will invest US$35 million in a new higher education program designed to strengthen the capacity of technical training institutions in the region to provide market-relevant training for disadvantaged populations in Central America and the Caribbean.

The U.S. said this program builds on lessons learned from the US$50 million initiative Scholarships for Education and Economic Development Program, a 2009 Summit of the Americas initiative, which provides scholarships to marginalized individuals for training opportunities in the United States.

“These new efforts build on a strong foundation of United States’ support to and engagement with the region’s youth,” the White House said. “They also complement American programs working to advance the frontiers of entrepreneurship across the hemisphere.

“The President’s 100,000 Strong in the Americas initiative has helped to substantially increase the number of educational exchanges between the United States and countries in the region,” it added.

It said the number of students from across the Americas, including the Caribbean, coming to study in the United States has increased by over 13 percent since the start of the initiative.

The White House said the number of Americans studying in the hemisphere has risen by more than 12 percent in that time.

“The 100,000 Strong in the Americas initiative will help ensure that our region is the most competitive in the world, because of its ability to reach across borders to solve common problems and find new opportunities,” it said.

The Small Business Network of the Americas, launched by the President Obama in 2012, supports the establishment of small business development centers (SBDCs), incubators, and other community-based centers where entrepreneurs can get help to grow their business.

To date, the United States said it has assisted governments, universities, and local partners in creating 68 SBDCs, and 102 more are planned by 2016.

Obama launched the Women Entrepreneurs in the Americas (WEAmericas) at the 2012 Summit of the Americas. WEAmericas leverages public-private partnerships to encourage inclusive economic growth in the Western Hemisphere.

The White House said the initiative is reducing barriers and increasing opportunities for women entrepreneurs to start and grow small and medium-sized enterprises by improving access to markets, access to capital, skills and capacity building, and leadership opportunities.

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