Grassroots: Peacebuilding by Youth, for Youth … and Everyone

Participants at a “Youth Building Peace” event commemorating International Youth Day, 12 August 2017, hosted by the Division for Social Policy and Development (DSPD) of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), in collaboration with the Working Group on Youth and Peacebuilding of the Inter-Agency Network on Youth Development. Photo credit: UN Photo/Kim Haugton

Allwell Akhigbe is a 28-year-old member of a youth-led peacebuilding organization in Nigeria. He grew up in Jos, a city in the north-central region of his country. In 2001, when he was just eight years old, his life was turned upside down. His community fell apart as deeply entrenched religious and ethnic differences spilled over into conflict and bloodshed. Intolerance, coupled with competition over scarce resources, led to slaughter and loss of livelihoods. Throughout his teenage years, he witnessed brutal uprisings, states of emergency and heavy military presences. He still mourns friends and teachers lost to the violence.

Young people like Akhigbe are disproportionately affected by conflict. Many are recruited as child soldiers, used as suicide bombers, deprived of education and health care, torn from their families, killed, and sexually assaulted. Yet, youth are often presented as drivers of conflict: young and disaffected, usually un- or under-employed, and attracted to the excitement of violent extremism. They’re supposedly looking for fame or respect, economic stability, or to identify with a group.

Henk-Jan Brinkman, Chief of the Peacebuilding Strategy and Partnerships Branch of DPPA’s Peacebuilding Support Office, said that this misconception was common for many years. “Young people were commonly viewed as perpetrators and victims,” he told Politically Speaking. But, he said, views began to change with the introduction of the first Security Council resolution on youth, peace and security, which was adopted in 2015, a result that Brinkman credits in large part to the unwavering work of Jordan in the Council at the time. In fact, the Crown Prince of Jordan, then aged 21, was the youngest person ever to Chair a meeting of the 15-member organ.

Since then, the work of the United Nations on youth, peace and security has been underpinned by two further resolutions, 2419(2018) and 2535 (2020). Each of these recognize the positive role that young people play in peacebuilding.

In response to the initial Council resolution 2250 (2015), the Peacebuilding Fund (PBF) launched its Youth Promotion Initiative (YPI) in 2016. Between 2016 and 2020, the Fund allocated over $79 million to YPI projects. The YPI remains the largest UN funding initiative in support of the implementation of resolutions 2250 (2015) and 2419 (2018). The funding has already provided a much-needed boost to youth groups. For example, in 2020, youth caucuses were established in the Solomon Islands, which enabled young people to transmit the concerns of isolated communities in rural zones; while in Somalia, a youth advisory board has been set up that represents youth from six regions with close links to local youth and professional organizations.

These projects aim at enabling youth to participate fully in work that impacts them. Doing so requires seeing young people not as causes of conflict, but rather as essential partners in peacebuilding efforts. In March 2020, the first Report of the Secretary General to the Security Council on Youth, peace and security was introduced, further cementing the UN’s view of “the essential role of young people in preventing and resolving conflicts and in sustaining peace”.

The obstacles that youth encounter in Nigeria are manifold, Akhigbe told Politically Speaking. “A major challenge facing young people in Nigeria right now is the heightened level of insecurity across the country,” some of which, he underscores, comes from the very institutions meant to provide protection. The now-disbanded Nigerian police Special Anti-Robbery Squad “was notorious for profiling Nigerian youth and committing torture and extra-judicial killings,” while the authorities’ response was heavy handed and culminated in the deaths of protesters in Lekki. The Squad was subsequently disbanded, but in some contexts, “young people are still being witch-hunted, scapegoated and stereotyped as violent perpetrators rather than agents and partners for peace,” he said.

He also cited other sources of insecurity, including the Boko Haram insurgency in the north-east of the country, bandits and kidnappings in the north-west, farmer-herder clashes in the north-central area, and militancy and cultism in the south. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing tensions and insecurities, with the creation of new conflicts over the misappropriation of pandemic palliatives and what Akhigbe describes as the “info-demic of fake news, misinformation and disinformation”.

School kidnappings are another worrisome trend. “More young people are being kept away from schools due to kidnapping fears particularly across the northern part of the country,” he said.

The UN makes an immense difference for youth peacebuilders, said Akhigbe. The Youth, Peace and Security (YPS) agenda developed in the three Security Council resolutions empowers young people to participate in peacebuilding activities. By way of example, Akhigbe noted that his organization was created in 2017 as a direct result of the 2015 resolution. “The YPS resolutions provide legitimacy to our work,” he said.

