Young people’s demands

Young people’s demands: sustainable peacebuilding through meaningful education
March 16, 2017
Dr Mieke T.A. Lopes Cardozo, University of Amsterdam:
Read original blog on the MUNPlanet

This article is published as part of Fridays With MUNPlanet, and its special series dedicated to world politics. The aim of this series is to bring you the analysis of global affairs by the established and upcoming scholars, decision-makers and policy analysts from various world regions. This week, Mieke Lopes Cardozo writes about recent insights from research with and for youth in four conflict-affected contexts – Myanmar, Pakistan, South Africa and Uganda – and the potential and limitations of formal and non-formal education in supporting young people’s roles in processes of peacebuilding.

This article draws on research conducted as part of the Research Consortium on Education and Peacebuilding, a partnership between UNICEF, the University of Amsterdam, University of Sussex and Ulster University and research teams in Myanmar, Pakistan, South Africa and Uganda (2014-2016). Findings presented here are written up in a Synthesis Report on Youth Agency and Peacebuilding: An analysis of the role of formal and non-formal education (Lopes Cardozo, Higgins and Le Mat, 2016).

This report combines a focus on youth agency, peacebuilding and education – an intersection that is often not addressed simultaneously. Recognising education’s potential to enhance or undermine processes of sustainable peacebuilding and social cohesion, this report brings together a focus on the role of formal and non-formal education initiatives that are available to (some) youth in four conflict-affected countries: Myanmar, Pakistan, South Africa and Uganda. In addressing these issues the report aims to provide useful analysis and reflection for a range of audiences including scholars, practitioners and other professionals working in youth-related policy and programming as well as youth themselves, whose voice is too frequently marginalized.

Why research with and for youth is needed

Recent posts on Fridays With MUNPlanet are exemplary of a pressing sense of the need for change and opportunity, optimism, sustainable responses and urgency. These blog posts are written at a timely moment, as all of them – form various angles – respond to current global shifting agenda’s and gears with regards to issues of peace, security and sustainable development, including the adoption of the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs, September 2015) and the UN Security Council adoption of Resolution 2250 on Youth, Peace and Security (December, 2015). Picture1By urging member states to increase representation of youth in decision-making at all levels, the Resolution 2250 shifts attention from seeing youth only as a security threat, to recognizing them as a large section of the population that can potentially contribute to constructive change. At the same time, and in line with SDG number 4 (as well as 16, 8 and a range of others), attention is being directed internationally to the important role of education in zones of conflict, with an important advocacy role taken up by (members of) the International Network of Education in Emergencies.

The UN Resolution 2250 on Youth, Peace and Security includes several references to the importance of education for young people’s lives, yet what becomes apparent is a specific view of education’s role to foster “youth entrepreneurship and constructive political engagement”. The assumption is that education should support “employment and training in preventing the marginalization of youth” and “investment in building young persons’ capabilities and skills to meet labour demands through relevant education opportunities designed in a manner which promotes a culture of peace” (article 17a/b, UN Resolution 2250). In addition, article 16 includes “education leaders” in a list of actors that would need to be “empowered” to counter recruitment of youth into violent extremism and terrorist attacks; education systems are not directly referred to as one of the conditions that might be conducive to the spread of violent extremism. Considering the general lack of attention and evidence on the roles, actions and hopes of youth in conflict-affected situations, the Resolution 2250 is an important step forward in terms of international recognition. However, it does lead to a range of unanswered questions, including the ways in which education is supposed to support youth to engage in long-term processes of peacebuilding and conflict resolution, and what this concretely means for actors working in this field.

Dilemmas of studying “youth”

In a way, as scholars in the field of sustainable development, peace and education, we have probably set ourselves out to do the impossible – to contribute something meaningful into the debates about “youth” – in others words, to say something significant about a massive, in some cases majority, segment of the population. In addition, definitions of the term “youth” itself remain contested all over the globe, ranging from more technical age-ranges to a wide scope of social categorisations. While recognizing the concept’s cultural specificity, we have defined youth as those within their second and third decade of life. Our analysis aims to illustrate both the heterogeneity of ‘youth’ in the four countries, as well as highlight how often only a selection of youth constituencies are included in (formal and non-formal) education. We draw on a rich data base, covering several regions within four countries, presenting a special opportunity to clarify how youth may contribute to peacebuilding processes, how distinct cultural, political and economic factors impact on their capacity to do so and how in turn education may be mobilized to support them – or, in turn, is currently limiting to do so.

