Empowering youth peacebuilders will make U.S. foreign policy more effective
Young people play a key role in building peace and stability overseas, often as frontline responders and creative problem solvers. This is evident in their response to COVID-19, from youth in Cameroon who are making and distributing hand sanitizer to youth in Sri Lanka gathering donations to feed thousands of community members facing days-long curfews without supplies.
In many of the world’s most fragile countries, youth compose the majority of the population (the median age in Somalia, for example, is 18.5 years old). Yet most foreign assistance treats youth as a target beneficiary rather than a genuine partner.
Headlines and policies focus on a problematic minority of young people rather than the peaceful and constructive majority.
Any U.S. foreign assistance that promotes stability and peace abroad must prioritize and mainstream youth empowerment and engagement. U.S. assistance towards youth today falls short, however. A newly-introduced U.S. bill addresses four key flaws in international assistance which risk undermining U.S. development priorities:
First, youth are often treated as a problem to be solved. Myths about youth distort the way that assistance is designed and delivered. Young people are too often portrayed as either villains or victims, either actively participating in violence or suffering passively because of it. Both frames stigmatize youth and are counterproductive. Meanwhile, strategies and funding opportunities build on old notions about “idle hands” and the need to give youth jobs and job skills to prevent violence, another myth that has been dispelled.
The data is clear: The vast majority of young people living in fragile and conflict affected areas are not involved in, or in danger of being involved in, violence. Many of them are already working to build peace, despite the risks.
Second, youth are particularly at risk from repressive security measures, which are likely to exacerbate security problems rather than alleviate them. Evidence indicates that when there are large youth populations, governments are more likely to repress youth preemptively, leading to cycles of instability. Many counterterror policies, for example, repress young people’s legitimate avenues for political participation. Youth who defend human rights or civic participation often face increased violence.
While the U.S. invests around the world in promoting human rights and good governance, many of these efforts fail to take a youth-specific lens, missing this key population that is uniquely vulnerable to repression.
Third, although youth are essential grassroots actors, they are underrepresented in overseas peace and stability programs. Youth have demonstrated capacity in effective (and cost-effective) violence prevention, tackling violent extremism and post-conflict peacebuilding. Around the world, youth operate with credibility and creativity in spaces where government and the international community cannot. Yet many programs focused on peace and security, treat youth as an afterthought or a target group, rather than a key stakeholder and implementer, making the programs less effective and sustainable.
Fourth, U.S. assistance is inaccessible to most youth peacebuilders. Youth tend to mobilize informally, focusing on issues rather than traditional NGO structures. Those youth who do form their own organizations have very low budgets and operate mostly through volunteers. U.S. assistance often overlooks this reality. Structural barriers limit young people’s access to funding and support, from burdensome registration to administrative requirements, personnel specifications and more.
A recent assessment of USAID’s Youth in Development Policy found that while the policy has addressed some challenges, more needs to be done to strengthen youth-focused work and improve the participation of young people. The U.S. must increase the proportion of foreign assistance directly to youth-led groups and initiatives and increase their representation in decision making.
On March 10, Reps. Grace Meng (D-N.Y,), Susan Brooks (R-Conn.), Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) and John Curtis (R-Utah) introduced a bipartisan bill, the Youth Peace and Security (YPS) Act of 2020, to address these flaws.
This critical piece of legislation would address each of the four pitfalls and ensure that U.S. foreign policy is more effective, efficient and ethical. The bill has four key components: establishing a U.S. policy to improve the inclusive and meaningful participation of youth in overseas peace and security efforts; ensuring inter-agency coordination on this issue through a designated coordinator and youth-inclusive advisory group; requiring the development of a YPS strategy to integrate youth perspectives, lower structural barriers, standardize data collection and disaggregation and prioritize funding and technical assistance to youth-led peace work; authorizing a new YPS fund to directly support youth-led groups and initiatives that currently struggle to access USG funding.
Wrapped in technicalities, this bill may not sound revolutionary, but it is. This Act ensures funding about youth is informed by youth — young people with amazing ideas about how to build peace can access funding and support from the U.S. to implement them. It also establishes the U.S. as a clear leader in peacebuilding globally, as a genuine ally and partner in young people’s work.
Now is the time to empower youth. Young people around the world are building peace already, and with U.S. support, they can do even more.
Rachel Walsh Taza is a program manager at Search for Common Ground, where she supports on the ground programming engaging young peacebuilders. Kimberly Brody Hart is the senior manager at Search for Common Ground, where she advises foreign policy actors on how to build peace and prevent violence.
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