Transforming Local-National Ties in Tunisia: A Strategy for Strengthening Youth Peacebuilding
Author: Sameen Zehra, 2019.
“Analysts watching the situation closely noted that Tunisia should rightfully be proud of what it has accomplished, but a key question still remains: where are the youth of Tunisia seven years after the uprising (Ezzine)?”
Image from Flickr.
Tunisia is responsible for igniting one of the most transformative revolutions in modern history. The political landscape and socio-economic tapestry of the Middle East had been shaken to its core. This reached a turning point in 2011 when the Arab Spring triggered a movement driven by fiery slogans of work, freedom, dignity, patriotism, and pride. Analysts watching the situation closely noted that Tunisia should rightfully be proud of what it has accomplished, but a key question still remains: where are the youth of Tunisia seven years after the uprising (Ezzine)? This paper will analyze the complex ways in which large swaths of Tunisian youth have been impacted by direct and structural violence since the 2011 Jasmine Revolution. By exploring one of the recommendations put forth in the Search for Common Ground’s (SFCG) 2017 report, “Youth Consultations on Peace and Security: Findings from Focus Group Discussions and Interviews Including Hard to Reach Youth in Tunisia,” a starting point for peacebuilding practitioners will be proposed as a way to build on SFCG’s work in engaging youth in public life and decision-making. The objective of this paper is to hopefully contribute to a broader, evolving conversation on youth, peace and security, as well as create a meaningful way forward by connecting the key stakeholders who can maximize existing programs’ impact.
I – Defining the Problem
Many young people aged 15-29 (24.5% of the population) were the backbone of the social movement that ended the 23-year dictatorship in Tunisia and spurred the broader Arab Spring uprisings (Bourhrous and Smith 2). However, today an increasing number find themselves unemployed, impoverished and without socio-economic rights and opportunities. To escape this “societal” and “institutional humiliation”, greater numbers of Tunisian youth either flee the country by sea, join Da’esh, or get caught in cycles of drug abuse and imprisonment (Deman and Saidani 15). According to a recent survey by the Arab Barometer, more than half of Tunisians aged 18 to 24 want to emigrate from their country, compared to just 13 percent of those aged 35 and above (Yerkes). Approximately 6000 Tunisians are suspected of having joined Islamist groups in recent years to fight in Syria (Bourhrous and Smith 3). SFCG researchers spoke with 158 youth from six localities, and found that marginalized youth (defined here as young people who are less involved in mainstream life and activities – either out of their own will and/or as a result of exclusion by mainstream society) showed a strong preference for engaging in initiatives that achieved tangible results (i.e. employment, access to social workers and psychologists, etc.). On the other hand, youth who were already engaged in civil society sought interventions based on dialogue, awareness and behavioral change. However, both groups voiced that the lack of will and engagement on the part of political decision-makers was the greatest hindrance to their involvement in peacebuilding efforts (Deman and Saidani 23).
II – SFCG’s Existing Initiatives
During the democratic transition period between 2011-2013, SFCG-Tunisia took steps to promote existing local efforts that attempted to connect youth between the ages of 15-30 to political leaders and decision-making processes. Through their Empowering Young Change-Makers program, SFCG-Tunisia sponsored Youth Leadership Councils in 13 of Tunisia’s 24 governorates (Bourhrous and Smith 5). SFCG highlights that these groups provided hundreds of young people with skills to engage with their elected leaders and advocate for themselves and their communities in a positive manner. The ultimate aim of the program is to empower youth leaders to be the driving actors of Tunisia’s democracy. This is achieved by strengthening their civic engagement skills in a number of areas, including, project management, advocacy, communication, dialogue facilitation and conflict analysis capabilities (“Empowering Young Changemakers in Tunisia”). Specialized trainings were provided to support youth advocacy campaigns, awareness debates, and initiatives in partnership with the Youth Ministry to increase public participation and young people’s inclusion in local governance (“Empowering Young Changemakers in Tunisia”).
III – Identifying and Filling the Gaps
While different evaluation processes indicated that youth leaders and the majority of community stakeholders considered the youth councils as a useful tool for addressing community issues, the 2013 “Mid-Term Evaluation Report of: ‘Empowering Young Change Makers’ Project”, as well as the previously mentioned 2017 report, indicated that there were a number of areas where these efforts could be strengthened (“Tunisia Evalutations”).Most notable were the councils’ limitations in convincing officials of the importance of youth councils and groups, as many were doubtful that participants could effectively engage in constructive civic activities to address community issues (Morsy 26). Out of the 13 local officials interviewed, 5 claimed that youth lack the experience to contribute to realistic solutions. Some also believed that the councils had their own hidden political agenda. This lack of trust and prioritization resulted in many officials refusing to directly cooperate, meet or even listen to some of the youth groups and councils (Morsy 13). Within their evaluation report, SFCG underscores that this communication and understanding gap weakens civil society and increases frustration and disaffection among newer generations. If political actors are sensitized to young people’s concerns and become more willing and able to view them as partners rather than complimentary aspects of the policy process, potential for tangible change at the grassroots level can grow exponentially (Morsy 8).