Working together with young researchers and youth respondents in Myanmar, Pakistan, South Africa and Uganda, we aim to highlight the needs, challenges and daily realities of youth themselves. The four country case studies were selected with the intention of providing the maximum variety of contrast relating to the relationship between education and peacebuilding, in terms of geographical diversity, the nature and temporality of the conflict contexts explored and the drivers and root causes that underpin them. The rich diversity of research sites emphasises the need for conflict sensitive, contextually coherent approaches to enhancing the role and potential of education in peacebuilding processes in each context, while serving to enrich globally relevant insights and reflections on the differing challenges, possibilities and potentials of education, as a key social sector, in the promotion of sustainable peace-promoting societies.

Analytical approach for sustainable peacebuilding: 4Rs

We complement our research findings with insights from the literature on youth agency in conflict-affected settings as presented in our earlier developed Literature Review (Lopes Cardozo, Higgins, Maber, Brandt, Kusmallah, Le Mat, 2015). We apply the Research Consortium’s 4Rs theoretical framework (figure 1), which combines social justice and transitional justice thinking to develop a normative analytical framework for the study of education and peacebuilding, which recognises the multiple dimensions of inequality and injustice that often drive contemporary conflicts and the need to address the legacies of these conflicts in and through education (Novelli, Lopes Cardozo, & Smith, 2015). The framework combines dimensions of redistribution, recognition, representation, and reconciliation, linking Fraser’s (1995, 2005) work on social justice with the peacebuilding and reconciliation work of Galtung (1976), Lederach (1995, 1997), and others, to explore what sustainable peacebuilding might look like in post-conflict and conflict-affected environments.


Study approach: placing youth central to analysis

SCR2250 calls for an engagement with young people’s voices and capacities – pressing governments, policy-makers and those working with young people to listen, support and act. Attempting to take on this important, yet challenging, task as researchers when working with various groups of young women and men in the four countries, we aimed to capture the specific cultural, political economy challenges faced by youth. Key challenges included:

  • High levels of unemployment and lack of access to labour markets;
  • Exclusion from decision-making/political processes at local and national levels;
  • Alienated relationships with the state;
  • Disengagement and frustration with the apparent irrelevance of formal educational provision;
  • Widespread experiences of direct as well as indirect violence; and
  • Structural gender inequalities reinforced by education and lack of adequate policy and programmatic attention.

These daily realities highlight how youth agency and well-being is, in all country contexts, deeply affected, constrained and shaped by the continuing existence of drivers of economic, political and cultural conflict.

How youth are portrayed in policy and beyond

Often, youth are portrayed as those that are ‘in-between’ childhood and adulthood, and that supposedly need protection, control, and social management to move from a state of dependency to one of independence and autonomy. Such mainstream ideas of youth have led in many contexts to a variety of deep-rooted fears, ambivalences, and unsettling anxieties around the implications of large and growing young populations. In synthesizing findings from Pakistan, Myanmar, South Africa, and Uganda, the “youth bulge” was a recognised issue in all country contexts of study. This youth bulge on the one hand is seen a threat, as surely there are implications for youth (un-) employment and respective frustrations and grievances this might cause, and on the other hand, and on a more positive note, the large numbers of youth in (post-) conflict societies are also perceived as a potential force for economic, and social, political development. Bringing together the insights from the four country studies, we see a clear prioritization of seeing youth for economic development and growth. In a way, this can be connected to a broader observation that in most contexts, a (globally inspired, yet locally adopted) liberal peace thesis is dominantly influencing policy and investment directions, focusing on first strengthening markets and democratic governance, while often leaving aside (or for a later moment) substantial investments in social sectors, including education and other youth-relevant areas such as health. Secondly, in highlighting main reflections on (the absence of) youth-relevant policy frameworks in all contexts, our empirical findings confirm insight from the literature review on youth agency, education and peacebuilding (Lopes Cardozo et al., 2015), in the sense that there is an absence of youth voice in policy and programming, which is problematic for ensuring adequate responses to youth needs and constituencies in post-conflict societies and education systems.


