Putting youth at the center of peacebuilding: Experts weigh in at USIP

By Evelyn Rupert

August 14, 2017

Without giving youth a seat at the table, efforts to build peace and security around the world will miss the chance to harness the energy and power of youth voices and perspectives, said a panel of experts at the U.S. Institute of Peace.  

Governments, organizations and stakeholders around the world are working to engage youth in the peacebuilding process, as directed by a United Nations Security Council resolution adopted unanimously in December 2015.

Specialists on youth, development and peacebuilding took up the topic of empowering youth as key players in resolving conflict at the Aug. 8 event at USIP. 

Panelist Imrana Buba, a USIP Generation Change fellow and founder of the Youth Coalition Against Terrorism, said that in situations of conflict like the Boko Haram insurgency in his home country of Nigeria, many young people are on both sides.   

“When I look at the nature of the conflict, most of the victims are young people, and most of the perpetrators are young people at the same time,” he said. “That is what really defined my vision and inspired me to do something.”  

Panelists from USIP, the State Department, USAID’s YouthPower and Search for Common Ground shared lessons learned in mobilizing youth as a force against violent conflict and violent extremism, which took place a few days before International Youth Day on Aug. 12.   

Here are a few of the major takeaways from their discussion.

Amplify youth voices and narratives 

Positive youth development must be at the core of any youth-focused peacebuilding program, said panelists.

This type of approach works to empower youth by enhancing their agency, assets and contributions to society and by creating an environment that enables them to succeed, explained Jen Heeg of the Youth in Peace and Security Community of Practice at YouthPower Learning.

For example, the positive youth development lens is in place in the YouthPower-funded Proponte Más violence prevention project, which is implemented by Creative Associates International in Honduras.  

In this project, youth work with their families and trained family counselors to develop positive behaviors and protective factors that build resilience and lower their risk factors for violence.

One component of the approach is producing and amplifying youth narratives that counter violent extremist groups. Heeg said the idea of counter-narratives has changed over time to put youth in the center of combatting violent extremist messaging. 

“I think we’ve evolved – and this is where a [positive youth development] approach is really critical I think for the [countering violent extremism] world – because we can talk about how our job, sitting here in Washington, isn’t to produce those narratives, but it’s to amplify and to enable youth leaders to create their own narratives,” she said.  

Andy Rabens, Special Advisor for Global Youth Issues at the State Department, said in his remarks that the international community needs to turn to youth and youth-led organizations, who have the best chance of positively impacting their peers. 

“We need to enlist partners, youth voices, youth influencers in a more meaningful way if we’re going to be successful in pushing back against some of these narratives,” he said.

Panelists listen to USIP Vice President Carla Koppell’s opening remarks at an event on youth and peacebuilding on Aug. 8.

Put youth in the “driver’s seat”  

Rachel Walsh Taza, Programs Coordinator for Children and Youth at Search for Common Ground, said violent extremist groups often succeed where peacebuilding organizations do not in making youth feel that they are in the “driver’s seat.”  

She said efforts to include youth in decision-making need to honor youths’ need for respect, dignity and agency.  

“Strategies to address or transform violent extremism cannot aim to pacify youth or give quick fixes,” she said. “They really have to recognize that youth have legitimate political and social aspirations and provide them with nonviolent pathways for reaching those aspirations.” 

Buba said that based on his experience in Nigeria, there is still work to be done in involving youth early on in peacebuilding decisions. 

“To have access to the decision-making process in peace and security, that is very challenging, and we need more,” he said. “Most of the decisions are made by elderly people, and they might only come to consult us after the decisions have been made, but we are not yet part of the discussion.”  

Plug the resource gap for youth-led organizations  

Rich in energy and ideas, youth-led organizations often fall short in terms of financial resources, said panelists.

For example, Buba said that his Youth Coalition Against Terrorism has little funding but instead relies heavily on a network of passionate volunteers to implement activities like vocational training and tolerance education.  

Many youth-led organizations are facing the same funding challenges, Taza said. She said that in a recent survey of nearly 400 youth-led organizations around the world, half reported that they operated on an annual budget of less than $5,000.  

“Despite these resource limitations, youth-led organizations are having an impact on peace and security in their communities,” she said. 

Youth-led organizations have unique strengths, she added, such as trust and a sense of belonging among members, credibility and access within their communities and among other young people, and creative solutions.  

The panelists agreed that international organizations should do more to engage with and support youth-led groups to tap into these resources and help sustain positive change as today’s youth become leaders in the future.  

“The most effective youth peace and security programs are those programs that are youth-developed, youth-initiated and youth-led,” said USIP Senior Program Specialist Aubrey Cox. “So the more that the international community can really support programs that already exist from youth leaders and provide resources which often can be a barrier to implementing programs, the more these youth-led organizations … will thrive.” 

Build bridges to other partners

Not only do international organizations need to form relationships with youth-led groups, they need to help such groups establish other meaningful partnerships with governments, institutions, outside entities and religious leaders, according to panelists.  

A recent USIP report, said Cox, found that religious leaders and youth are eager to work with each other, but are often unsure of how to put a relationship in motion. International organizations can help both parties come up with ways to put plans for effective partnerships in place, she said.  

“The willingness is there, but the opportunities and the how-to tend to be the missing link,” she said. “If the international community facilitates these kinds of partnerships by creating space for sustainable, long-term engagement where long-term trust can be built between these two groups, that will foster long-term partnerships.” 

Taza, of Search for Common Ground, said that the development world can play a role in bridging divisiveness to empower youth, both between distinct groups and with government institutions.  

“Another really important dividing line to cross it that line between young people, government and security agencies, which is often one of the greatest barriers – that mistrust of young people’s involvement in policy and programming,” she said. “So, bridging that relationship is something really important for NGOs to help facilitate.”

To learn more about how Creative Associates International puts youth at the center of peacebuilding and development, please click here.


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