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Humanizing the Young People Who Help Make International Policy

Only 14% of the world’s parliamentarians are under 40. Empowering local youth leaders will help move policy forward and dismantle the systems of colonialism that brought us here.

Words: Mena Ayazi
Pictures: Mena Ayazi

“When we ask young people here what UNSCR [UN Security Council Resolution] 2250 means to them, they think we are talking about different kinds of guns,” says a young leader of peacebuilders in the Mathare informal settlement in North East Nairobi, Kenya, referring to the 22-250 Remington, a high-velocity, short action rifle. As I heard this during my trip to Nairobi in August 2023, I had an “aha” moment, and I was reminded that the time to shift global conversations on policy to be more people-centered is long overdue. 

The Mathare settlement is home to nearly 70% of young Kenyans, including internally displaced and regionally displaced youth, stuck in a generational cycle of poverty, depriving them of basic human needs — sanitation, nutrition, electricity, running water, health care, education, financial security, and much more. On a hill spanning 3 square miles lie rows of informal housing made of tin walls and plastic tarps and a river running through the middle, surrounded by garbage and filled with human waste. Despite these conditions, the smiles and eyes of its youth leaders tell another story — one of hope and dedication to change.

With Search for Common Ground, I had the opportunity to meet with leaders of Footprints for Change, a youth-led and youth-serving organization in Mathare that leads peacebuilding programs in the community. From mediating conflict between youth in the neighborhoods of Kosovo and Vietnam to turning sites of trash piles into a community garden, improving sanitation structures, and providing support and child care to young mothers, they are slowly changing the face of their community, laying down the building blocks for a more peaceful and thriving Nairobi. 

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The first clean water well project started by youth leaders at the Mathare Community Park, Mathare Informal Settlement, Nairobi, Kenya in August 2023.
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Community Mediation Center at the Mathare Community Park, Mathare Informal Settlement, Nairobi, Kenya in August 2023.
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The first sustainable food project started by youth leaders at the Mathare Community Park, Mathare Informal Settlement, Nairobi, Kenya in August 2023.

After a tour of their community and project sites, Daniel, one of the leaders who is managing the community garden project, showed us where he lived. In the middle of the housing rows closer to the river, he had a bed in between tin walls with a flood of water mixed with human waste up to his knee. As I stepped into his room, I froze. This young man who gives so much to build peace in his community lives like this? 

Carving Out Resources

From policy brief to policy brief and advocacy meeting to advocacy meeting, I learned to memorize some important statistics: 2.4 billion youth in the world. Africa is the youngest continent in the world. Youth organizations function off of $5K-10K a year. This is not feasible.

In the spring of 2020, right at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we introduced the Youth, Peace, and Security Act (YPS Act) in Congress — the first of its kind globally. This bill was revolutionary because it created a pot of funding for youth organizations in the US Agency of International Development, establishing a US government-wide strategy for supporting young peacebuilders and setting the stage for more meaningful youth inclusion in US foreign policy. The UN Security Council Resolution 2250, which recognized the agency of youth as partners in peace processes and urged member states to increase youth representation in decision-making, was finally being put into action by a world leader. Amazing, right? Well, think again. 

The systematic exclusion of local leaders on the frontlines of building peace from decision-making circles shows an extension of colonial inequities and racism that are preventing efforts for sustainable progress from being truly people-centered. 

Like other peace and security policy agendas, the impact of change from the top to the bottom takes years and even decades. With a strict focus on reforming institutions and governance, we leave out what truly matters: the people behind the agenda. People like Daniel, who live the principles and values of a true civil servant in their daily lives, yet suffer from extreme poverty. 

Making It People-Centered

The global community has seen too many policies, peace agreements, and development programs live short life cycles or get stuck in the policy-to-implementation pipeline. This is a result of complex and multifaceted reasons. Yet, the systematic exclusion of local leaders on the frontlines of building peace from decision-making circles shows an extension of colonial inequities and racism that are preventing efforts for sustainable progress from being truly people-centered. 

International policymakers, development leaders, and donors have access to decision-making circles based on geographical, racial, age, gender, ability, and socio-economic privileges. A prime example of this is in the UN, where Americans are more employed than any other nationality, and the highest paying, most senior positions disproportionately go to those from the Global North. Further, only 14.2% of the world’s parliamentarians are below the age of 40, showing agism underlying the exclusion of youth from decision-making globally. 

When drafting the YPS Act, our advocacy circles mostly consisted of Americans relying on data from “the field” to inform the bill’s inner workings, turning the realities of youth leaders like Daniel into an investment game in the eyes of policymakers. That is why, after nearly eight years of having UN Security Council Resolution 2250, we must shift the conversation from “what works best for institutions” to “what works best for the people.” This isn’t about just institutional change, but behavior and mindset change.

The international policy and development community can humanize youth behind policy agendas in four ways. The first is to meaningfully engage young people. Meaningful engagement goes beyond giving a young person a tokenistic position on an advisory council or a random speaking opportunity on a panel. Instead, it means creating an enabling environment for their leadership in high-level decision-making and respecting their agency through sharing key responsibilities. Meaningful engagement also means properly compensating youth for their work and not exploiting their willingness to partner with you. Check out this checklist by the United Network of Young Peacebuilders on meaningful youth engagement.

The second is to directly support and partner with youth-led peacebuilding initiatives. Partnering with young people to solve problems rather than treating them as the beneficiaries of programming or protection helps elevate their agency. Directly supporting local youth-led initiatives, like Footprints for Change, through capacity-building or monetarily helps sustain the unique work they do in places and ways that are hard for governments or organizations to do. It is also important to work with such organizations in a way that enables them to support the livelihoods of their staff, like starting a housing program for all employees. 

The third way for the global community to help is by dismantling systems of colonialism by diversifying youth leadership. Rather than supporting the same Global North-originated, educated, trained, or connected youth, it’s essential to invest in those who have lived experiences and haven’t had the same opportunities. In other words, ensuring that local youth leaders are not exploited for their youthhood is necessary to make international development people-focused.

And finally, the international policy and development community needs to focus on ethical storytelling. Stories filled with both adversity and hope show the wide range of capacities and complexities of the world’s young people and also tear down stereotypes that simply focus on the age of youth, claiming that many are “too young” to lead. 

By centering the youth most affected by international youth development and policies through empathy and intentionality, we can start shifting global policy conversations to be more people-centered. After all, UN Security Council Resolution 2250, which formalized the YPS policy framework, isn’t just a policy agenda, it is a human agenda.

All photos were taken by Mena Ayazi in August 2023.

Mena Ayazi

Mena Ayazi, Youth, Peace and Security consultant with Search for Common Ground and Founder of the US Youth, Peace and Security Coalition.

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