*Article Republished with permission from author and Devex
Today, more than 1.5 billion people live in countries affected by fragility and conflict — a majority of which is under the age of 30.
These numbers alone justify the inclusion and consideration of youths in policymaking and planning. But in practice, the meaningful participation of young people in peace building has been hindered by discourses that overwhelmingly depict youths as victims or villains.
Fortunately, recent times have witnessed a gradual shift in paradigm. In a concerted effort to promote youths as active leaders and partners in peace processes, the United Nations, Search for Common Ground, and myriad nongovernmental organizations recently launched the Guiding Principles on Young People’s Participation in Peacebuilding, which offer guidance to key stakeholders on meaningful youth engagement in conflict or transition settings. And as recognition of the positive role youths can play in peace building grows, operational guidelines on how to apply the principles will be published later this year.
So how can organizations leverage youth engagement to uproot violence inherent in their communities and countries? Devex asked four youth activists and experts to share some best practices that development leaders — particularly program designers and managers — can apply to give young people the opportunities they need to become agents of peace.
Create spaces for youths to express their opinions — and listen to them
Rather than simply acknowledging them as victims or perpetrators of violence, it’s vital to engage youths as social actors with their own views and contributions.
“Youth voices in peace building are present everywhere, but sometimes not recognized,” Matilda Flemming, leading coordinator at the United Network of Young Peacebuilders, told Devex. “The creation of spaces for youth to express their opinion to decision-makers and broader society ensures that they have the opportunity to be heard.”
In practice, this can be done by encouraging both youth and adults — parents, teachers, nonprofit workers, or community and religious leaders — to support the formation of youth groups that offer young people a chance to formulate their opinions.
Information and communication technology such as UNICEF’s U-report — a free SMS-based platform through which youths can express their views on what is happening in their communities — also offer some promising spaces of expression for meaningful youth participation in peace building.
Enhance the peace-building knowledge and skills of young people
Although most young peace builders create positive impact with minimal resources, it’s important to provide them with the tools they need to become more effective change-makers.
In concrete terms, this means giving them access to the teachers, facilitators, educational programs and networks that can hone their conflict resolution and leadership skills.
“Training opportunities can range from content-based topics such as conflict or gender to more practical-focused areas such as advocacy or project management,” Dylan Jones, project and gender officer at UNOY Peacebuilders underlined. “By facilitating youth connecting on individual and organizational levels, ideas, challenges and best practices can be organically shared.”
Some of the most successful interventions also find ways to leverage youth interests — arts, sports, media, informal learning and personal relationships — to teach peace-building skills. For instance, Mercy Corps found that youths are more likely to remember conflict management lessons they’ve learned through sports.
Build trust between youths and governments
Youth mobilization in peace-building efforts is more likely to be successful if young people are given the capabilities and opportunities to work with local and national governments.
With few constructive avenues to influence local and national politics, young people tend to view governments as beset by corruption. Conversely, governments often fail to take into account the views of youths in policymaking, and may have different priorities for peace.
To close the gap, activities that promote the legitimization of youths and foster their representation in local and national policymaking processes are crucial, according to Piet Vroeg, child and education director at Cordaid. As such, joint workshops, community projects or platforms can all help bridge the divide between youths and government officials. It’s also important to encourage young people to learn about national or regional peace priorities while helping them work toward their own peace priorities.
As an example, dozens of local youth councils were established in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring revolution in Tunisia — an initiative that has fostered newfound confidence between youths and local politicians.
“Now, after a couple of years, the youth councils have gained the trust of local government authorities, to the point that when it’s time to decide on the local budgets, these youth councils are being consulted to see if the budget make sense,” Saji Prelis, director for children and youth programs at Search for Common Ground, highlighted.
Promote intergenerational exchange
Rather than working with youths in isolation, peace-building projects seeking the engagement of youths should also include parents and elders.
“Seek more inclusive means for young people to express themselves and participate in awareness-raising among the wider population,” Vroeg suggested.
Through partnerships with community groups and elder councils, youths can demonstrate the benefits of their peace actions. Such communication and collaboration channels also enable young people and adults to explore the common problems they face and to tackle them together, thus participating in the emergence of sustainable solutions.
“Young people alone by no means have the answers to the challenges the world and communities around the world are facing. Neither do older generations. By bringing together the vision of young people today, and the experience of older generations, new answers to challenges are created,” Flemming underlined.
Strengthen monitoring and evaluation
While efficiencies can always be found, monitoring and evaluation activities need to be undertaken, improved and made routine across all peace-building initiatives capitalizing on youth engagement.
Suffering from a chronic lack of financial support, youth peace-building activities often have very limited ability to evaluate the impact and effectiveness of their work — a situation that seriously impedes the visibility and sustainability of their initiatives.
But beyond increased financial support, innovative approaches to evaluate the impact of youth engagement in conflict resolution must be used — particularly those that build on qualitative evidence and participative approaches.
