Youth & Social Change

“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”
– Eleanor Roosevelt

A broad youth movement exists today, the world is generally not aware of it, and even young people do not know they belong to it. However, this decentralization in social movements today is part of a trend called “The Multitudes,” in which localized action without focal-point leaders is subtly, powerfully changing the world.

Today’s youth are the people who can change the world, as well as the people that are changing it. Social change led by young people is not all about young people. Instead, children and youth are working for their communities, their families, their cities, and their world. Action that is focused on youth issues often addresses young people as a whole, not isolating other youth because of race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation.

Youth Bulge

The median age in Egypt is 23.9 years, in Jordan 22.8, in Morocco and Algeria 26.2, in Tunisia 29.1, in Syria 22.5 and in Yemen it is as low as 17.8.These are astonishing statistics. By way of comparison, the median age in most of Europe, for instance, is well over 40, and over 36 in the United States.

The Middle East and North Africa are currently experiencing a prominent youth bulge. Structural changes in service provision, especially health care, beginning in the 1960s created the conditions for a population explosion, which has resulted in a population consisting primarily of younger people. It is estimated that around 65% of the regional population is under the age of 30.
Researchers quote that over the next two decades, the youth populations in Iraq, Yemen, and the Palestinian Territories — where current levels of fertility are the highest in the region—will experience the fastest growth. In these countries, well over 40 percent of their populations are currently under 15 years of age. On average, an Iraqi woman gives birth to 4.8 children in her lifetime, while Palestinian and Yemeni women give birth to more than five children. As a result, 15-to-24-year-olds will still constitute around 20 percent of the population in these countries in 2025. The number of youth in Iraq is projected to increase by nearly 3 million — from 5.8 million in 2005 to 8.6 million in 2025. And the number of Palestinian youth will increase from 0.7 million to 1.3 million — more than an 80 percent increase. The number of youth in Yemen will also increase by more than 3 million during this same period, a 69 percent increase. The number of youth in the MENA region is projected to peak at 100 million by 2035.

Educated young people with jobs can be a boon for development. For example, the rapidly growing economies of East Asia, or in Europe, that of Ireland, all underwent small youth bulges that contributed to their countries’ strong economic outputs.  It is possible for youth bulges to help shape politics for the better, citing, for example, the role that South Africa’s large youth population played in the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s.

The Middle East has invested more in education, including religious education, than most other regions such that education is available to most young people. However, that education has not led to higher levels of employment, and youth unemployment is currently at 25%, the highest of any single region. Of this 25%, over half are first time entrants into the job market.
With the right investments and continued progress through the demographic transition, in time large youth populations can become large, economically-productive populations that can drive economic gains—a phenomenon known as the demographic dividend.

Youth as Socio-Political Change agents.

“The world is changing … with a young, vibrant generation within the Middle East that is looking for greater opportunities. Government leaders in the tumultuous Middle East must recognize they can’t bully their citizens who “hunger for freedom,”  said U.S. President Barack Obama, on his first News Conference of 2011, post the political unrest spreading across the Middle East.

Combine a burgeoning youth bulge with autocratic regimes, no jobs and little education and what you have is a classical recipe for social unrest: Increasingly younger and aspirational societies with increasingly fewer opportunities for growth, social mobility and self-expression.

MENA Region

Nearly one in five people living in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is between the ages of 15 and 24 — the age group defined as “youth.”  The current number of youth in the region is unprecedented: nearly 95 million in 2005. The extent to which this large group of young people will become healthy and productive members of their societies depends on how well governments and civil societies invest in social, economic, and political institutions that meet the current needs of young people.

For instance, Young people in the neighbourhood of Colobane in Dakar  are significant political actors whose practices and discourses are co-producing processes of change in a context of economic hardship and dissatisfaction with reigning elites. Youth are the most outspoken on the need for transparent, democratic and accountable politics. They openly criticise politicians, increasingly reject the practices of earlier generations and are more prone to questioning established authorities. In some of the mosques in Colobane, intergenerational differences and how young people struggle for influence and social change is particularly evident. Here, the discourse and aspiration towards democratic, accountable and transparent management politics and the questioning of habitual authority is manifest. These mosques have been arenas of intricate and silent power battles, as young men have been integrated in their management committees after challenging the previously automatic recognition of imams and notables in instances of mismanagement. When resourceful young men take on responsibilities and promote changes in religious, managerial and distributional issues, local mosques are experiencing intergenerational tensions and negotiations.

