Youth development has become a serious concern for many in the international community (some would even call it the latest fad). Thanks to current sociopolitical realities, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon made youth one of his top priorities as part of his five-year action agenda. As a result, the UN System and a number of Member States and private organizations, have sought to blaze new trails when it comes to promoting youth development and the creation and implementation of sound youth policies at all levels. There is now new energy around the revival of the ailing and ill-viewed World Programme of Action for Youth (WPAY), a General Assembly resolution originally passed in 1995, which sets up a progressive framework that guides states in their attempts to design national youth policies.
As part of this effort to promote youth development and the revitalization of the WPAY, I attended the 1st Global Forum on Youth Policies in Baku, Azerbaijan, which took place on 28 – 30 October. At that conference, a number of stakeholders interested in youth policies, from ministers responsible for youth to UN representatives and youth activists, gathered in an attempt to share best practices in terms of national youth policies and to discuss how to galvanize renewed interest in youth development at the international level. At the end of the Forum, governments and other stakeholders were given the opportunity to make commitments in regards to youth policy and interestingly enough, Kuwait volunteered to host the next Forum (more on Kuwait in a moment).
THE FORUM ALSO MADE room for less formal, regional meetings as to give government officials and stakeholders from the different parts of the world a space to sit together and discuss issues facing young people in their countries. During these sessions, I participated in the Arab States meeting, hoping to learn a thing or two about where youth policy is headed in the Arab World. At some point, the moderator of the session tried her best to facilitate the conversation that eventually evolved into a semi-cold war between activists and academics from more progressive backgrounds and government officials from the Gulf. As is the case in many development discussions, the Gulf States served to provide some sad amusement to me, their declarations never ceasing to amaze.
Some of the most interesting assertions in terms of youth policy came from the representatives of the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait (the host of the next youth policy forum), who both gave a very typical, top-down approach to how youth policy should be formulated, if at all. The representative of the UAE made a sweeping statement, saying that his country’s youth were doing just fine without an official youth policy. He lauded the country’s leaders as prime examples of governance and development for all to follow. Kuwait’s representative stated that we should not be discussing what states could do for youth, but we should be trying to understand what youth could do for their states. After some more extremely conservative pronouncements, exasperated Lebanese and Tunisian participants in the session were keen to make it clear that they did not want antiquated Gulf countries or the League of Arab States, which has a youth mechanism, to chart the course for the region’s youth development.
“Governments were given the opportunity to make commitments in regards to youth policy”
Now, I am certainly no expert on the national youth policies of the Arab World, but what that session proved to me is that, unfortunately, the development potential of the young people of the region is simply not understood. For generations, Arab leaders have sought to orchestrate development from above, without ever seeking to engage young people and other key sectors of society. For generations, young people were seen as wards of the state rather than partners. For generations, young people were feared and distrusted, while the same families and political chieftains dug themselves into power from Lebanon to Egypt to Morocco to Saudi Arabia.
The promise of the “Arab Spring,” which seemed to begin as a peaceful, youth-led uprising against entrenched power, was a gargantuan failure, especially since the most entrenched and deeply rooted regressive powers in the region appear to be untouched by the forces of change. Meanwhile, those very same entrenched powers are throwing money left, right, and center to whitewash their image and enhance their political and economic influence, as well as direct regional conflicts in their favor.
WHAT NEEDS TO be understood is that change in the region will not occur simply by replacing one leader with another. What is needed is systemic change, a transformation that goes beyond the superficial and civil society shattering “revolutions” of the western-lauded “Arab Spring.” Change means that entrenched powers become less entrenched and more accountable to their populations, and people, especially young people, are understood as partners for development, as creative forces for change that is long-lasting and sustainable. Views on governance in the region are in desperate need of a paradigm shift, because the status quo is not only dangerous, it is actually reversing the development gains that have been made in the past few decades.
So as we celebrate progress on the youth policy front and seek to promote a stronger global framework for youth development that respects the agency and potential of youth, we must never forget that transformative change remains a distant reality in many places, most especially in the Arab World. I applaud the efforts of the organizers of the 1st Global Forum on Youth Policies, but I hope the goals and commitments we have set there provide a meaningful foundation for greater youth development for the current and future generations of the Arab World.