Youth and Politics in Conflict Contexts
Recognizing that youth are predominantly portrayed as potential threats to stability and security in countries affected by conflict, the Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity has initiated a series of activities focusing on youth in conflict. In the second conference of this series, the Leadership Project co-sponsored a half-day event with the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs on May 16 to discuss ways in which youth serve as important catalysts for positive change and as contributors to sustainable peace through active involvement in the political process. Youth representatives from Bosnia, Kenya, Liberia, and New York spoke of their personal involvement as political actors focusing on their roles in political party development, governance, citizen participation, and elections. Panelists emphasized the need for more youth-centered government policies, investments, and actions to engage the significant proportion of non-elite, uneducated, rural youth who make up the majority of the populations in countries emerging from conflict.
The first panel focused on the role of youth in building and strengthening democratic institutions in specific contexts. John Imoite initiated the discussion by elaborating his concerns and recommendations for increasing positive youth engagement in Kenyan politics. He noted that as more youth begin to understand the relationship between political power and resource distribution in Kenya, youth involvement in politics is increasing. However, many obstacles discourage youth from playing a positive role in Kenyan politics including the fact that the political environment often precludes non-governmental actors, including youth, from participation in policy discussions. Additionally, youths' frequent lack of resources for campaigning and the prevailing negative cultural perceptions of youth among the population result in many aspiring leaders being kept off party lists. Imoite also recognized youths' self-inflicted obstacles, especially their ignorance of political issues and their tendency to be impatient and intolerant of opposing views rather than strategic in creating opportunities for compromise. In order to increase positive youth leadership, Imoite stressed the need for training in management skills and for youth role models to help guide and motivate their peers. Additionally, institutionalizing party politics at the national level will create a more predictable system that is easier for newcomers to navigate and will facilitate youth involvement.
Indira Ina Karovic explained that the political and educational systems in Bosnia deter most young people from engaging in politics. The complexity of the Bosnian political system makes involvement for young leaders unappealing and often prohibitively challenging. Additionally, discriminatory electoral laws can prevent motivated youth from entering the political arena. Karovic saw the lack of state-led support of youth as the primary reason for their apathy and reluctance to actively engage in political life. Additionally, the weak and often ethnically-biased educational system leaves youth inadequately prepared for forward-looking political participation. Karovic described a need for improved education in and familiarity with politics and parliamentary procedure and stressed the need for progressive politicians to support parties that are more open to youth engagement.
Benjamin Quinto emphasized the importance of providing positive avenues for youth involvement noting that when young people do not feel appreciated or cannot find a sense of belonging in a way that promotes a positive role for them in society, they will look for other avenues of inclusion. Recognizing that the most "progressive countries" have strong systems for engaging youth in policy formation and in creating or altering programs designed to support youth, Quinto suggested that the most effective way to create a place of belonging and to give youth a voice is through national and local youth councils that create opportunities for youth to influence policy decisions at many levels. Quinto pointed out that the discussion around youth involvement is not new, rather we are seeing a new and growing momentum on these issues that will hopefully create more effective opportunities for young people. He emphasized that those opportunities will not only keep youth from engaging in harmful activities, but will also cultivate young people's potential for bringing fresh ideas to policy discussions.
The second panel examined youth involvement in elections monitoring and civic education campaigns during the 2005 elections in Liberia and assessed the youth agenda in Liberia today. According to Eddie Jarwolo, the National Youth Movement for Transparent Elections-Partners for Democratic Development's (NAYMOTE-PADD) pre-election surveys in 1997 found that a significant portion of Liberian youth believed that the elections would be rigged by external forces regardless of voters' opinions and that youth were highly susceptible to political schemes to buy votes. NAYMOTE therefore launched a "Get Out to Vote" campaign focused on educating youth on the electoral process, including how and where to register to vote, and on the importance of voting. They trained youth as volunteer civic educators, hosted candidate debates focused on youth concerns, and sought to ensure trust in the campaign by cautioning candidates to play by the rules. After the elections, NAYMOTE has continued to engage youth in community and town hall meetings to hold elected officials accountable to campaign promises. Jarwolo pointed out that the 2005 elections saw an unprecedented number of registered youth voters. NAYMOTE's pre-election campaign revealed that youth were easily mobilized when they were aware of the issues, especially issues relate to their needs, and when they played a constructive role in programs and planning. Venues for entertainment, including athletic and social events, proved to be effective places for reaching out to young people. Consequently, these lessons learned will be drawn upon when designing future programs.
Randolph Carter noted the major strides made in the past decade to address the role of youth in Liberia and commented on the strengths and weaknesses of the pending Liberian National Youth Policy (LNYP). Recognizing that traditionally Liberian youth are not included in adult conversations or interactions, he highlighted the power shift that occurred during the war in which youth took up weapons and assumed leadership roles that became associated with fear and destruction. The challenge in the post-war period has been to create positive roles for youth and thereby change public opinion. The resulting youth movement and specifically the LNYP, has attempted to include all youth voices and marks the first time Liberian youth have had the opportunity to fully engage at the policy level. However, Carter noted the limitations of the LNYP indicating that it does not sufficiently address the needs of non-elite or female youth or the role of youth in conflict. Ongoing negotiations on the LNYP are currently hindering the ratification process. Carter encouraged youth and youth-related ministries such as the Ministry of Sports and the Ministry of Education to increase their advocacy efforts and engage adults in the conversation so as to promote the profile of the LNYP and make it a national priority.
As the final panelist, Marc Sommers addressed a number of issues that have been raised in youth-specific rhetoric. Specifically, he questioned the youth bulge hypothesis that associates young people with security threats. He pointed out that in the case of Liberia, where some 200,000 young men fought as rebels in the war, these armed boys constituted only a small fraction of the total youth population in Liberia. While most people focus on the small percentage of youth who were engaged in violence, Sommers suggested that more attention should be directed at the rest of the youth population who resisted engaging in violence despite their stressful and frustrating living conditions. Additionally, rather than paying attention to youth only when they riot or cause trouble, youth-centered policy should be created to address the needs of youth and provide them with viable avenues of expression. In fact, in most countries affected by conflict, Sommers pointed out that youth constitute the largest single age group, and therefore, more efforts should be made to mainstream youth issues in national legislation and policy. However, when creating youth-specific policy, he emphasized that it should not just be elite, educated, male youth who are consulted and included. In fact, young girls' involvement in policy-related initiatives is often limited as a result of the prevalence of sexual violence both during and after conflict that makes them less inclined to want to work with their male counterparts. More effort should be directed at understanding the effects of gender, class, and location on youth realities and thereby increase the degree of inclusion for rural, uneducated youth.
Drafted by Libby Hubbard and Georgina Petrosky.