“Surveys, focus groups and interviews are considered as the gold standard of inquiry, but those are adult methods of articulating evidence and showcasing impact, which ultimately benefit only adults,” Pralis told Devex. “Instead, we should make evaluation conversational and youth-led, as this works for everybody.”
The evaluation process recently started by the Nepal Partnership for Children and Youth in Peacebuilding — a coalition of local youth groups and international organizations — is particularly illustrative. It allows young people to take an active role in determining evaluation design, data collection methods and information analyses.
Support youths who are positively contributing to their communities
Finally, it’s crucial to avoid rewarding “bad behavior” by incentivizing young people who are positively contributing to their communities.
Current youth programming focuses much of its attention on young individuals who were troublemakers or soldiers. This effectively rewards youths for joining armed groups — or is at least perceived as doing so by local communities.
“In general, young people feel marginalized and their voices are not heard or trusted as credible. But when they commit violence, the international community rushes in,” Prelis noted. “We have to be more conscious, cautious and thoughtful in our approach to youth engagement and avoid sending the message that we only care about you when you cause harm.”
Simple rewarding systems such as certificates, prizes and scholarships can serve as great incentives for youth. They can also inspire their peers to take action and participate in peace programs.
Further, try to situate your organization’s programming for young people within larger peacebuilding efforts. Without comprehensive efforts to change the underlying factors that contributed to war in the first place, youths might feel that their efforts are in vain.
–Photo Credit: Youth For Understanding, USA
Many myths and stereotypes shape our views of the teen passageway into adulthood. Teens have been characterized as reckless, rebellious, unmotivated and lazy. Yet we know stereotypes and labels such as these are damaging to youth and they distract from the task of meeting the true developmental needs of youth.
For many years we blamed “raging hormones” for the drama and experimentation of the teen years. But what is the truth behind the teenage developmental journey? Is teen behavior biologically or socially determined? Thanks to advances in brain research, generally, and teenage brain research specifically, many of the myths about the biological determinants of teen behavior have been dispelled. Researchers such as Dr. Frances Jensen at the University of Pennsylvania and Dr. Daniel J Siegel at UCLA are providing the facts about the teenage brain and giving us more positive ways to view teen development. The following are just a few of the myths they are dispelling and how.
Myth: Teens are impulsive because of their raging hormones.
While it is true that there is greater production of hormones in the teen years, there is also critical brain development under way which determines teenage behavior. We know that only about 80% of the brain is developed by adolescence, and that the prefrontal cortex, the area which controls executive function like self-discipline and memory, is the very last part to develop, at around 25 years of age. What is in large supply in the teen years is gray matter, or neurons, while in short-supply is white matter (connective wiring) which helps information flow quickly from one part of the brain to another. As a result, the teen brain is “like a Ferrari primed and pumped but doesn’t know where to go” (Daniel Siegel in Mindsight).
Other research shows that the teenage brain is less able to process negative information than is the adult brain and better wired to process reward. As Dr. Jensen explains, “The chief predictor of adolescent behavior is not the perception of risk but the anticipation of the reward despite the risk.” (Jensen and Nutt, The Teenage Brain). These factors are compounded by the fact that the frontal lobes are only loosely connected to other parts of the teen brain, so teens have a harder time exerting cognitive control over potentially dangerous situations. So the very mental functions of discipline, safe behaviors and good choices that we are hoping teenagers are refining in their high school years are actually biologically still wiring.
Myth: Teens are able to handle stress and drug use because they are young.
Teens do not have the same tolerance for stress as adults. In fact, there is hormone that modulates anxiety in adults but actually raises it in teens. So is said that anxiety begets anxiety in the teen brain. This is compounded by the fact that most teens get significantly less sleep than is needed, an estimated 6.25 rather than the needed 9.5 hours.
The temptation to use drugs should not surprise us then. For the tired and stressed teenage brain, drugs offer a dopamine surge that can literally not be surpassed. Unfortunately, we also know marijuana and alcohol block the process of learning and memory so that users are less able to lay down new neuronal pathways. Because the brain has more space for the cannabis to land, it stays longer than in adults, having an impact on teen functioning for 4-5 days. We also now know that early and chronic marijuana use among teens is also linked to increased rates of psychosis and schizophrenia. So the teen years are the worst years for exposure to drugs and alcohol, as their impact is more detrimental and permanent.
There are several other negative myths dispelled by these and other scientists who are, thankfully, altering our understanding of teen biology and behavior. This work should compel us to look at the power and creativity of the teenage years not as a phase to get through, but as a phase to support and uplift. The engaged, rule-challenging, creative period of the teen years have produced exceptional invention and new ways of thinking for thousands of years, as Dan Siegel points out. Instead of constraining this capacity for creative evolution, we should be uplifting programs that enhance the biological trajectory of the teen. We should be developing programs that engage youth in active, outdoor, reasonable risk-taking that builds functional neuronal pathways and relationships. We should match the needs of the hearts and minds of youth with programs that actually address these biological and social pathways.