Helping kids be kids could break longstanding cycles of violence

Migrant youths along with volunteers play tug of war, during Eid al-Fitr celebrations, marking the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, organized for underage migrants, at a hotel on the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos. File: 2016. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

A number of studies show violence and conflict passes down to the next generation, and youth growing up in this environment have a difficult road ahead. Mercy Corps, however, believes that youth who when given safe spaces to learn, grow and socialize, can help solve the problems of generations of violence, poverty and instability in a country.

Amie Wells

“The world needs to see youth as a solution, not as a challenge,” Amie Wells, regional adolescents and youth advisor at Mercy Corps, a nonprofit based in Portland, Ore., said Thursday at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Visitor Center’s Spotlight on the Refugee Crisis program.

Youth between the ages of 10 and 24 make up 40 percent of the world population. Nine out of ten of those youths live in developing countries, and more than half of the 65.3 million displaced persons are under 18 years old.

Despite the growing number of displaced youth, their circumstances make them invisible to the development sector. Many leave school to work, and others must stay home because it is unsafe to leave. Seeing youth as passive victims, or worse, security threats, Wells said, needs to change because meeting their needs is critical to change.

The implications are far reaching. When children and youth see and experience violence firsthand they begin to consider it a norm. They also witness and experience social injustices that go along with poverty, unemployment, poor governance and the disintegration of families and communities. Taken together, these become the principle drivers of political violence – all rooted in experiences of injustice, according to a Mercy Corps report. And this is important because violence learned young and has become the backbone of the world’s most violent movements.

By focusing on interventions that focus on youth in these volatile circumstances, Mercy Corps hopes to disrupt that cycle.

Noura Shahed

Noura Shahed, senior coordinator, monitoring and evaluation at Mercy Corps and co-presenter with Wells, said adolescents living in conflict become isolated and vulnerable, which can lead to long-term psychological problems for boys and girls. She said girls are often forced into early marriage and pregnancy, and are often not allowed to seek services due to safety concerns of sexual violence, while boys are often given large responsibilities at young ages, which can lead to depression and drug addiction.

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“It is crucial to focus on youth’s psycho-social emotional well-being,” Wells said. “These young people do need jobs and they do need opportunities, but if we cease to address their psycho-social needs we are going to see post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and considerable stressors throughout their lives.”

Shahed said living in stress for prolonged periods changes the chemistry of the brain, and adolescence is an important time for brain development. This is why Mercy Corps designs all of its programs for youth in conflict using the Profound Stress and Attunement Approach.

It is through this approach that Mercy Corps teaches youth a variety of skills, and trains them the lead projects of their own. Wells said partnering with youth is the central focus of its programming.

Amanda Lanzarone, associate program officer for emergency response at the Gates Foundation said the foundation works with organizations such as Mercy Corps, because it wants to meet the long-term needs of youth and help them build a better future.

“Right now in the world we have an unprecedented level of displacement,” Lanzarone said. “The foundation’s work around refugees is different from just meeting immediate needs, because we know some people can be displaced for generations.”

Wells said Mercy Corps is not reaching enough youth living in conflict, either due to lack of access or lack of financial resources. In 2016 Mercy Corps estimates that it reached 15,000 youth in the Middle East region. She said while some in the Western world debate the utility of foreign aid, the short-term and long-term economic costs of conflict, not to mention security concerns with growing terrorism threats throughout the world are worth the expense, which is less and 1 percent of the U.S. federal budget.

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“Sometimes the humanitarian sector fails to speak from the economic opportunity or the stability standpoint,” Wells said. “Look at Iraq; ISIS came out of Iraq. A lack of support for rebuilding, and a lack of support for psycho-social programming for youth make for prime breeding grounds of recruitment.”

The economic impact of violence on the world economy is vast. In 2015 it was estimated to cost $13.6 trillion – expressed in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms – which is 13.3 percent of the world’s GDP. The World Bank estimates that conflict leads to an annual loss in economic output of 1 percent to 3 percent. Meanwhile in 2015 United Nations peacekeeping expenditures of $8.27 billion totaled only 1.1 percent of the estimated $742 billion in economic losses from armed conflict.

Longer-term costs of war also effect the global economy as generations of youth experience, and see their parents experience decreased productivity from injuries, and the lost economic output from murder, pain and trauma stemming from violence.

If youth can only see a bleak future this will likely promote more violence, which is why, Shahed said, the development sector needs to create more holistic programs that are long term and enable youth to thrive. She said when given the opportunity, youth will bloom.

“The most important thing for youth in conflict is to be seen as participates instead of beneficiaries,” Wells said. “Youth have a lot of their own answers, and are a powerful wealth of knowledge, energy and resources.”

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Amanda Pain

Amanda Pain, MPH, is a freelance writer based in Seattle with a background in journalism, global health and international development.