BLOG: Youth as leaders and changemakers - by Gabriella Vogelaar - 22 March 2013


Youth as leaders and changemakers

Blog by Gabriëlla Vogelaar (Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict), 22 March 2013

My second blog reflecting on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Youth consultation in Tunis, Tunisia, 13 – 15 March 2013.

Youth is often talked about as the troublemakers. The ones that are most likely to turn to violence to vent their frustrations.  However, I think that youth should also be recognized for their role as leaders of positive social change, especially in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. While at the Youth workshop in Tunisia last week, I was interested in hearing their stories about how they play a constructive role in their communities. As changemakers. And where better to do that then in Tunis, where the youth took centre stage in the Arab uprising or Arab Spring.

First I heard about the initiatives they were already doing. Stories about government accountability, as a Libyan journalist reported and exposed awful hospital conditions, which the Ministry of Health had to acknowledge. Stories about increasing solidarity between Christians and Muslims in Palestine. Stories from Yemen, about youth initiatives to prevent child marriage by raising awareness and talking to parents.  Stories from Lebanon, about volunteering for the Red Cross, and helping Syrian refugees and children. Stories about  working with governments and using youth-to-youth counselling to decrease drug addiction, which is a growing problem in the Middle East. These are only a few examples. Not to mention that these are activities that many of them do in their free time (in daily life they are business entrepreneurs, software engineers, medical students and so on).

Then during the training sessions I heard about their own analysis of the situation in the MENA region through a "mindmapping" session, where trends were identified as increasing or decreasing (see picture). It initiated a good discussion and you could tell how well aware the youth were about the connections between local and regional issues. It also helped the group to identify common or cross-regional trends, as well as those that seemed to contradict each other. Interestingly of all the things mentioned, extremism was one of the least mentioned or seen as a less important trend to them.

On the third and last day of the workshop, the youth had to present action plans they could implement on the short term at home, using the skills they acquired at this workshop. They had to present them to several embassy representatives and ministries that visited in the afternoon, among others from the Moroccan, Yemeni, Palestinian, and Dutch embassies, and the Tunisian Ministry of Youth.

There, I heard about their new plans and ideas. The Lebanese group wanted to develop an ISO certification for companies who did not employ on the basis of nepotism or religious affiliation, and they had some ideas on how to realise such an accreditation system. The Libyan group wanted to join forces between youth from different provinces and develop a common strategy, with the help of experts. They also wanted to establish a common platform for Arab Youth in the Mahreb region for capacity building and support, starting with this group. The Palestinian group chose to focus on ex-prisoner rehabilitation, to help them reintegrate into society and try to secure funds for education and job opportunities.

The Yemeni group stressed the importance of a vibrant civil society and wanted to complement the work of the government in several societal aspects, including poverty reduction. The Tunisian group presented their ideas to bridge the gap between the older generations and youth today, and how to address issues of education and drug addiction. These presentations took place at the same time at different tables for each country. You could tell that the officials were quite impressed with what the youth had come up with and engaged in discussions with them for at least an hour. It even seems as if the officials were more nervous about these presentations than the youth were.

What I saw was a group of changemakers. They wanted to be heard by their government representatives and be recognized for the positive role they play. And I think they also want to be taken seriously, not just by their governments, but by the international community and the older generations as well. They are aware of the obstacles they face, but want to be part of a vibrant civil society in their countries and are aware that they can make a change.

Youth are not just the leaders of the future. They can be the leaders of today.



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