Empowering Youth for Peace and Security: Insights from the SID-US Conference 

By Pariesa Brody

Around the world, young people play a vital role in advancing peace and security no matter the context. But they face significant obstacles to participation in dialogue and civic engagement.  

“Far too often, when young people show up, they are met with barriers to participation,” says Sarah Sladen, Agency Youth Coordinator for USAID. “We need to recognize and support young people’s leadership, to find a way to make space for young people’s contributions. When young people actually show up, we have a lot of work to do.” 

The Society for International Development United States (SID-US) conference, held in Washington, D.C., on April 26, 2024, brought together experts and practitioners to discuss the wide-ranging challenges affecting communities around our world and focus on opportunities to strengthen resilience and security by advancing development. 

A panel discussion titled “Building the Capacity of Youth to Play an Effective Role in Peace and Security,” organized by Creative Associates International, shed light on experiences and strategies in engaging youth and fostering their involvement in development and stabilization efforts. The event provided valuable insights for development professionals seeking to empower youth and create more inclusive societies. 

GMGgLDCXMAABSDb-1024x768 The panel was comprised of four distinguished experts who shared their valuable perspectives on youth activism and engagement: 

  • Katherine Mariana Ovalle Morales, a dedicated youth activist from Guatemala, works with the Centre for Research on the Prevention of Violence in Central America (CIPREVICA) and the Landivarianxs Collective. Drawing from her on-the-ground experience, Katherine provided a valuable perspective on the challenges and opportunities in youth activism. 
  • Sarah Sladen, the USAID Agency Youth Coordinator, highlighted USAID’s efforts and strategies in supporting youth activists. With more than 15 years of technical experience in international youth development, Sladen emphasized the importance of youth-led programming and the agency’s commitment to working directly with youth organizations. 
  • Daniela Farinas, a Senior Project Manager & Deputy Chief of Party with Creative, shared her extensive experience in managing development programs, particularly in non-permissive environments. She highlighted the role of civic knowledge and practice in fostering trust and resilience within communities. 
  • Madeline Zutt, a Policy and Advocacy Manager with the Dallaire Institute in Canada, provided insights on the institute’s unique approach to child protection and youth capacity building. Madeline emphasized the importance of including youth perspectives in research, advocacy, and capacity-building work. 

Olivier Girard, Chief of Party for the USAID/OTI Littorals Regional Initiative in West Africa, moderated the panel, asking questions and providing insight throughout the discussion. 

Creating space for dialogue 

Throughout the discussion, panelists discussed various strategies and tools for empowering youth in peace and security. Drawing from her experience as a youth activist, Morales emphasized the significance of personal contact and historical memory in creating effective strategies for advocating human rights and youth issues. She stressed the need for safe spaces for dialogue and discussion, where individuals can express their feelings, opinions, and insights. 

Sladen celebrated the growth of informal pathways for youth like Morales to engage in civic engagement. She emphasized USAID’s commitment to recognizing and supporting young people’s leadership. She highlighted the importance of breaking down barriers to youth participation and creating space for their contributions.  

“One of the biggest changes to [USAID’s Youth and Development Policy updated in 2022] was that we added a new category of programs for youth-led programming,” Sladen said. “The reason we’ve introduced this category is to try to better position our agency to work directly with youth organizations.” 

Daniela Farinas added to Morales’ insights using experience from her work with youth in non-permissive environments where citizens often face barriers to political and civic engagement. 

“The combination of civic knowledge and civic practice has the potential to cultivate more cohesive societies and foster trust,” said Daniela Farinas. “If done well, it allows youth and their communities to put democratic values into practice within their local systems, setting up a strong foundation for paving the way for the eventual transition to democracy.” 

While Morales mentioned the power of social media to build spaces for youth dialogue, Farinas highlighted radio as a platform for amplifying local voices, preserving language, and raising awareness about local issues. Like social media, radio offers reach and access to communities where other forms of media may be limited, Farinas said, making it an effective tool for storytelling, language preservation, and raising local issues. 

At the core of the discussion was creating pathways for youth to share their experiences, knowledge and perspectives with policymakers and stakeholders.  

Zutt explained the role of youth input in the Dallaire Institute’s mission to prevent the recruitment and use of children in armed conflicts. She highlighted the institute’s Youth Advisory Council, which helps empower young people to be agents of change and increase their awareness of prevention strategies. Zutt stressed the importance of including youth perspectives in the institute’s research, advocacy, and capacity-building work. 

Overcoming challenges 

The panelists also discussed the challenges and gaps they encountered in their work. Sladen acknowledged the barriers—such as limited access, lack of transportation, stigma, social barriers, hostility and being discredited—that young people often face when trying to participate and stressed the need to support and recognize their leadership.  

Farinas highlighted the importance of countering authoritarian ideals and fostering civic education, collective action, and social cohesion to prepare youth and communities for an eventual transition to democracy. 

The idea was echoed by Morales, who said that some youth are still afraid of participating in democratic processes due to authoritarian regimes that restricted participation in the past. 

“Authoritarian regimes flourish by capitalizing on fear, fostering isolation, and promoting a climate where dissent is suppressed,” Farinas added. “If we allow the normalization of authoritarian ideals and fail to create even the smallest outlets to counteract these ideals, we not only fail to honor the core values of democracy but undermine the foundation for democratic transition.” 

In accordance with the SID-US theme for this year’s conference, “World in Crisis: Sparks of Hope,” the panelists highlighted opportunities to engage youth and open spaces for civic engagement despite the numerous obstacles facing them across the globe. The panelists’ experiences and expertise served as inspiration for development professionals seeking to empower youth and create more inclusive societies.  

“While it may not be possible in [non-permissive] environments to enable fair elections, political engagement, and human rights activism, we can prioritize civic education, enable collective action, and bolster social cohesion- even if it is at the smallest scale,” Farinas said. “These subtle acts of resistance to authoritarian ideals and agendas enable a long-term strategy to prepare youth and communities for an eventual transition to democracy, one where the collective resolve to defend the rights and liberties of all, even through adversity.” 

Looking forward, Sladen added that organizations like USAID need to set an example for positive youth engagement. 

“It’s hard to be a role model,” Sladen said. “But I think if we can do it inside of our locus of control in the places that we work—in our offices, that’s a really important process.” 


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