This analytical paper will attempt to fill these gaps by exploring what processes and existing strategies can be maximized to implement a youth-focused advocacy campaign aimed at political leaders.By drawing on lessons from literature produced by peacebuilding scholar-practitioners, this analysis will first discuss the concept of vertical cooperation and middle-level actors, which could be useful in better connecting youth activists at the grassroots level to leaders and institutions at the national-level. Second, possible stakeholders will be identified to outline a potential strategy for beginning the process of vertical integration and increasing political legitimacy of the program implemented by SFCG. Finally, this paper will discuss the significant impact this strategy can have at the broader systems level.
IV – Foundations to Build On
As previously mentioned, a key bridging mechanism between civil society and government is missing within the Tunisian context. It has been characterized as leaning towards a dangerous imbalance with the potential to destabilize the political transition that was spurred after the recent revolution (Yerkes). The difficulties of building alliances have permeated to the sphere of youth engagement as well, negatively impacting existing efforts to connect emerging leaders with figures established in Tunisia’s political institutions. A number of approaches have been taken in peacebuilding research and fieldwork to attempt to connect grassroots level leaders to those in the national arena. The concept of vertical cooperation, in particular, has grown in prominence, with the aim of supporting linkages between individuals, networks, organizations and social spaces along a vertical axis (Mccandless et. al 4). While there are challenges with ensuring power imbalances do not create more harm than good in attempting to integrate these diverse actors, prominent practitioners such as John Paul Lederach have produced useful frameworks to help conceptualize how linkages between actors can be created within conflict settings. Lederach uses a ‘pyramid of peacebuilding actors’ to identify middle-level leaders who play a pivotal role in bridging the top and grassroots spheres.
This idea is supported by other peacebuilders such as Dr. Kenneth Obiekwe, who have stated that in contexts such as intra-state violent conflicts in Africa, middle-level actors are in the best strategic position to transport peace ideas and successes from the micro to macro level (Kamatsiko). Anita Ernstorfer, Diana Chigas and Hannah Vaughan-Lee from the international non-for-profit Collaborative Learning Projects make valuable additions to this discourse by specifying that local or community-based work often takes the ‘More People’ approach—working with large numbers of people at the local level—rather than employing a ‘Key People’ lens grounded in linking activities and people to influential actors. The latter is essential to move from peace writ little to peace writ large. They found was the case in countries such as Liberia, where interviewees of a peacebuilding intervention ‘seemed to feel that true progress to peace could only be achieved at a larger level and is ultimately dependent on the government’s actions’ (Ernstorfer et. al 75). However, they do emphasise that constructive linkages do not emerge organically but must be ‘consciously planned’ (Mccandless et. al 5).
V – Proposing New Partnerships
In the case of the Tunisian youth council program, a similar strategy to convene a part-time committee made up of mid-level leaders that can assist in pushing a youth-focused advocacy campaign forward in political spaces could potentially be beneficial. SFCG was very clear in its assessment of the lack of legitimacy that youth groups and councils face when engaging with many political officials. A first step could be allocating resources towards developing a comprehensive, context-specific stakeholder map of ‘Key People’ that can help to shift perceptions among government leaders of this initiative and of young activists in particular. Through a preliminary assessment, two possible launching points for this map have been identified:
1. Young Tunisian Trailblazers
Tunisia is home to a number of rising young leaders who are making waves internationally with their advocacy and civic engagement. Incorporating their voices to support youth-led initiatives could allow greater recognition and attention to be given to these efforts at the national level, especially if they are able to garner their resources and networks to promote them. For example, Sayida Ounissi is currently the State Secretary for Vocational Training and Employment and the youngest member of the Tunisian government (Djilali). This year, she was named one of the world’s 20 most influential young people in government in Apolitical’s “100 Future Leaders” for returning to her homeland after her family fled the country’s violence, and breaking the mold of traditional leadership (Lim). Additionally, cross-disciplinary civil society figures such as Chaima Bouhlel should be added to the list of prospects, as she not only represents the younger Tunisian generation, but also has vast experience in various areas such as micro-finance, student organizing, hosting a radio show and leading Al Bawsala, a NGO focused on government transparency. Last year, she gave a speech at TEDxCarthage on the forces of change and democracy in Tunisia (“Chaima Bouhlel: Civil Society Leader”). Finally, activists, such as 21-year old Salma Belhassine, who is being recognized by the United Nations Women (UN Women) for creating an online app to empower and protect women from sexual harassment, should potentially connected with. As a young tech innovator, she has been able to virtually connect with a wider social base in the country, while being a global champion for women and girls. Salma represents the critical role Tunisian youth can play in social problem solving, while addressing the central role of gender identities for youth, peace and security (“Tunisian Youth Activist”).
