Why young people are so critical to peace?
In conversations last week about youth and peacebuilding, it occurred to me again that we too easily fudge things by referring to “youth”. Unless we qualify “youth” with a narrower description, we risk being vague and patronising; and by our imprecision to lose the meaning of what we intend to say. Especially given that more than half the world’s population probably fit the category, one way or another.
It’s really important that we say which young people we mean in policies and projects, so that resources are targeted. I’ve written before about how DDR programmes for young ex-combatants often fail to target the right young people, ending up helping those who are easiest to assist – and who probably need help the least.
It also set me to wondering about why it’s so important to work with young people. Three generic reasons come to mind.
First, young people have always been seen as a potentially destabilising influence, a risky group. As the truism goes, we invented wars to give young men something to do so they don’t undermine the order of things. In their elders’ eyes, young people are forever at risk of doing the wrong thing: making friends with and making love to the “wrong people”; fighting with the wrong people; getting or making people pregnant when they oughtn’t to; breaking rules whose purpose they just don’t understand; trying to get their hands on resources before they are ready, not knowing their place…
Less dramatically, societies are surely organised so that young people are kept in their place until there is room for them to play a larger role, and until they have been sufficiently integrated and propagandized so they know the particular version of right and wrong which the older generation feel makes their society tick? And thus by the time they become influential in their family and society, by the time they get their hands on the family’s land or other resources, they are committed to using their new-found influence in line with the way their parents would have done.
Second, “young people are the future”, not just in the clichéd sense of Hollywood or Whitney Houston, but in the very genuine sense that the future of “our” society, “our” family, “our” values, can only be continued through the next generation. Hence older people feel the need to indoctrinate young people in their view of the world, their sense of right and wrong. Because older people – and I’m writing as one myself, so I can say it - lack imagination and imaginative energy, we tend to indoctrinate young people as we were indoctrinated when we were young. Hence an inherent conservatism, and a blindness to the flaws in the system we inherited. Hence the problems get handed on from generation to generation.
Third, most places where peacebuilders operate are by definition societies disrupted by violent conflict, or which are going through complex and rapid changes. Meaning that circumstances create both risk and opportuity. There is a risk that the systems and cultural ways that young people are kept in their place have often broken down, meaning there really is a risk that their sense of exclusion will undermine things, leading to conflict and violence. But there is also a real opportunity, because of the disruption, for young people and their elders to experiment with new approaches, for example approaches in which women are not excluded from opportunity and decisions, in which cooperation between different groups in society is encouraged rather than seen as a risk, in which a greater degree of tolerance is encouraged, and a greater degree of transparency allowed.
All this doesn’t mean it is easy, nor does it excuse us from narrowing the description of “young people” so we know who we mean. But it’s important to work with them for a better society, and them as leaders within it.