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Most Likely to Change the World

illustration by Ashley Castaneda '23, an Illustration major at RISD

Throughout history, youth voices across the world have played integral roles in protest movements. Facing coordinated state violence since the February 2021 coup, young people in Myanmar have taken to the streets to protest for democracy. Uyghur youth are leading efforts to preserve their culture and resist the ethnic cleansing that the Chinese government is perpetrating against their community. In Yemen, youth have helped provide civilians with life-saving humanitarian and development resources during its violent civil war. In both Russia and Ukraine, young people have spoken out against war, and some Russian youth have even been detained for participating in protests.

Despite the crucial role that youth—defined by the UN as those aged 29 and under—play in responding to conflict and shaping community politics, the United States currently lacks any comprehensive strategy to include them in mitigating armed conflict. The passage of the Youth, Peace, and Security Act (HR 4838) would correct this oversight.  

This bipartisan bill would require a, “whole-of-government strategy to promote the inclusive and meaningful participation of youth in peace building and conflict prevention, management, and resolution, as well as post-conflict and recovery efforts.” A Youth Coordinator would be appointed at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to lead the development of this strategy by assisting grassroots youth movements.

With nearly one-third of refugees worldwide being under 18, it is imperative that youth be included in the peace building process. Youth determine the future of their countries, and if their concerns are not addressed, conflicts are likely to reemerge. A coordinated US response that prioritizes the voices and perspectives of young citizens in war settings would make it possible to build a sustainable post-conflict world.

It is clear that youth across the world can catalyze change. For example, young people played a pivotal role in sparking the Arab Spring protests throughout the Middle East, which led to massive political upheaval and, in some cases, violent conflict. Notably, the Independent Youth movement in Yemen helped mobilize the country to enact democratic change, initiating many of the protests against former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s administration. Yet despite their involvement in protests, youth are generally excluded from formal decision-making and peace-building processes. 

HR 4838 is not just about enabling new modes of youth participation: It also aims to uplift and amplify the work youth are already doing around the world. The Youth Coordinator would be authorized to provide grants as well as emergency and technical assistance to youth-led civil organizations and youth peace builders. This is especially important given the current difficulties small and local NGOs, particularly those led by young people, face when applying for funding from USAID—one of the main avenues through which humanitarian and development projects around the world can receive financial support from the United States without being directly administered by the US government. However, the application process to obtain funding from USAID is incredibly bureaucratic, time-consuming, and difficult to navigate, even for the most well-established of organizations. For young people around the world, a lack of credibility and connections with USAID officials can serve as barriers to this financial support. Consequently, funding is often deferred to large, international NGOs, which offer critical aid but often neglect the perspectives of those working on the ground. Lowering the barriers to financial resources for youth peace builders is key to supporting Burmese, Ukrainian, Uyghur, Yemeni, and the many other young organizers who are protecting their communities.

Civil society programs for youth focused on education, mental health services, and civic engagement are also crucial to support young people living in conflict-ridden areas. These services are often inaccessible while families are enduring violence and being displaced. The crumbling infrastructure of a nation absorbed in conflict is not conducive to youth development: One in three young people between the ages of 5 and 17 in a country affected by conflict or disaster are out of school.  

Education and other support services are critical not only for child development, health, and community building, but also as an investment in peace. An education and civic engagement program in Somalia, for example, was associated with an approximately 50 percent decrease in people’s willingness to participate in or condone political violence over a six-year period. Supporting locally-led programs like these could foster a future that is safer for all people—one that promotes peaceful conflict resolution and political change. 

The United States is behind in  recognizing the power of youth involvement in global conflicts. UN Security Council Resolution 2250, passed in 2015, recognized the importance of youth in, “shaping and sustaining peace,” and called on countries to include youth in peace and security work. In 2020, the UN released its first progress report on youth, peace, and security, finding that while recognition of youth’s role in establishing peace has increased, there are still many structural barriers to their participation. Many peace processes are undemocratic, lack transparency, and are devoid of clear avenues for youth to effectively make their proposals visible to those with decision-making power. Moreover, youth have become increasingly disillusioned with their governments and international systems, signaling the urgency of granting them a democratic voice. Unfortunately, in the seven years since the passage of UN Resolution 2250, the United States has done very little to realize the UN’s youth, peace, and security agenda.

Implementation should be fairly straightforward: The proposed Youth, Peace, and Security Act mirrors the Women, Peace, and Security Act passed by Congress in 2017. This law has successfully integrated national security protections for women and has included women in foreign policy, proving that the United States is able to restructure its peace building processes to promote inclusivity.

An approach to peace that includes youth and their ongoing work in their communities has already proven effective. As global conflicts are sparked and persist, including in Ukraine and Myanmar, the tremendous human cost of that violence is on full display. American legislators have a responsibility to promote peace through every means possible—first and foremost by  recognizing the Youth, Peace, and Security Act as a tool for achieving it.