Source: Lopes Cardozo, Higgins & Le Mat (2016: 48) Synthesis Report

Figure 4 illustrates the various societal discourses that resulted from the analysis of our data in the four country contexts. These are a combination of official policy discourses (e.g. policy or reform texts), discourse employed by policy-developers in their daily work, but also the most widely expressed discourses of youth as brought forward by (social) media. Inspired by Davies’ (2005) work on passive and active responses to conflict, and the division between negative and positive conflict, the figure we present takes a slightly different angle and illustrates how youth are sometimes framed as a threat (c.f. negative conflict) – on the left side of the visual – or a potential (c.f. positive conflict) – towards the right side – that are either passively (top of circle) or actively (bottom) contributing to or hindering peacebuilding. Why this is an important step to do in our analysis? Because such discourses inform (directly or indirectly) the ways in which policy-makers, programme-designers and broader (civil) society respond to youth. For example, seeing youth as troublemakers or even potential terrorists will probably result in a different policy or programmatic approach then (also) viewing youth’s potential as leaders for (positive) change. Finally, the figure should not be seen as a complete visualization of how youth should be seen, bur rather as a representation of the various framings that came forward in our data sets. Furthermore, it should be acknowledged that ‘youth’ in these national contexts are by no means a homogenous group, and that in face discourses on their different constituencies might vary depending on for instance, location, gender, and ethnicity.

Formal education: a tragic paradox of unmet dreams

In relation to youth experience of formal education provision, the research teams uncovered what can only be described as a tragic paradox in relation to formal education provision in most of the conflict-affected contexts under study, few exceptional schools left aside. On the one hand, youth have high expectations of the promise of education to impact their lives across multiple dimensions of their agency (economically, politically and socio-culturally). On the other hand, the systemic exclusion of marginalized groups of young women and men from secondary education, as well as serious weaknesses in curricula content and pedagogical approaches undermine its potential to contribute to empowerment. Moreover, the resulting disillusion and disaffection noted by the research teams intersectionally cuts across class, gender and ethnic differences, with educated middle class male urban youth being just as likely to be dissatisfied – albeit of a different nature – with their education experience as poorer and more marginalised groups.

Youth voices on the failures of formal teaching content and styles

In addition to the socio-economic systemic explanations to account for low participation rates, the voices of youth who participated in the four country cases revealed strong opinions about the largely irrelevant content and learning experiences offered within formal education. Table 5 summarises their perceptions on the failures of formal education to equip them to participate in and become beneficiaries of key peacebuilding processes. Although the chart distinguishes between views on Redistributions, Recognition, Representation and Reconciliation, it has to be kept in mind that in reality these might overlap, as visualised by the dotted lines.


Source: Lopes Cardozo, Higgins & Le Mat (2016: 57) Synthesis Report

The young people we spoke to drew attention to the lack of relevance of the formal curricula to their daily realities, challenges and hopes. In some contexts, they pointed out that education was a hindrance rather than a help in securing employment, with vocational education initiatives leading to joblessness and despair – and possibly new drivers of conflict. Negative experiences of curriculum content were also linked to youth critiques of pedagogical practices that were perceived to undermine and suppress their agency. Many youth highlighted the dominance of rote learning methods within authoritarian instructional techniques that prevented them from asking questions and developing opinions. In addition, an exam-dominated approach to learning and relationships with teachers characterised by fear and corporal punishment, were generally perceived as alienating and frustrating. Considering this alarming picture on youth mostly negative experiences with formal education, what is the role of other, alternative and non-formal (non state-led) education initiatives?

Non-formal schooling – filling the gaps?

Research on non-formal education – including art groups, sports clubs, NGO-led trainings and many more – shows how often only small and exclusive numbers of young people can access and benefit. Nevertheless, especially those non-formal trainings and learning spaces that recognised and built upon the existing initiatives and courage of youth (e.g. youth-led initiatives) were experienced as particularly effective. We found that creative, collaborative and participatory activities are being mobilized to build meaningful connections with and between youth participants. Working with young people in the four countries also highlighted how youth agency – and the spaces young women and men engage at – range from the intra-personal to the international levels (figure 6).


Source: Lopes Cardozo, Higgins & Le Mat (2016: 78, original drawing by Elizabeth Maber) Synthesis Report

At the (macro) level, a notable structural challenge in all four contexts was the lack of human and financial resources, as well as a lack of political will to empower youth. At the meso and micro-levels, findings pointed to the importance of community support for interventions to result in more sustainable impacts. Addressing more nano, and inter- or intra-personal level of youth needs and agency, data showed the need for psycho-social approaches that focus on mental and emotional health of youth.

