Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme & Second Century Initiative
Research Assistant, Middle East and North Africa Programme

The global interconnectedness of youth activism and the interrelated nature of the problems to be addressed need to be reflected more in policies targeting young people.

Students chat on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis, Tunisia, on 14 November 2014. Photo: FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images.Students chat on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis, Tunisia, on 14 November 2014. Photo: Getty Images.

Summary

  • European and US funders have increased their provision of youth-focused programming in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) since the popular uprisings of 2011, but the majority of those in the 18–25 age range have largely disengaged from formal political participation.
  • For young people, access to channels for civic participation, within or outside political parties, remains extremely limited. Feelings of disempowerment are prevalent, and policy-making is perceived as being dominated by an older generation of elites who are out of touch with the aspirations and needs of today’s youth.
  • External assumptions made about the risks of youth radicalization – above all, affiliation to groups such as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – often fail to reflect the more commonly expressed desire of many young people to seek ownership and agency in shaping the future of their communities and societies as active and constructive citizens.
  • The centralization of political power is a key driver in youth marginalization, blocking their engagement in social and political issues of interest and concern to them. ‘Top-down’ approaches to national youth policies not only fail to engage young people but also risk increasing their disillusionment. Instead, the value of civil society organizations in providing skills training and capacity-building programmes needs to be recognized through the provision of platforms for young people to express their views at both local and national level.
  • Many young people still lack access to a good, formal education, and do not have the ‘soft skills’ that will best equip them for labour markets in which youth unemployment remains high. Successful youth programmes such as Young Arab Voices (YAV) have a role to play in addressing the gaps in training in transferable skills, but the deployment of these skills also relies on national governments’ active engagement with young people.
  • The expansion of cultural programmes such as YAV into a Euro-Mediterranean context is an important next step. Notably, the most common aspirations of MENA youth differ little from those that might be expressed by their unemployed and under-represented counterparts in countries such as Spain and Greece: they all seek a better education, jobs, the opportunity to acquire creative skills, and a platform and channels for their collective concerns to be heard by their respective governments.
  • The global interconnectedness of youth activism and the interrelated nature of the problems to be addressed need to be reflected more in policies targeting young people. At both the national and the European level, they should not be seen as an undifferentiated category, but as having an important role to play in wider social and economic policies.
  • The gap between youth engagement in social and online media, rather than through more conventional broadcast and print media, needs to be addressed in shared platforms for dialogue and engagement with society as a whole. Credible sources of public information, as well as training in research skills, are also critical if young people are to play a full civic role.