Tuesday, December 2, 2008

An X PRIZE for employing youth

Problem-makers from around the world, like with the terrorists in the Mumbai shootings, are usually young, energetic males (in their teens and twenties), poor, barely educated, with plenty of time on their hands to make trouble for everyone!

This whole India bombings thing has really got me thinking.

As I said in my last post from Nov 26th, our team was in India to meet with an interdisciplinary group of experts from across the country. Our goal was to glean ideas for X PRIZEs that would radically change poverty issues in India. The event took place on Nov 19th in the Taj Mahal Hotel in New Delhi, and was energizing and fascinating in many ways. Emeka and I are working on preparing the report now. Maybe we can share some of this information with you once we are finished.

But thinking deeply about poverty issues in India and the recent terrorism attacks in Mumbai started something in my head. The terrorists in this case (and often in most cases, as also with soldiers, rebels, or other problem makers) are often teenage/young 20-something males with a lot of time on their hands. The phrase "an idol mind is a devil's workshop" has obviously never reached them! Many of the countries with problem-makers have relatively chauvenistic cultures where the women do the majority of the work. A significant portion of the population is poor, under the age of 30, with a preferential selection for boys than girls. This, in the end, amounts to a lot of male youth who are barely monitored and have plenty of time on their hands to do with as they will. The bad elements of the world quickly entice these kids and turn them into problem makers.

Even in cultures where there is no "terrorism," these youth find ways to become menaces. In Tamil Nadu (southern India) for example, there is a word called "udavakaray" which literally means "useless fellow." These tend to be barely educated, young, poor, unemployed males who go about the village tormenting the women. Women are terrified of leaving their houses because of "eve-teasing," a phenomenon so called because these "udavakaray" hang around the wells in the evening when the women come to get their water, and then harrass and molest them. Often they hang around in groups, making them stronger, faster, and more uncontrollable. This type of problem is sadly common across many parts of the developing world that I have been to.

So a worthy X PRIZE would be to find a way to address this issue. How do we create an XPRIZE that would turn the plethora of useless young men in the world into beings of usefulness?? Any thoughts?? (of course, the Taliban and many gangs might argue that they have the solution...but I'm not leaning in that route, and frankly we need to guard against exactly this in our development of this prize concept!)


iNewton said...

Interesting thoughts. I'll do a little stream of consciousness here:

I think part of the issue is convincing young men that the idea of 'Service' is a worthy endeavor. Employment, or keeping someone occupied, implies that they are doing something that they find fulfilling in one way or another.

Another issue I see here is that an Xprize (at least, what I've seen of it so far) is a reward for achieving a set of specifically attainable and measurable goals. Unfortunately, 'employing wayward youth' is like fighting poverty--it's very difficult to put specific benchmarks on a social attribute.

So, how do we reach young men in impoverished areas? I think a good place to start would be to do it indirectly with a broader scope. Say, promote universal accessible communications in the most remote areas of the world (thereby creating internet and media access for these young men).

Or, create a 'teamwork army.' Create an international coalition army based on community service, exploration, etc.... Something that provides training and glory even for the most impoverished people. Sound like Star Trek yet?

pragzz said...

Thanks iNewton!

I've seen what young men do with universally accessible communication, particularly internet access in the developing world...let's just say that the adult film industry and computer virus makers benefit tremendously from it. Not a huge fan of this...

Your second suggestion is very good and most of Europe had, and I think still has, it in place. Most European countries had a mandatory military service requirement for young male high-school or college graduates. After much pushback from the youth, the government instituted a choice - men could either join the military or spend their year doing "civil service" instead...where they were paired with an NGO or government organization of their choice for the length of their contract. Over the time that I've worked in/visited Italy, Germany, and France, I met many talented young men doing service to their country. It was wonderful!

iNewton said...

Touché. I hadn't thought of the porn/virus industry stuff. I'll admit that I'm a little bit of an idealist when it comes to information access. I had hoped that people would find a globally healthy view just by having access... ;P

But yes, an army corps of some sort that promotes service as well as a tangible reward for these young guys. For the 'idle hand,' instant gratification and camaraderie are the primary motivators. Now.. how does one design a system that will be easily accessible to these people? Maybe that's where the xprize can come in handy...

Anonymous said...

At a very general level, I think providing a constructive opportunity to challenge the status quo is a good approach. X PRIZE obviously has a good model for doing that. I know that several of the youth gangs in Chicago were turned from a focus on crime to a focus on community development. It worked because they were still challenging the status quo, but they did it by helping their community members rather than by striking out at them.

How can a prize be designed so that it catalyzes this type of change? I think the first step is in expressing the goal within the context of the culture.

On a side note, I remember hearing some years ago about a business incubator in the UK that focused on helping the disabled to start their own businesses. I think the link here is entrepreneurship. There may be an opportunity in any parallels that may exist between the motivations of these misguided youth and the intrigue of entrepreneurship. I would think that the self reliance required of entrepreneurs would be appealing.

pragzz said...

I think both of you (iNewton and anonymous) have hit on issues that we struggle with WRT the X PRIZE, particularly in global development. One is accessibility, and the other is entrepreneurship.

Accessibility to everything is where many of these problems come up. The poor lack access to markets, skills, resources, education, food, water, healthcare. Everything comes down to accessibility. I do believe that cell-phones are bridging that gap, which is why they have caught on in the developing world.

Entrepreneurship is extremely difficult to measure. How do you measure entrepreneurship in a 3-8 year time period (the sweet spot of an X PRIZE)?? It takes a few years atleast to start a business and several more to start making money on it. I know several people whose businesses were on the verge of going bust for several years before they successfully turned them around. Is it fair therefore to give the $10M to the company that generates the most revenue in eight years?? or the one that hits the issues that are most needed, but not making the most revenue?? Or the one that's most sustainable (that endures for much longer than the 8 years and grows)??