A serious awareness of and engagement with adolescents’ and young people’s developing political beliefs and worldviews hence forms a crucial aspect of a holistic approach to education that supports peacebuilding, particularly in relation to: processes of identity- formation and building self-esteem (connected to recognition), meaningfully experienced participation (linked to representation) and reconciliation, by supporting trust (when appropriate) and supporting mechanisms to address grievances and frustrations. Nevertheless, managing expectations is crucial, as lack of work opportunities following vocational training interventions or lack of participation in decision-making processes following political awareness raising may exacerbate youth frustrations, thereby driving rather than mitigating conflict and alienation.

Avoid romanticising non-formal education and neglect of investing in formal schooling

Our research teams noted that non-formal interventions that addressed the micro and community rooted realities and priorities of youth were able to draw on greater flexibility and openness to change in their operational strategies than nationally driven macro level formal education systems. Nevertheless, these reflections of a mostly negative image of formal education versus a simplistic promising picture of non-formal initiatives, creates the danger of disregarding the importance and potential of a reformed/transformed public formal education, that would ideally serve all youth constituencies equally. Hence, our argument here should not be read as a rejection of formal over non-formal forms of education, but rather as a finding that shows the relative flexibility and transformability of such non-formal interventions, which can potentially operate in more direct contact with societies and communities. It also points to the recognition that reforming education systems is everything but an overnight exercise, and should accordingly by planned and budgeted for. Indeed, these findings underline the considerable systemic and political economy challenges of making formal education more meaningful for youth, and the greater opportunities for innovation and flexibility within non-formal programming.

Ways forward for education’s role in sustainable peacebuilding

1. Within policies of national governments and (international) civil society organisations alike, there is a need for more nuanced understandings or “framings” of youth, to acknowledge and respond to:
a) a more refined and context-specific understanding that sees youth as agents of peacebuilding, and not merely as a threat;
b) the multi-scalar nature of youth engagement and potential and the realization that youth agency is relational. Hence, relations between individual and youth collectives with the state, non-state actors, civil society, security forces, communities and peers are incredibly important when designing or implementing youth-focused initiatives.

2. There is a need for national governments to develop more effective, coherent policy and institutional frameworks to listen to and address youth needs in relation to the economic, political, cultural and social dimensions of young people’s challenges, needs and potential.

3. Youth respondents call for more context-specific, needs-based and holistic education opportunities, both within formal and non-formal education programming. This would require:
a) Locally-embedded needs-based analysis and approaches to overcome mismatches between intervention rhetoric and reality;
b) Addressing discrepancies between youth priorities for peacebuilding and those of (non-formal) education interventions;
c) Comprehensive rather than fragmented approaches to enhancing all aspects of young people’s socio-cultural, political and economic agency.

4. Considering the overall rather negative experience of youth respondents with the ways in which formal education fails to support their needs, considerable reform efforts are needed. Particularly important areas for education reform include:
a) ensuring equal resources to ensure safe and sustainable learning environments for female and male learners and teachers;
b) better connection with the labour market;
c) more diverse and critical pedagogies applied to the teaching of history;
d) more inclusive language of instruction policies that allow for diverse identities and learning needs;
e) gender-responsive approaches to enhance equal educational/career opportunities for male and female students and teachers, and gender- transformative approaches to enhance relevance/appropriateness of educational content.

5. Finally, the above recommendations illustrate a gap in knowledge and a dearth of systematic evaluation of both short and longer-term impact of formal and non-formal education on the lives and choices of young people in conflict-affected contexts. Future academic research and evaluative studies need to further explore the complexities listed above

Acknowledgements: This article draws on a synthesis report which was originally co- authored by Mieke Lopes Cardozo, Sean Higgins and Marielle Le Mat, and could not have been written without the support of the research teams in each of the case study countries, the teamwork between the three respective universities and without the collaboration with UNICEF.

How has your education experiences so far either played enabling or transformative roles, or rather has it had a limiting and disempowering effect? Why, and how? In order to foster education’s peacebuilding potential, what would need to be prioritized at multiple (international, national, community, school/learning space) levels? Join the discussion and leave your comments below.