Ask the Experts

“What are the most significant opportunities and pressing challenges for NGOs seeking to support youth-led peace building?”

In the first post of a new blog series entitled, “Ask the Experts,” a selection of nine NGO, youth, and peace-building experts answer a new question from Generations For Peace.

Mark Clark | CEO of Generations For Peace

There are enormous opportunities for NGOs to engage youth in peace building in meaningful ways: working with youth; not doing things to them or for them. Engagement is not about workshops and trainings in isolation. Youth are being work-shopped to death! They have so many opportunities for a two-day leadership training or three-day life skills workshop, but without any programmatic follow-up to apply what they have learned. So they now approach such opportunities cynically as a cv-building exercise.

Generations For Peace provides training and then ongoing mentoring and support through programme design, implementation, and participatory evaluation, giving youth real opportunities to demonstrate their leadership and responsible citizenship through local actions in their own communities, and to feel trusted and appreciated by adults and authority figures for their contribution to their community.

However, youth-led organisations – with truly youth-dominated decision-making and governance structures – may often suffer from real or perceived limitations that they lack the experience and/or political status to engage with stakeholders from whom they need resources or support.

Another colossal challenge is the woefully inadequate funding for peace building. The economic argument is compelling: for every $1 spent on ‘upstream’ conflict prevention, $16 is saved on the ‘downstream’ costs of violent conflict. And yet, global annual spending on peace building is currently only $2Bn. Compare that to ice cream, at $9Bn and violent conflict at $13,600Bn!

Daniel Hyslop |Research Director at Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP)
Talia Hagerty | Research Fellow at Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP)

Chief among the opportunities for youth-led peace building and its supporters is the realisation of the demographic dividend, positioning youth as drivers of peace and prosperity. IEP research shows that NGOs and other leaders can build the enabling environment for young people to succeed at peace building. We now know ever more about the peace building interventions that work, many of which focus on young people and youth. However, persistent failure to capture peace indicators – as opposed to indicators of violence – limits this learning. IEP estimates that 1 in 4 youth live in a state or province affected by violent conflict, meaning that tracking youth responses to violence and youth engagement in peace building is a critical exercise.

This type of data analysis is essential for realising the youth, peace, and security agenda. Evidence and emphasis on youth-led peace building can prevent the agenda from being captured by a narrow focus on violent extremism, which carries two risks. The first is an overly technocratic approach can lead to young people being the subject of, rather than the leaders in, peace building interventions. The second is an overly ideological or pessimistic approach risks stigmatising young people as no more than potential terrorists. However, the field faces a vicious cycle in improving the evidence base, as the cost of developing the type of evidence donors demand is very high, and the capacity of peacebuilders to develop it remains low. One innovative solution would be building data capacity among young peacebuilders, thus setting the foundation for a more effective field of practice for generations to come.

Lisa Inks | Senior Peace and Conflict Advisor at Mercy Corps 

While most practitioners know that youth do not speak with one voice, far fewer have the tools to identify and gear programming toward a range of youth, from the most marginalised to the elites. This presents a significant and often overlooked challenge. We learned through a study we conducted in Mali, which found elite youth to be just as likely to take up arms as those on the fringes, that diverse youth representation is particularly important in peace building, where assumptions about risk factors for violence can be wrong. We also have the opportunity to placate inequalities that make societies more fragile: this requires adaptability, deep local knowledge, and a willingness to acknowledge when we’ve gotten targeting wrong.

We also know of the challenges that surface when raising youth’s expectations and capacity. Our research from Somalia showed that without opportunities for civic engagement, access to education actually correlated to youth’s increased support for political violence. Working deliberately with government to engage youth through inclusive processes provides the opportunity to prevent those grievances that can lead to violence.

Youth are one part of a larger environment in which violence takes hold, and sometimes it is the elders and other leaders orchestrating violence. Practitioners should take any opportunity to support key influencers — religious leaders, teachers, mothers, and local leaders — to give youth the space to lead, and NGOs should remember to start with themselves. Supporting youth to lead means giving up control and letting youth drive peace building in their own ways — not ours. As the high school students in Parkland, Florida recently demonstrated, youth can be powerful in promoting peace and change.

Julia Roig | President at PartnersGlobal

After attending and speaking at the Venture Peacebuilding conference in DC, I got to hear again (and again) about how much we elevate new start-ups and impact investments for the world’s young people to build peace. After 20 years in the sector, my strong feeling is that we won’t be able to ‘entrepreneur’ our way out of conflict – rather we need to support young people to connect dots, look around at what already exists, and build on efforts that are ongoing. The challenge we face in peace building is inspiring youth to stop romanticising new start-ups that are going to “innovate” their way into peace and to instead recognise expertise and experience, urging them to connect with what’s happening already.

In turn, these connections open up opportunities in youth-led peace building. We connect with each other online, through videos, through transmedia, and through entertainment channels – young creatives are generating content that shapes the opinions of the future generation. I honestly believe that it is through partnerships with the creative industry that peacebuilders will truly make a difference. That is why PartnersGlobal is working with the One Club for Creativity, Young Ones competition to invite future designers to promote a message of tolerance and inclusion, and why we’re establishing fellowships for creatives to work with peace-building organisations around the world. Young people’s collective voice through the arts and creative messaging are some of their strongest assets and greatest opportunities in the field of peace building.

