Long Considered a Threat, Can Youth Take Lead in Peacebuilding?

Members of a pro-peace youth group perform in Nairobi's Kibera slum following a recurrence of violent rhetoric within the community. Nairobi, Kenya, July 28, 2014. (Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images)

A government-aligned youth group named the Imbonerakure has been blamed for much of the street violence currently plaguing Burundi, while policymakers elsewhere remain preoccupied with stopping young men and women from joining extremist groups such as the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). These examples reflect a common perception of youth as threats to global security, rather than potential agents of peace. In reality, the demographics of many unstable areas of Africa, the Middle East, and beyond ensure young people often suffer heavier casualties and more lost opportunities than other sectors of society, and have a far greater interest in curbing violence than participating in it.

The growing recognition of this potential was evident at the end of 2015, when the first youth, peace, and security resolution was adopted by the UN Security Council. Resolution 2250 urges UN member states to elevate the voices of youth in decision-making at all levels. It calls for protecting youth as civilians in conflict and stresses the importance of creating inclusive environments for youth peacebuilding through economic, social, and development activities. The resolution also advocates increasing partnerships with youth across the UN system, and for the design of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration programs to consider the needs of young people.

While unprecedented, the resolution is the culmination of several years’ worth of efforts to acknowledge and support young people’s roles in promoting peace and security. It builds on the momentum of the similarly inclusive Resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security, which celebrated its 15th anniversary this year. It also responds to the push for inclusive development contained in Goal 16 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which took effect this year.

Set against the background of youth recruitment by ISIS and other groups, both within conflict zones and also more stable countries further afield, it is not surprising that policymakers have elevated the youth issue to the top of the peace and security agenda. Research shows the average age of a “typical” jihadi fighter is between 18 and 29. At a White House summit on countering violent extremism (CVE) in February 2015, US President Barack Obama stressed that extremist groups were not only deliberately targeting their propaganda to Muslim communities, but Muslim youth in particular.

The challenge for policymakers will be to develop more youth and community-driven programs that effectively engage young people in the ways outlined in the UN resolution. There are already a number of promising prototypes in this respect. Nairobi’s Eastleighwood Youth Forum (EYF), for example, has established “peace forums” and youth dialogues to provide alternative paths for marginalized Muslim and ethnic Somali community members considering joining al-Shabaab. These monthly events gather more than 200 young people to discuss concerns within their community, and how to combat extremism through peaceful means. According to EYF’s own data, its programs have seen more than 50 young people move away from violence and extremism, as well as a drop in violence in the Eastleigh community. Another positive program is the Coalition on Rights and Responsibilities of Youth in northwest Pakistan, which aims to deradicalize youth through peer-to-peer education, capacity building, and social media programs, and reaches more than 500 young people between the ages of 15 and 29.

Building on the success of these, new programs elsewhere will need to strike a balance between promoting more inclusive peacebuilding and merely imposing new levels of security on communities. The youth demographic cannot be alienated if it is to remain a key part of minimizing conflict. The much-anticipated UN Secretary-General plan to prevent violent extremism may address some of these issues, providing a blueprint for further engagement between member states and their young populations.

An overall strategy on youth should emphasize the positive role they can play in preventing conflict. This was reflected in two outcomes from last year: the Amman Declaration, and the Youth Action Agenda. The first followed Jordan’s landmark Global Forum on Youth, Peace, and Security held in August, while the second came after a UN open debate on the youth role in CVE and promoting peace held in April. Both highlighted the agency and initiative of young people in building peace and the need to support their involvement in national and international institutions. This shift in framing away from youth as a threat arguably began with the UN’s Guiding Principles on Young People’s Participation in Peacebuilding, released in 2014. The document highlighted the need to learn from youth-led organizations in addressing discrimination and establishing local ownership over peacebuilding processes, to help maintain community-level relevance and investment.

The international community must bear these lessons in mind when working in troubled countries and communities. While typically well-intentioned, peacebuilding interventions are often not adequately inclusive of a variety of stakeholders, particularly young people. Studies have shown that peacebuilding programs that is sensitive to local conflict dynamics, and that listen to, engage, support, and advise young people in their peacebuilding activities, are more likely to be self-sustaining and produce greater social cohesion. In addition, evidence indicates that programs which focus solely on capacity-building, whether through vocational training or education, without addressing underlying socioeconomic factors and experiences of injustice, are less likely to be effective in the long-run.

The UN’s new resolution is not without its flaws in terms of guiding future policy. A potential major issue is that it sets the age range of youth as 18-29 years of age. In other policy areas, the world body typically defines youth differently, as between the ages of 15 and 24, which more accurately reflects the fact that 48% of the world’s population is under 24, 29% of which is between the ages of 15 and 24. Keeping pace with global demographic shifts, there has been a rise in the number of younger militants around the world. This is true of conflict zones on several continents. For example, the number of 17 to 24 year olds engaged in the Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan rose in 2014-2015, compared with 2012-2013. Meanwhile, two-thirds of al-Shabaab’s members are known to join between the ages of 15 and 24. And in Colombia, most young people joining the ELN or FARC are between 12 and 13, with 85-90% of them saying they did so voluntarily.

Recent research has confirmed that targeting positive outcomes in more adolescent brains can produce more meaningful and long-lasting impact in terms of repeated behavior and thought processes. While it would need to be carefully managed, engaging people at a younger age than presently outlined, and across political, social, and economic spheres, may therefore be more effective in producing inclusive and sustainable peacebuilding.

There is clearly still much work to be done to increase understanding of the diverse youth demographic among policymakers. This includes gaining a better understanding of young people who are in transitional stages of life: as immigrants, students, or between jobs, for example. Efforts would also be improved by a better understanding of the full extent of perceived systemic injustices among disenfranchised youth, in order to respond to their aspirations beyond moving out of poverty or joblessness. Despite decades of research, there is no one model, theory or explanation that explains why individuals might become agents of violence, rather than peace. However, inclusionary policies and corresponding institutions, both economic and political, would undoubtedly lessen the underlying drivers of both radicalization and conflict, as was recently highlighted by the Club of Madrid.

As governments and institutions everywhere suffer from a lack of trust owing to a largely volatile geopolitical landscape, meaningful and systematic engagement with young people at the local, national, and regional levels seems imperative for ensuring peace, security, and development. In its final set of provisions, Resolution 2250 calls for a progress study to be developed this year on young people’s contributions to peace and conflict resolution in line with the UN’s recommendations, as well as regular reporting by the Secretary-General to the Security Council on measures taken towards implementation. Monitoring and reporting of this nature will be vital to pressuring policymakers to take action. Failure to do so would likely produce very high opportunity costs at all levels of governance.

Margaret Williams is a Policy Analyst at the International Peace Institute.