The youth bulge in the Middle East and North Africa has been favorably compared to that of the Asian Tigers, which harnessed this human capital and saw huge economic growth in recent decades. The youth bulge has been referred to by the Middle East Youth Initiative as a demographic gift, which, if engaged, could fuel regional economic growth and development.

Egypt and Tunisia

The protesters, mostly young on the streets of Cairo who, in just 18 days, ended the three-decade rule of Hosni Mubarak were not merely demanding the end of an unjust, corrupt and oppressive regime. They did not merely decry privation, unemployment or the disdain with which their leaders treated them. They had long suffered such indignities. What they fought for was something more elusive and more visceral.

With the world’s cameras focused on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where the King appointed a new Prime Minister and offered assurances to curb corruption; Algeria, where plans were announced to lift a two-decade old emergency; and Yemen and Sudan; which also saw protests.

Not just systemic overhaul, spirit of Tahrir Square is also about self-expression. IT was the greatest drama to shake Egypt since the killing of Anwar Sadat in 1981. Huge nationwide protests challenged the long rule of President Hosni Mubarak, threatening to dislodge him. The removal of Mubarak alone, without any other reforms, would itself be experienced in the region and in Egypt as a huge political triumph. It will set new forces into motion.

Tunisia’s polyglot youth, at the forefront of the street protests that toppled the dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, is one of the most highly educated in the Arab world. With a 78% literacy rate, and 40% of the 10 million population aged under 25, the regime’s propaganda machine used to love boasting about its bright young. The uprising in Tunisia showed how quickly youth can mobilize even in the absence of organizational structures.

A nation that has witnessed miracles of mass mobilisations and a huge rise in popular political consciousness will not be easy to crush, as Tunisia demonstrates. Looking beyond the immediate, casting an eye across the Middle East shows what stands out is the “youth bulge”.

.“Years of trying to keep the Yemeni people in ignorance and poverty have failed,” said an anonymous protester, a 28-year-old taxi driver. “Tunisia and Egypt have shown us that nothing is impossible. The youth see that this is their time to claim the future … and we will not let the opportunity pass.”

Arab Settlements

The youth uprising in Egypt draws attention to the impact of similar youth bulges as a result of rapid population increases over the past 20 years, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, Iran and Turkey as well as a crescent extending from the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The authoritarian polities and lack of employment opportunities in many of these states in the crescent and their continuing rapid population growth will fuel youth resentment and rebellion, with a significant risk of political volatility and violence.

The rise of Arab youth movements transcending the narrow demands of the typical student movements is a relatively recent phenomenon but is gaining in importance. So far, youth movements have been active as organized networks in Egypt and Jordan, and played an important though short-lived role in bringing about change in the election law in Kuwait. Most importantly, the uprising in Tunisia showed how quickly youth can mobilize even in the absence of organizational structures. The April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt best exemplifies both the great strengths and the fundamental weakness of youth mobilization.

The April 6 activists succeeded in mobilizing large numbers of people for the 2008 general strike but were never able to repeat the success. The movement sought to regroup before the 2010 elections but it had no obvious impact on the other protests or on the election. It claims to have 100,000 online members and has been lauded for creating a large and unified movement unprecedented in scope, but when it calls for protest it usually only brings out a small number of participants, indicating a rather low level of commitment among members. In Jordan there are two active youth organizations, the National Campaign for Student Rights and the Jordanian Democratic Youth Union, supported by a broad coalition of political parties and professional associations. Both organizations try to transcend the typical demands of students by combining socioeconomic demands with national political demands, but it is unclear how effective they are in reaching out to young people outside the cities and to activists from different social classes. So far, it appears that youth movements in the countries discussed are not solid, lasting organizations with a reliable and committed membership that can organize and plan over the long haul. Rather, they appear to be somewhat ephemeral networks, which can make up for their lack of staying power with the speed they can mobilize and the intensity of the activism when an outburst takes place.

The Arab world’s transition from old to new is rife, with uncertainty about its pace and endpoint. When and where transitions take place, youth will express a yearning for more assertiveness
Bahrain, Iran and Tunisia – The RIPPLE EFFECT

Youth is the largest population bloc in Iran. Over 60 percent of Iran’s 73 million people are under 30 years old.

