Challenges to youth engagement, community development and local peacebuilding

Dr Ibrahim Natil

UNICEF defines civic engagement as “individual or collective actions in which people participate to improve the well-being of communities or society in general” (Cho, Byrne & Pelter, 2020, p. 6). Young people, however, may view their representation as an outcome of empowerment according to the cultural context of their society. Youth organisations’ representation and engagement in grassroots activities can help promote young people’s contribution to decision-making processes and give them a platform to decide on changes to their society. This empowerment can be viewed through lenses of security, transformative change and participation (Porter, 2013). This can be understood as a form of “participatory democracy,” as defined by Hilmer (2010) and Aragones and Sánchez­Pagés (2009). Is youth civil society organisation (CSOs) activism, however, considered a form of grassroots engagement and a process of “participatory democracy” in responding to the lack of a democratic process in a conflict zone or under a repressive regime? Activism promotes civic participation, freedom of expression and strengthening the basis for civil society dialogue and democratic discourse, with particular emphasis on the role of activists in a media environment (Spurk, 2010, pp. 3–29).

This contributes to creating a space for viable activism as Ank Michels and Laurens de Graaf (2010) discuss, and encourages citizens’ civil involvement, which has a number of positive effects such as social inclusion, civic skills and virtues, deliberation and legitimacy. Youth CSOs endeavour to make training and campaigning activities as creative as possible to enhance activists’ engagement in community participation actions. The participatory process is also associated with the practice of a top-down mechanism conducted to include citizens’ engagement and contribution to the public sector, as Bherer et al. (2016) argue. The CEO of the Crown Prince Foundation, Dr Tamam Mango, said:

Engagement through volunteering allows individuals to grow through different experiences and gain skills that may help them in their future endeavours. Through helping their community, young people can gain confidence in their leadership skills and become motivated to succeed. (UNICEF, 2020)

The UN’s World Youth Report (2016) discusses how the increasing usage of new information and communication technologies and social media platforms by today’s youth have effectively reshaped their activism both within and across borders. Cho, Byrne and Pelter (2020) also discuss digital civic engagement by young people. Young people, however, have been very resilient to the current circumstances of the pandemic. The challenge of Covid-19 is considered a barrier to effective youth community engagement in development actions and the change process. UNICEF’s Jordan representative, Tanya Chapuisat,  noted in 2020:

This has been an exceptionally difficult year, especially for young people whose entire lives, from study to work to socializing, have been upended. I am inspired by the resilience and the leadership shown by the youth volunteers who refused to let this pandemic break their spirit, instead they volunteered online to share lifesaving information, packed food parcels and took care of the most vulnerable in their community. (UNICEF, 2020).

In one instance, hundreds of young activists innovated a new approach by using their cars to protest against the mismanagement of public affairs during the pandemic by the Lebanese government’s policy, demonstrating how as online engagement cannot be a substitute for street protests in Lebanon (Youngs & Panchulidze, 2020, pp. 11–20). These activities aim at promoting youth civic engagement, community development and local peacebuilding.

 Local peacebuilding

The role of youths’ civic and political engagement and contribution to processes of change has been a significant issue to consider since the Arab Spring and the Tunisia Uprising in particular, as Honwana (2013) argues. However, young people’s voices and experiences are still far from finding their full integration or understanding, as discussed by Berents and McEvoy-Levy (2015).

CSOs play a significant role in engaging the youth in local peacebuilding initiatives. To strengthen their intervention, CSOs coordinate and cooperate with grassroots centres from different areas. For instance,  in the Palestinian Territories, they train young people in the principles and techniques of leadership, voluntary work, and the advocacy and implementation of community initiatives. Many CSOs have also held a number of meetings and discussions with representatives of target groups in order to design programmes for young people’s engagement in community peace actions (Natil, 2014, 2019, 2020b). Young leaders have also engaged in forming community forums to assist trainees to put their newly acquired “practice” skills into operation by organising community initiatives and activities.

Previously, Michels and de Graaf (2010) have discussed the importance of networks of civic engagement to make citizens more qualified. Young people also employ education tools and approaches to increase peacebuilding, just as a specialist/leader employs active listening and mediation to solve family and social problems and civil society activists engage in community development and human rights programmes, employing a community participatory approach to contribute to grassroots peacebuilding (Natil, 2020b).

There have been, however, a number of Yemeni women who have made exceptional contributions to their society through practices and concepts of engagement in community peacebuilding and education activities. The promotion of justice is an essential approach for the empowerment of people engagement and their contribution to their communities as well. However, excluding young Yemeni people from active engagement in the peace process is a real challenge and threat to Yemen’s future stability and development, as well as to ending its conflict and bringing about peace. Yemeni youth are at the core of ending their nation’s conflict and bringing peace.  As long as the peace process in Yemen does not fully include all segments of Yemeni society – the youth in particular, who are the future of the country –this process will surely be fragile and violence is likely to break out again in the future.

Prospects and Challenges for Community Development

The failure of governments to provide quality services for young people and/or engage them effectively in a transparent policymaking process has already led to widespread discontent among youths, as the UN Youth World Report (2016, p. 14) discusses. Repressive regimes have been found to control young people and their CSOs by dominating financial channels (Weeden, 2015). I have previously discussed the barriers facing civil society and its abilities to cope with and operate within shifting conditions and restrictive political environments, despite the complexity of the socio-cultural and economic context (Natil 2019, 2020). Occupying the ground between business and government, the youth CSO sector faces a number of regulatory and financial challenges that affect its overall health, legitimacy and sustainability (Natil, 2020).

Violence represents a major challenge to young people’s participatory engagement at the grassroots level and to their contributions to the development of their society. Case studies of youth who are engaged in community development and peacebuilding should be presented with the aim of presenting real-life experiences. This question has always been an issue in countries that have been shattered by conflict and poverty, such as Yemen, Palestine and Syria. However, youth engagement and involvement can also be negative, such as in their radicalism and extremism, as Akil N. Awan (2016) argues.

The CSOs’ activities include helping to eliminate the phenomenon of domestic violence against women in the MENA region. The young women of Yemen, for example, have been subject to different types of violence, owing to the ongoing conflict, divisions and social context. Marginalised and vulnerable groups face violence as a serious threat to both their civic engagement and community participation.

CSOs must be careful to ensure that the implementation of programmes remains inclusive and as broadly based as possible—focussing on empowering young people’s networks and collective work among civil society actors as a base for sustainable action. Civil society partnerships ensure the actions’ success. They also ensure their inclusivity and the active civic engagement of activists with participatory approaches. Consequently, there have been an increasing number of young people and women who are fighting against social constraints and cultural barriers that prevent their engagement and contribution to the change process.


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Dr Ibrahim Natil is a Research Fellow at the Institute of International Conflict Resolution and Re-construction (IICRR) at DCU, the Co-convenor of NGOs in Development Study Group, DSA-UK and the founder of Society Voice Foundation. He has published many works, including six books, and taught at different academic institutions.

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