UN’s Youth Day targets civic engagement

With the global youth population at an historic high, there is a great need to harness young people’s creative energy

With the global youth population at an historic high, there is a great need to harness young people’s creative energy for the betterment of society, and none more so than in the Middle East.

In a bid to take advantage of such youthful demographics, this year’s UN-backed International Youth Day – marked on 12 August – puts the spotlight on civic engagement.

“Young people must be considered the drivers of change, and not only beneficiaries or targets,” said Irina Bokova, director-general of UN education agency, UNESCO. “Civic engagement is a way to exploit the potential [of young people] to enrich society, further human rights and enable improved living conditions for all.”

The Middle East in particular has an unprecedented youth bulge, where an estimated 30 per cent of the population is between the ages of 15 and 29. This represents more than 100 million youth and, according to estimates from the Brookings Institution, is the highest proportion of youth to adults in the Middle East’s history. Globally, there are more young people than ever: some 1.8 billion, out of a global population of 7 billion, are between the ages of 14 and 24, says the UN.

The UN hopes getting young people more involved politically, economically and socially will help to deliver the sustainable development agenda, a guide for global development over the next 15 years. But UN agencies acknowledge the task will not be an easy one. It is a challenge that has seen increased attention as organisations try new approaches to build connections.

“Millions of dollars worth of donor money has gone into youth engagement programming with very little impact,” said Shahera Youssef Younes, programme manager at NetHope, a technology nonprofit. “Finally, there was a realisation that we needed to get a little more creative, instead of just cramming kids into training rooms and thinking that will change the situation.”

NetHope was one of several NGOs behind attempts to build engagement through new channels, including video games. It funded the development of Our City, a Facebook game that specifically targeted youth in Jordan. Players have to complete real world challenges, such as joining in activities to conserve water, to advance in the game’s virtual world.

“This pilot came about through the idea that there is a huge demographic youth bulge of concern in the Middle East,” said Youssef. “The youth bulge has social and political risks associated with it and the only way to mitigate those is through real-world behaviour change.”