COVID-19 has the world’s attention, and some are viewing it as an opportunity – for very different reasons.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for a global ceasefire so that all countries can focus resources on combatting the virus. Some countries, like Afghanistan, Cameroon, Colombia, Libya, the Philippines, South Sudan, and Sudan have answered the call. But others have not. In some places, the virus fueled fear and mistrust among people who might be infected, and armed groups are taking advantage of this friction to gain power and extend their control.
For more than eight years, the Central African Republic (CAR) has experienced civil war and armed conflict, causing displacement and humanitarian concerns. The international community is trying to support the country of 4.9 million, but the virus has complicated their efforts.
Another more basic complication is an exclusive political society. Even before the pandemic, decision-making in CAR was dominated by adults and elders. With little progress made under their aegis, the key to ending systemic violence and educating the general public about social cohesion during the pandemic could be with an untapped resource: the country’s majority youth population.
The median age of a person living in CAR is 17.6 years. However, as Crédule Greh Gnin Mbomba, the 24-year-old founder and coordinator of the Forum of Young Leaders for Human Rights in CAR, explained: “The judgment that our elders and our leaders have on us closes the door to the possibilities offered by our strength, our liveliness, and our dreams as a young person. All the resources offered by our youth should be valued and used to build peace.”
“Those in positions of power, whether political power or those within civil society, recognize that youth can easily be mobilized with great effect. What they forget is that youth are active agents of change for now and the future.”
In 2013, youth groups in CAR organized the evacuation of the Muslim community of Mbaiki to Chad in order to protect them from anti-Balaka attacks, thereby preventing retaliation that would have escalated the level of violence. The local population took care of the homes and belongings of the displaced while the youth prepared the community for reintegration once tensions calmed.
Many of the world’s young people yearn for peace and to be on the frontlines against injustice to build a sustainable peace. But their perspectives and needs often go unheard, especially in conflict-affected countries during peace processes.
In an April 2015 speech, then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, “Youth suffer on the front lines of war, but they are rarely in the back rooms where peace talks are held… Youth peace groups, especially in conflict-torn areas, deserve our unstinting support.”
Later that year, the UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2250, affirming the positive role that young people play to maintain and promote international peace and security by helping their communities. The resolution sought to unlock the potential of the globe’s 1.8 billion youth population.
But today, the youth still feel sidelined. A Peace Direct report consulted over 140 youth activists from more than 50 countries. The young peacebuilders reported that they were excluded from most peace processes and human rights initiatives. Some felt stigmatized and pegged as the perpetrators of violence. In general, the young activists said they felt brushed aside by the older generation as being too naïve and inexperienced.
“Youth are fed up of being used as pawns,” said a young person from CAR who wished to remain anonymous for security reasons. “Those in positions of power, whether political power or those within civil society, recognize that youth can easily be mobilized with great effect. What they forget is that youth are active agents of change for now and the future.”
There are some recent initiatives to increase inclusion rates and recognize the potential the youth hold as agents for positive change. Reps. Grace Meng (D-NY), Susan Brooks (R-Ind.), Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), and John Curtis (R-Utah) co-sponsored the Youth, Peace, and Security Act of 2020 (H.R. 6174), which they see as an opportunity to empower young people around the world, including peacebuilders in CAR.
”Passage of this act will be a strong message from the United States government to young people around the world, recognizing the role and value of these young people as key partners in the United States’ effort to promote peace around the world,” Crédule said.
Specifically, the bill would create a fund that designates grants for peacebuilding programs exclusively for youth-led organizations. Normally, youth-led groups would have to compete against major international nongovernmental organizations and implementing partners to get the same grants. And even if they do get youth programming grants – under the current scenario, the money is usually sub-granted and the youth-led organizations would have no say on its terms.
A dedicated funding stream would empower youth-led organizations to tackle the problems they face daily in conflict-affected areas – and at a more manageable scale. Currently, grants that are open to INGOs are too big for youth organizations. Peace Direct found that the average youth organization needs only about $6,000 for a year’s worth of work, and in 2019 established a Youth Action for Peace Program, which has since provided more than 30 microgrants of that amount to each group.
The bill also would create a “youth coordinator” position within USAID to consult with the youth through embassies and missions around the world. The youth coordinator would be responsible for understanding the needs and perspectives of the youth in their respective countries.
The legislation is not without its challenges. Because the bill calls for new funding, it likely will face opposition among economically conservative members, especially now as the pandemic takes priority. And even though the bill is designed to be as bipartisan as possible, it might become politicized as it moves through the approval process in Congress.
During this difficult time, youth-led groups are energized and uniquely positioned to help address some of the problems the pandemic exposed by preventing violence, training others in new technologies, and creating more resilient societies. They just need the tools.
Kessy Ekomo Soignet is the founder of URU, a youth-led network in the Central African Republic promoting youth peacebuilding and building bridges between youth and decision-makers. She was actively involved in the passage of the UN Security Council Resolution 2250.
Vahe Mirikian is the Peacebuilding Policy Officer at Peace Direct, an international NGO working with local communities to stop violence and build sustainable peace. Vahe is working on securing passage of the Youth, Peace and Security Act of 2020 in Washington, DC.
Claire Payne, senior programs officer at Peace Direct, contributed to this piece.