Iranian youth are among the most politically active in the 57 nations of the Islamic world. As the most restive segment of Iranian society, the young also represent one of the greatest long-term threats to the current form of theocratic rule. Young activists have influenced the Islamic Republic’s political agenda since 1997. After the 2009 presidential election, youth was the biggest bloc involved in the region’s first sustained “people power” movement for democratic change, creating a new political dynamic in the Middle East.  The Islamic Republic forcibly regained control over the most rebellious sector of society through detentions, expulsions from universities, and expanding the powers of its own young paramilitary forces.  But youth demands have not changed, and anger seethes deeply beneath the surface. The regime also became vulnerable because it has failed to address basic socioeconomic problems of the young.

Thousands took to the streets in Tehran’s Asadi Square on Feb.14, showing their solidarity with the Egyptian revolution, that later turned into a movement for Iran to “open up” its political system
Cyber activists in Bahrain declared Valentine’s Day a “day of wrath” in the kingdom. It is also the 10th anniversary of a referendum in which Bahrainis approved a national charter promising a new political era after decades of political unrest.

The day of wrath’s Facebook page passed 10,000 supporters within a few days, and a declaration in the name of Bahraini Youth for Freedom is being widely circulated online.
Libya, Bahrain and Iran are the latest countries to be hit by popular protests inspired by the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

With strong population growth and limited opportunities for economic development, these countries have all come under strain as their governments struggle to manage the pressing needs of its young people.

Some facts: Youth as Volunteers of Social Change

Young people participate in Change almost twice as often as adults do.15.5 million youth ages 12 to 24 volunteered more than 1.3 billion hours of their time in 2004 alone on their own accord; only 5% do so because of school or other requirements. Youth mainly participate not only because they want to make a difference, but they also do so because they have learned about specific action they want to take, they have talked about issues with their parents, or for other reasons. While only 29% of adults volunteer for causes, a whopping 55% of youth do. 70% of youth have participated in some sort of event or activity to help better their community. 78% of youths who participate in service-learning say that it helps them learn to be better citizens.

The value of volunteer time is almost a valuable US$18 per hour. Youth leaders learn how to work together with many different kinds of people. Being leaders and change agents, youth learn to work toward a specific goal, which provides them with valuable insight and experience, especially when setting and working toward their own personal goals. There are many benefits including self-discovery, acquiring new skills, making friends and networking, increasing self-esteem, learning about the world, and feel good factor of having worked for a good cause. Young leaders that participate in service-learning and are more likely to be socially and politically active, as well as more. Let us not forget, “Alex’s Lemonade Stand” was founded by a 4-year-old!

This is a discussion about change and empowerment: how our society is changing, how our paradigms are changing, how organizational management is changing. It is about looking at qualities we need to emphasize as a youth development organization, in what we develop in youth, in how we do programming, and in who we are as individuals. It is about how we can manage and cultivate change.

Soon after the Israeli victory of 1967 that marked the defeat of secular Arab nationalism, one of the great Arab poets, NizarQabbani wrote:

“Arab children,
Corn ears of the future,
You will break our chains.
Kill the opium in our heads,
Kill the illusions.
Arab children,
Don’t read about our suffocated generation,
We are a hopeless case,
As worthless as a water-melon rind.
Don’t read about us,
Don’t ape us,
Don’t accept us,
Don’t accept our ideas,
We are a nation of crooks and jugglers.
Arab children,
Spring rain,
Corn ears of the future,
You are the generation that will overcome defeat.”

The ability of a society to develop itself is based at least in part on the extent to which it can integrate the potential and input of the younger generation into future planning and development processes. The neglect of this potential, harbours a serious threat to global future. If on the other hand it is used purposefully, it can help speed up development processes and bring about positive social change. The governments of a number of countries used to see child and youth programs as interventions to solve problem cases and not so much as positive, preventive instruments for implementing structural and social-order policy. But with UN intervention, many partner countries came to recognize the importance of children and youth in sustainable social development and poverty reduction strategies, and against terrorism. The demand for “genuine“ youth projects with an impact, has risen sharply.

The premise discussion is the task is to create empowered people, people who can respond dynamically to situations and create needed results. If the global organizational mission is to cultivate productive citizens, then what the world needs and what youth need to be is entrepreneurial, creative, and empowered to create radical and Instrumental change.

Priya Subramanian, Anantha Krishnan

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