We will surely accomplish this dream of peace TOGETHER. The old and the young; experience coupled with fresh perspectives; institutional infrastructure with social movements; technological ingenuity with old-school advocacy and coalition-building. We need different experience levels and talents. NGOs looking to support youth-led peace building shouldn’t quadrant them off by themselves.  It’s not only about youth. It’s about all of us together for peace.

Fish Stark | Fellow-in-Residence at Peace First

We often tend to think of young people in one of three ways: Victims who need to be protected, offenders who need to be punished, or “the future,” the leaders of tomorrow who we need to further develop. None of those ways of thinking recognise that young people can be and are leaders – powerful, tremendous, impactful leaders – right now.

The central challenge for NGOs seeking to support youth-led peace building will be to break out of those tired assumptions about young people’s place and potential. If NGOs can treat young people as advocates, leaders, and partners, rather than as passive service recipients, tremendous opportunities present themselves.

First, this generation of young people is hungry to lead, create, and transform. When organisations offer opportunities for young people to truly lead peace-building efforts, it becomes a catalyst for deeper engagement. Second, young people are powerful peer influencers, and any peace-building effort that is authentically youth-led will have tremendous buy-in from other young people. Third, young people are often closest to the problem – and are uniquely able to identify insightful, creative, and effective solutions to community challenges.

Young people are already leading, innovating, and making peace in their communities in tremendous ways. In many cases, supporting youth-led peace building is as simple as approaching young people who are already doing exceptional work and asking them “how can we help?” Then, don’t just listen to their suggestions – invest in them. You’ll build an alliance that can change the world.

Todd Shuster | Co-Founder of Peace Studio

As a business entrepreneur in the publishing and entertainment industries and a co-founder of the Peace Studio, I see the most significant challenges and opportunities for NGOs promoting youth-based peace-building as entailing the following: atomisation— there’s a wonderful diversity of mostly small NGOs that need to organise into a powerful and undeniable coalition and then, with the public, launch a broad modern day peace movement; funding — this coalition will need tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars to educate and inspire people living in communities all over the world — we are up against hugely wealthy corporations and governments that generate billions off of conflicts and the weapons used to fight them; storytelling — we need to tell compelling stories in books, videos, film, and television shows (etc.) to show what peace building looks like — to convey the courage and strength, physical and emotional, required to do this work; bold, new, lifelong educational curricula — we need to invest tremendous time, money, and effort to ensure that across their lives, in school and at home, children and adults (especially parents and teachers) study and master key socio-emotional skills including anger management, conflict resolution, and mindfulness; and self-care — peace builders, like athletes, need to take good care of their minds and bodies by pursuing vigorous physical exercise, healthy eating, relaxation and meditation practices, and close, caring, fun-filled relationships with friends, family members, and other loved ones.

Keneshbek Sainazarov | Central Asia Program Director at Search for Common Ground

The world is full of conflicts and disagreements. Governments or inter-governmental institutions, which officially should play a facilitating role in such cases, frequently fail in effectively tackling conflicts overall. This results in a populous’ losing its trust in traditional institutions.

At the same time, youth seem to be forgotten or not seen to be a priority, while traditional institutions have a million other “pressing” issues to deal with first. As a cohort of society, youth – often left out of governmental affairs and are without means to navigate through in an ambiguous situation – is mostly seen as an excellent resource for other “interested” parties in the conflict to create a critical mass around them.

Under such circumstances, NGOs have a unique opportunity to play the role of both facilitators of conflict resolution and supporters of youth-led initiatives to build peace. CSOs are best placed for such role as they are one of the remaining institutions in the society, who still base their programming to local needs, as a result have a relative trust with public.

To ensure that their programming with youth is effective, NGOs must ensure their work is in line with the following principles: first, NGOs should target those youth who pursue a genuine mission to do peace-building work at the grassroots level, and these youth should be equipped with rigorous conflict analysis grounded to local context. Second, the youth peace-building initiatives should target those youth who are unheard to the society at large and those who are involved in local conflicts. Third, NGOs should employ “do no harm” approaches with their programming in order not to lose their credibility among youth, and put their intervention under a state scrutiny. With these principles in mind, NGOs are well equipped to effectively support youth-led peace building.

Julian Payne | Project Leader at Sustainable Development Solutions Network – Youth Initiative

Youth are uniquely affected by humanitarian crises and conflicts. Indeed, many young people live in fragile and conflict-affected countries, but are seldom called upon to initiate solutions to development challenges. At present there are over 1.8 billion young people aged 10 to 24 on the planet, 90% of whom live in developing countries, where they tend to constitute a large portion of the population. Engaging youth in peace building is critical for leveraging the tremendous energy of young people to transform the institutions that hinder socio-economic well-being and sustainable development.

Youth-led peace building and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are intimately linked, as can be seen when considering Goal 13 on Climate Action. Food insecurity, water stress, forced migration and economic recessions are only some of the impacts associated with climate change. An understanding for the impact of climate change on communities is critical for also understanding the underlying mechanisms of how forced migration, conflict and security challenges apply specifically to young people. It is further important to help inform young people and youth leaders on how to solve development challenges and engage in peace building.

The opportunities for NGOs seeking to support youth-led peace building are myriad, ranging from educating young people to increase the capacity of their communities to scaling-up innovation support and youth entrepreneurship. The SDGs offer a compelling call to action defining a new vision for human development and need to be considered by young people engaging in peace building.

*Note: to avoid bias, responses are placed in alphabetical order of organisation name

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