Allwell Akhigbe speaking for the Building Blocks for Peace Foundation. Photo credit: Peacebuilding Support Office, DPPA.

The UN’s imprimatur helps overcome the ageism often experienced by youth groups such as Akhigbe’s, which are often considered to be inexperienced and accorded little decision-making power. It gives them a boost, said Akhigbe, enabling them to engage with their governments on international commitments as well as advocate for peacebuilding alongside local stakeholders, such as religious and traditional leaders.

The United Nations also provides a degree of protection for youth peacebuilders, through Security Council resolution 2535 (2020), which requested the Secretary-General “to develop guidance on the protection of young people, including those who engage with the United Nations in the context of peace and security”. Akhigbe welcomes this development, noting that some of his colleagues were kidnapped and held to ransom, while many others feared for their safety while working in marginalized and remote communities.

Akhigbe’s Building Blocks for Peace Foundation, a local youth-led organization that works to counter violent extremism in local communities in Nigeria, published a report this year detailing the work of 17 youth-led organizations working in Nigeria on issues such as climate change, gender empowerment and sustainable livelihoods. “What they need most”, he said, “is increased funding. Most of those groups featured run on an average of about $3,000 a year, and yet their impact on the marginalized communities in which they work is invaluable”. The report highlights, for example, the work of the Youth Coalition Against Terrorism (YOCAT), a volunteer-based group working against violent extremism in north-eastern Nigeria. It aims to weaken the appeal of Boko Haram through counter-radical peace education and training.

Akhigbe shared his experiences at a February meeting of the Peacebuilding Commission, a formal advisory body to the General Assembly and the Security Council on peacebuilding issues. At the meeting, a formal PBC “Youth Plan of Action” was adopted, a move that was welcomed by the Assistant-Secretary-General for Peacebuilding Support, Oscar Fernández-Taranco. After the adoption of the Plan, participants discussed ways of strengthening support for youth-led peacebuilding organizations, as well as the need to prioritize the safety of youth advocates and young peacebuilders and ensure predictable funding for youth, peace and security initiatives.

The meeting was also attended by Akhigbe’s fellow youth peacebuilder, Mia Franczesca Estipona. She is part of a group called the GenPeace Network, a group of organizations and individuals engaging in youth-led peacebuilding advocacy efforts in the Philippines.

Estipona notes that GenPeace focuses on the need to directly engage with youth in areas affected by conflict. “Work with the youth. Support the youth. Understand their work and how it contributes to the community”, she stressed. Community-led initiatives are able to promote the culture of peace through education, peer support and social cohesion efforts. This, she said, contributes to the prevention of violent extremism while providing alternative spaces for young people in conflict-affected areas to contribute to peacebuilding efforts.

GenPeace has strong ideas on what should be done to empower youth and include them in peacebuilding initiatives and decision-making processes. “Stakeholders must look into mechanisms, infrastructures and programs that already exist and explore how these can cater to need of the young people affected by conflict, development aggression and marginalization,” she said. In addition, decision-making processes must be inclusive and responsive to the need of the young people. Not only that, but youth’s participation cannot stop in consultations but must be represented in the crafting of policies and programs, as well as implementation and monitoring mechanisms.

The next large-scale event on the calendar of young peacebuilders is the International Symposium on Youth Participation in Peace Processes, which is set to convene from May 29–30, 2022 in Doha, Qatar, following the success of the first Symposium in Helsinki, Finland, in 2019. Youth delegates from around the globe will gather to call for a space for young women and men in ongoing and future peace processes, and to strengthen political will and commitment towards engaging youth in peace processes.

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Youth, Peace and Security: A Programming Handbook

Earlier in 2021, the United Nations released a practical, how-to guide for practitioners in the field of youth and peacebuilding. Youth, Peace and Security: A Programming Handbook is the result of a collaboration between DPPA’s Peacebuilding Support Office, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). The handbook is meant to be used by those working within the UN system as well as youth-led and youth-focused peacebuilding organizations. It underscores the importance of youth inclusion in peacebuilding that is meaningful, rather than simply token or symbolic. It also offers practical advice on areas such as how to undertake a youth-inclusive conflict analysis, how to formulate youth, peace and security statements and indicators, and how to monitor and evaluate YPS projects.

Young people like Akigbe are already putting the handbook into practice. In his role as a peacebuilder and research director at the Building Blocks for Peace Foundation, a local youth-led organization that works to counter violent extremism in local communities in Nigeria, he notes that the handbook will enable his Foundation to better target and include key stakeholders in its work.

The online magazine of the United Nations Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs

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