2. Local Movements Changing the Narrative
Beyond individuals, it may be worth incorporating groups such as private sector enterprises that are already investing in youth. Programmes such as International Youth Foundation (IYF)’s Tunisia Works are connecting youth with actors from the public sector, the business community, and civil society to improve youth employment prospects and help them implement their business ideas (Bourhrous and Smith 4). This type of empowerment from a sector that directly impacts a state’s politics may be able to play a pivotal role in influencing the way youth are viewed by government actors. Institutions such as the Tunisia School of Politics are also promising mid-level actors, who focus directly on training Members of Parliament as well as aspiring young politicians from various walks of life who are involved in the leadership bodies of their parties. There is potential to adopt a snowball approach in order to connect with other potential bridging actors within this organization’s networks, as some former participants of the programme have been involved in establishing youth wings in political parties themselves. They may have greater insight and understanding on the needs of youth activists attempting to affect social change, as well as on the obstacles that exist from within political parties (“The Tunisia School of Politics”).
The middle-level leaders identified here include supporters of youth advancement in Tunisia, as well as influential and educated Tunisian young people who have gained international recognition for their social work. Their combined social and political capital has the potential to be a powerful force in legitimizing the need for government partnerships with youth councils and groups that strive to contribute to community change. If a committee of these middle-level individuals and groups is formed, it could play a central role in pushing forward a youth-focused advocacy campaign targeted at political leaders who have expressed interest in a successful democratic transition but have yet to engage with young Tunisians in a meaningful way.
VI – Intended Impact
The ultimate goal of this strategy is to establish buy-in from political leaders and institutions through mid-level leaders in order to eventually restore young people’s trust in state institutions, and the social contract between state and society. The latest Independent Progress Study On Youth, Peace, and Security by the United Nations surveyed youth-led peacebuilding organizations and noted respondents’ belief that “the most challenging aspect of their work is that youth face a lack of space for devising and implementing their activities, are marginalized and misunderstood because of negative perceptions by their community members and elders, resulting in a breakdown of trust” (Simpson 64). To address this, change is required primarily at the transactional or behavioral level, where relevant actors (youth groups/councils and political actors in this case) can engage in dialogue and confidence-building measures to build mutually beneficial relationships (Ricigliano 35). If steps can be taken towards this end, there is potential for attitudes to change and eventually improve the capacities of youth activists in Tunisia to reach their more marginalized peers.
SFCG identified this lack of outreach to help build young leaders’ capacity as active citizens and facilitate their networking skills as a significant shortcoming in current programming. The 2013 evaluation report stressed that a specific mechanism should exist to exchange experiences, mutual learning and best practices among different youth councils. However, the more recent 2017 report on Tunisian youth shed light on the fact that young people disconnected from civic life need to be better incorporated into these strategies (Morsy 28). This is particularly important, as feelings of exclusion in a perceived unjust and corrupt system have proven to lead to revolution and destruction if thoughtful and dignified avenues for sustainable change are not available, particularly for those between the ages of 26-35 in the country (Deman and Saidani 15). However, in order to move towards this type of inclusion, it is necessary to strengthen ties between existing youth councils and group and political leaders. Without this buy-in from the national level, peacebuilding impact will remain incomplete and short-lived.
The aim of this paper was to build on one of the recommendations put forth in Search for Common Ground’s (SFCG) 2017 report, “Youth Consultations on Peace and Security: Findings from Focus Group Discussions and Interviews Including Hard to Reach Youth in Tunisia.” Theresults of this report highlighted the nuanced ways in which marginalized youth, and young people, have already engaged in civic life experienced disenfranchisement at the hands of the state and their communities since leading the national revolution in 2011. This brief paper was an attempt to introduce a new way of thinking to maximize the impact already made by organizations such as SFCG-Tunisia through their Empowering Young Change-Makers program. By relying on the insights of key peacebuilding scholar-practitioners, it was proposed that concepts of vertical integration/cooperation and middle-level leaders in the ‘pyramid of peacebuilding actors’ be incorporated into strategies for promoting youth councils and groups to government leaders. As CDA Collaborative Learning Projects (CDA) outlined, until effective bridges between ‘Key People’ are established, it is very difficult to transition from a phase of peace writ little to peace writ large that considers multilevel, local-national alliances across sectors.
In order to move this analysis towards action, greater research remains to be done in the areas of the implementation process. A comprehensive and conflict-sensitive strategic plan is needed to address how to best recruit middle-level leaders, develop a full stakeholder map, and create an effective advocacy campaign aimed at key political leaders that are both receptive and influential. Funding sources geared towards civic engagement, convening and political participation should also be explored to support this type of effort. In a country where young people constitute 60% of the population, cultivating youth participation in the political process is essential for the wellbeing of Tunisia as a whole (Yerkes). The upcoming generation has proven to be a powerful political force – one that should be trusted and invested in, rather than polarized.
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