The vast majority of the world’s youth — 87 percent — live in developing countries. In these tough places, one billion young people are faced with the disruptions of war, poverty and disaster that turn the inherent uncertainties of adolescence into a fight for survival.
That “fight” is what many people worry about — displaced from their homes, denied an education, faced with limited employment opportunities, is this a disgruntled generation who will threaten the security and stability of their countries?
Our answer: No. Mercy Corps believes in the power of young people to be the future leaders and catalysts for positive change in our world. But we must provide the right support at the right time to set them on a path to thrive.
We spoke with Rebecca Wolfe, our Director of Conflict Management and Peacebuilding programs, about how Mercy Corps works to support and empower young people around the world, and especially how we prevent youth from engaging in conflict.
She’ll be discussing these ideas with policy makers and government leaders this Monday, June 9, at our event with the United States Institute of Peace: Youth & Violence – Engaging the Lost Generation. Learn more and listen to the webcast on Monday ▸
Q: Why does Mercy Corps believe it is so important to work with youth?
Young people want to make change. That we know. And we know that by helping develop their skills and contributions, you’re actually helping develop that society. They’re the next generation. In order to achieve any kind of sustainable change, you have to make sure there’s a population in waiting to be able to carry it forward.
Q: When we talk about youth, what ages are we talking about?
Particularly from 12 to 24, young people are starting to figure out themselves and their lives, and in that transition period they are very susceptible to influence. So do you have the right influences in the area to put them on the right path? Are there safe schools to go to? Can they go to school? Do they have positive peers to engage with? Are there ways they can contribute to their community through those more positive means?
If young people are going to be on that positive, thriving trajectory, we need to be able to put them on that path during that period of time. But in many places we work, there are very few resources to help young people. And they are susceptible to negative influences.
Q: What are the risks they face?
Young people want a chance to make where they live better. But most of the time young people get involved in negative behaviors because they feel like there are no alternatives. That can mean participating in violence — which is what I focus on in particular, finding ways to prevent young people from getting involved in conflict. But it is also drugs and alcohol, dangerous work like illegal mining, and for girls, falling into prostitution or facing child marriage because there are so few options.
Q: I imagine that those risks are even more pronounced for young people living in an ongoing conflict, like the Syrian civil war.
In the context of living in violence, we recognize the stress that puts on young people. That kind of stress impedes brain development, and the lack of security often prevents them from going to school. This situation creates isolation, and those limited opportunities for young people make it even more difficult for them to get on an upward trajectory.
Q: What about those who are displaced from their country?
What we’ve found in our work with Syrian adolescents in Jordan and Lebanon is that, even when displaced, young people still want a chance to contribute, whether it’s in the camp or with their host community. They still want that.
And as we see the impediments to education, we must work to make sure these young people don’t fall further behind. Who knows if and when these Syrian refugees will go back. So we need to make sure they also need to be able to live in a society where they may end up.
Protection is critical, but we try to move beyond protection so that young people can thrive in the future. Otherwise they are just in this no person’s land, and they’re just going to fall further behind. And that is where they are at risk of getting drawn into violence themselves. The status quo is not okay.
Q: Why are youth so susceptible to participating in violence?
Well, first I think it’s wrong to always focus on the youth that cause problems, when the majority of youth don’t cause problems. But I’ve heard that in so many places, and there’s this conventional wisdom that particularly idle youth cause problems — that an idle mind is the devil’s workshop.
Really, I think young people are trying to find ways of contributing to their communities, and particularly the protection of their communities. Unfortunately, in many environments, one of the ways that young people think they can do that is through violent groups.
But young people’s participation in violence is always determined by multiple factors. It’s not one cause. So a lot of our youth programs across the board actually have various approaches.
Q: Where are Mercy Corps’ youth and conflict programs located?
Yemen. Afghanistan. Zimbabwe. Kenya. Somalia. These are the most explicitly targeted toward preventing youth from participating in violence. And in the countries related to the Syria response, we are starting to think about that a lot more.
Q: What have we learned about youth and violence in doing this kind of work?
The drivers of violence among young people really vary in any given place. You need to look at the incentives for violence for youth in these various settings if that’s what you are trying to address. What we’re also finding is the trends change over time as well, so you have to update your strategies frequently.
What’s really surprising in some of our recent research is unemployment isn’t as strong of a motivating factor to participate in violence. This is not to say that we shouldn’t be doing employment programs. We should be doing employment programs in these settings for various reasons: It helps that young person’s family, it helps that person’s community, and it helps the overall country, in terms of economic productivity.
Whether that means stability is a different question. So if you’re doing employment for stability, you might be going down the wrong path. I don’t think it hurts stability, but it’s not going to improve it in many settings.
Q: But supporting education and jobs is still a key component of helping youth develop a productive future.
Absolutely. In Somalia, we’re building schools. We’re increasing and revising curriculum. And then there’s these sort of PTA groups and community engagement in schools, so parents are more likely to send their kids.
In terms of employment, there are various approaches. Somalia does have a workforce development component, recognizing that not everyone is going to university. So we are doing technical training and supporting vocational training centers, as well as supporting the development of life skills like communication, time management, self control. People have to be able to work in various jobs, so they need transferrable skills, regardless of the trade or career.
But when it comes to participation in violence specifically, we’ve found that it’s not so much the structural causes like poverty that incentivize young people to join violent groups. It’s really a lot more about a sense of belonging and meaning.
Q: So how does Mercy Corps help prevent youth from getting involved with violence?
In Central Province in Kenya, there’s a horrific gang called Mungiki. When we started youth groups there, the gang members actually left the gang to join our youth groups. They found there was way of getting those needs met in a more productive way. It’s about providing young people with healthy alternatives.
In Yemen, we’ve fostered mentoring relationships for young people through internships. These community networks and positive role models protect them from negative influences and help them find meaning in other ways.
With Syrian adolescents, we hear that they want to protect their families. Are there ways we can help them do that without involving violence?
Community service projects are a way that young people can serve their communities, and some of the projects are around protection. We did that in Tajikistan, with youth working on disaster risk reduction projects in order to help protect their communities from natural disasters. The same can be done in conflict settings, to help improve the safety of neighborhoods and the services that are available.
What we also find is that through those projects, adults gain more respect for young people and are more likely to include young people in community decisions structures. In Nepal, we found that young people were elected to office as a result of this work — that was the place it became clear to me how powerful this could be.
It shows others that youth are a positive force in their community.