In June 2009, President Obama gave a speech in Cairo emphasizing the potential of young people to effect change in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, and shining a light on increased youth engagement interest there.
In this speech he discussed the positive impact of interfaith service, his commitment to establishing a Business Volunteer Corps in the region and his goal of expanding partnerships and exchanges between the US and the Middle East:
“And I want to particularly say this to young people of every faith, in every country — you, more than anyone, have the ability to re-imagine the world, to remake this world.”
Queen Rania of Jordan has also been discussing the role of young people in communities during many speeches over the past years. In March 2008, she spoke to the graduating class at the University of Jordan indicating her and King Abdullah’s belief in the impact of young people.
“You are the pride of His Majesty King Abdullah and mine. When we travel we carry with us the success, achievements and offerings of our country’s youth everywhere. We tell your stories wherever we go, stories about the participation of the Jordanian youth as you help build society. We tell stories about Alia who, since ninth grade, has taught the women and girls in her community how to use computers. We tell stories about Mohammed, a sophomore at university, who volunteers to read to orphans twice a week. We tell stories about Rasha who helped in a kindergarten during her secondary school years. And we tell stories about Salma who taught kids how to draw in her spare time…Individual efforts, that may appear small, but have a big impact.”
Young people between the ages of 10 and 24 represent over a quarter of the population in the MENA region. While these young people face significant economic and social challenges, they can also make significant contributions to the development of the region.
The region has an unemployment rate around 15 percent (the highest of any region in the world). Poverty rates have remained stagnant since the mid-1980s, with nearly 25 percent of people in the region living on less than $2 a day, and almost half on less than $3 a day. While many human development indicators such as literacy and life expectancy have been improving, significant challenges remain.
Young people represent a vast pool of untapped human potential for addressing social challenges. Civic engagement programs can spur development while also providing students with increased experience and skills for success. Civic engagement can also help young people develop into active, engaged citizens who will continue to work for social development in their communities.
There have been a growing number of civic engagement initiatives in the region, indicating a growing interest in creating programs that engage adolescents in civic activities. In many Arab countries, governments are increasingly focusing on aspects of youth transitions beyond their early concerns for education, employment and security. There are many programs that are working to actively engage young people in their communities.
For example, Operation 7th Day at Université Saint-Joseph in Lebanon has been working since the Israel-Lebanon war in 2006 to provide emergency relief, health care, education and civic engineering activities in Lebanon. The program operates in collaboration with NGOs, students and faculty and was named a second-prize winner for the MacJannet Prize for Global Citizenship by the Talloires Network (of which ICP and Tufts University serve as Secretariat) and the MacJannet Foundation. Alashanek Ya Balady at the American University in Cairo, Egypt; The Human Rights Clinic at Al-Quds University, Palestine; and Women Legal Leaders & Legal Feminism Clinic at the University of Haifa, Israel, were all named third prize recipients.
On the other hand, much more needs to be done as available literature reveals a relatively low level of youth participation in the public sphere and volunteer activities. This demonstrates a need to build the capacity for youth civic engagement in the region and provide avenues for collaboration among active practitioners, policymakers and academics.
To address these challenges, the Talloires Network and the Gerhart Center at the American University in Cairo (AUC) have partnered to launch the Ma’an Arab University Alliance for Civic Engagement. Following an October 2008 conference, entitled Tadamunn: Toward Civic Engagement in Arab Education, sponsored by the Talloires Network and AUC, they created this network of Arab universities committed to advancing higher education civic engagement in the region. The Ma’an Alliance aims to bring together Arab universities with the collective goal of encouraging and enhancing civic engagement implementation in higher education.
The Ma’an Alliance facilitated collaboration through a regional faculty training institute, Expanding Civic Engagement in Arab Universities: A Peer Learning Workshop for Faculty, at the American University of Beirut in June 2009. The Alliance will also host bi-annual conferences, conduct research with its members for guiding best practice, and make information about community-based learning available on its website.
Following President Obama’s speech in Cairo, the US Government is also undertaking initiatives to further engage young people in the region. This includes promoting education through student exchange programs, scholarships and facilitation of greater e-learning opportunities.
“On education, we will expand exchange programs, and increase scholarships, like the one that brought my father to America, while encouraging more Americans to study in Muslim communities. And we will match promising Muslim students with internships in America; invest in on-line learning for teachers and children around the world; and create a new online network, so a teenager in Kansas can communicate instantly with a teenager in Cairo.”
President Obama also discussed supporting economic development in the region through promoting new public-private partnerships, the creation of a Business Volunteer Corps that will facilitate business leaders serving as mentors and holding an international Summit on Entrepreneurship.
To shine a light on the growing dialogue and benefits of collaboration among practitioners, the International Association for National Youth Service (IANYS), for which ICP is the secretariat, has announced that it will hold the 9th Global Conference on National Youth Service in at the New Bibliotheca Alexandrina (New Library of Alexandria) in Alexandria, Egypt, in 2010. This conference will provide youth service practitioners, policymakers, researchers and other professionals from around the world with a stimulating forum to share information and current developments in the field, nurture connections for developing future projects, and discuss the potential for scaling up national youth service for greater impact on community and youth development. Stay tuned to the IANYS website for the save-the-date announcement and more information.
“Around the world, we can turn dialogue into…service, so bridges between peoples lead to action — whether it is combating malaria in Africa, or providing relief after a natural disaster,“ President Obama said in Cairo.
Finally, in light of the growing momentum for youth civic engagement in the region, ICP is undertaking an asset mapping study of youth civic engagement initiatives in the region to highlight strengths and reveal gaps. This research will create a picture of what youth civic engagement programs/initiatives exist, the policy environment in which they operate, and what impact they have. Varied efforts throughout the region are answering the call of President Obama, Queen Rania and young people in the region as they actively engage them in their communities through national service and service-learning.