Youth: From Problem to Asset


August 30, 2013 05:49 EDT

Rather than seeing youth as a problem, we must recognize how youth can be the solution.

It was a calm morning on July 6, just before dawn, at a boarding school in Momudo, a small town in northern Nigeria. While the students and staff slept, a group of Boko Haram militants attacked, using guns, improvised explosives, and fire. Within minutes, 42 students and staff were killed, and another 100 students fled into the wilderness. Boko Haram, a militant group dedicated to fighting “Western” education, seemed to have accomplished their goal. Immediately after, local officials closed all schools for at least two months. Too often, youth take the brunt of conflict, usually the first victims in communal violence.

But that is only half of the equation. Boko Haram is an organization largely built of young recruits, frustrated youth who lacked viable options and sound advice in their most vulnerable years. They have used these recruits to burn down churches, attack schools, and resist the Nigerian military for nearly a decade, killing approximately 10,000 of their fellow Nigerians. Having successfully shut out traditional education in their core areas of activity, they can now freely recruit from the religious schools in their area. Chances are, the militants who attacked the school in Momudo were not much older than the victims.

Insufficient Response

The response to such violence is often condemnation, and the gathering of religious leaders to make a joint statement declaring their dissent of violence. While this is commendable, it is unfortunately not enough. In a country where the life expectancy is 52, and the average age is 17, it is absolutely possible to do peacebuilding work without engaging the youth: urgently, significantly, and meaningfully.

I have witnessed this phenomenon in my own work. I was inspired to found World Faith, a global youth movement of interfaith development projects, when I went to Egypt to do independent research on Christian-Muslim relations. I was struck that while people at large “coexisted” or “tolerated” each other, all it would take is for someone to throw a rock through the window of a mosque or church for six to be dead by morning. The violent few disrupted the communal trust. Most importantly, it was young people who were most likely to be the perpetrators and victims of violence.

When I returned to New York and began meeting with interfaith organizations, I was struck by a key fact. These organizations were mostly comprised of religious leaders engaging in dialogue. Yet the violence I witnessed was young people acting out. I founded World Faith out of the frustration that I do not believe that old people talking can counter young people taking action.

And I am not the only person with this belief. It was Dr Eboo Patel who first introduced me to the concept of the faith line. Just as W.E.B. Du Bois saw the color not as a barrier between black and white, but as a philosophical distinction between those for racial integration and those against, Patel sees the challenge of the 21st century not between faith traditions, but as the forces of religious pluralism against those who seek division. Furthermore, he recognizes that it is only the young people who can effectively lead this movement.

With that vision he founded the Interfaith Youth Core, which has been transforming campuses in America over the past decade. As a student involved in that movement, I believed this could be taken a step further. I believe we can empower religiously diverse youth in the most conflicted places to work together, not only to disincentivize violence, but to make meaningful contributions to development issues, like poverty, women’s empowerment, public health, and education.

It was in this spirit that I joined with other interfaith activists to build World Faith to do just that. Now six years later, we're active in 16 countries, last year mobilizing over 3,000 volunteers in 50,000 hours of service. This has been incredibly true for the Middle East and North Africa, where interest in the World Faith model has arisen in places like Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Sudan. Through this work, I have come to the realization that peacebuilding is not the only process that leaves out the youth.

Youth as an Asset

Development projects, often tied to the Millenium Development Goals, too often completely ignore youth when building programs. Many times when youth are included, they are done so as the target of the projects. Another way of reading that is to say that youth are the problem. This is increasingly the case in the global recession, as youth have taken the brunt of the burden with unemployment, higher educational expenses, and decreased economic opportunity.

While this is true, I think it poses a great opportunity. Switching from traditional development models to Asset-Based Community Development, we can begin the process by asking the question, “what assets do we have?” instead of “what do we need?” When taking on any of these challenges, the youth must be seen primarily as an asset.

It makes sense. Youth are an incredibly underutilized resource in the developing world, and particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. Youth and young adults typically have wide social networks, are geographically and socially mobile, more likely to be educated, and most likely to be open to new ideas and people.

Leveraging this creative and inspired generation is not only a good idea, it must be the only way we effectively end the cycles of violence and poverty that keep our communities in a negative feedback loop of fear of others and despair of our own prospects.  

If nothing else, the next ten years in the changing landscapes of the Middle East and North Africa after the Arab Spring will largely be defined by the role of its youth. If given the chance to create, collaborate, and connect, we can close a long chapter on the story of violence and poverty in the Middle East, and beyond.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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