The world population is estimated at 7 billion, with 1.8 billion between the ages of 14 and 24. This means there are more young people today than at any other time in history. And the number will just keep growing.

The majority (89%) of the global population aged 10-24 lives in less developed countries. In developed countries, up to 60% of young people are classified as ‘NEET’: neither in employment, education or training. Meanwhile, more than 500 million struggle to survive on less than $2 a day, a level of poverty from which many never escape.

The growing youth demographic is faced with limited education opportunities, unemployment, the HIV/Aids crisis, war and other forms of violence. According to academics, if a large cohort of young people cannot find employment and earn a satisfactory income, the frustrated “youth bulge” could become a source of social and political unrest.

However, the role of young people has been recognized as critical in creating long-term stability and offering protection from future conflicts. As well as academic research, a growing body of evidence from the field is showing that the vast majority of young people can play active and valuable roles as agents of positive and constructive change. In fact, many already do, but their contribution goes unseen or is simply overlooked – a challenge compounded by the general lack of disaggregated data and analysis on age and sex.

During conflicts, masses of people are displaced after their homes and communities have been destroyed, rapidly increasing the number of refugees and internally displaced people in the world. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) the present count is approximately 50 million.

Most warfare takes place in developing countries, particularly in Africa, where some of the highest numbers of child soldiers are found. It’s estimated that 300,000 young soldiers are between the ages of 10 and 24, and are currently risking their lives in armed conflicts. Recruitment can be via conscription, abduction or coercion, but it is a lack of opportunities in their communities that often leads young people into lives of violence and terrorism.

For many young soldiers, drug use is an integral part of life, shielding them from physical and emotional pain and forcing them to stay awake. It subdues rather than resolves their pent-up frustrations, and is more often used as a mechanism to control their actions and minds.

In addition, during conflicts, girls and women encounter threats of rape, sexual trafficking and exploitation, mutilation and humiliation. Furthermore, young people with disabilities or health needs, such as HIV, face hardships and receive little help during conflicts. On top of this, the effects of warfare can cause further disabilities, both of the visible physical variety and the invisible, cognitive and mental.

Whether they are victims or witnesses, young people can’t help but be affected by the grim realities in their communities. They are affected directly, by trauma, and also indirectly through lack of access to education, training, healthcare, adequate nutrition and so on.

The effects of conflict often hinder the transition from youth into adulthood (i.e. maintaining a household, securing assets, gaining independence and self-sufficiency). Young men, in particular, are often stuck in this waiting, or “youthman”, stage and their social stagnation contributes to tremendous frustrations and loss of hope.

Currently there is no agreed international framework for analysing and responding to the problem of youth and violent conflict. However, three main policy streams can be seen:

  1. The “conflict prevention agenda”, which places youth within causes, conditions and dynamics of conflict
  2. The “youth agenda”, which treats conflict or post-conflict situations as simply one of the many environments that young people as a distinct group must navigate as they grow up
  3. The “development agenda”, as defined by the Millennium Development Goals, which focuses mainly on employment as a solution for a perceived youth crisis. There is lack of knowledge and operational guidance on how to integrate adolescents and young people in cluster work.

There is great focus on and funding for under-18s, as well as women and girls in conflict settings, but less work and study on the impact of war on young people ages 15-24. For example, the Graça Machel Impact of Armed Conflict on Children study, between 1994 and 1996, at the request of the United Nations Secretary-General, is a key framing document that fosters action on behalf of war-affected children.

The Global Citizens Corps, designed by Mercy Corps, is one of the programmes for young people in conflict. Since its inception in 2007 it has involved more than 11,000 youth in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, the West Bank/Gaza, connecting with one another and peers in the United States and United Kingdom. The programme addresses the risk of young people joining extremist groups through a three-tiered process of training, action-taking and dialogue. In-person and online trainings help youth build critical life skills and leadership capabilities, while also providing them with the multimedia, communications, advocacy and organizing skills necessary to successfully educate and mobilize their peers and communities.

The varying definitions of youth and the unique challenges of crisis- and conflict-affected environments add a high degree of complexity to programming for young people. Interventions need to be flexible and targeted to the needs of special populations. Overall, programmes must be sensitive to the various contexts and should draw upon processes of conflict analysis. They should also work creatively to give young people a sense of direction and purpose.

The issue of youth and conflict is not the focus of any single agency or organization. This is because the problem spans peace, security and development agendas, and also because the magnitude of the problem requires the contribution of all actors – societies, governments and the international community.

When designing programmes for young people in conflict settings, the following 11 recommendations should be considered:

  1. Consultative process between UN agencies, donors, NGOs and governments to respond to the challenge of youth and conflict.
  1. Integration of youth programmes in humanitarian programmes and cluster approaches to ensure young people’s issues are discussed.
  1. Creation of safe spaces, youth centres and recreational zones in camps and community centres where children can play, interact and develop freely.
  1. Increase data on youth in conflict, via age and sex aggregated data. 
  1. Adopt a working definition of youth that accounts for their diversity and does not treat them as one homogenous group. Programmes and activities need to specify who they mean by “youth” and which demographic they are trying to reach.
  1. Do not treat young people as the problem – or the solution. Targeted youth programmes do not involve identifying young people as something unique or separate from their societies. Whole communities need to be mobilized, not just one particular age group. Therefore, holistic and cross-cutting approaches offer the most useful framework.
  1. Provide youth with the skills to successfully transition to adulthood. Conflict-affected children often experience interruptions in education and later may be too old to return to the formal education system. At the same time, these young people often lack the basic skills they need to secure jobs once the conflict has ended.
  1. Youth-led and youth-engaging interventions aimed at countering extremists’ narratives, promoting tolerance and nonviolent conflict resolution, and building peace can help draw on the innate resilience of communities and underpin the strengthening of democratic, inclusive governance.
  1. Involve youth in assessments, planning and decision-making during a humanitarian response.
  1. Access to basic services such as education and healthcare is important to young people, as is information about health, disease and nutrition.
  1. Focus on the pull factors (religion, group norms, ideology) rather than the push factors (conditions that alienate people or cause them to reject mainstream society, such as poverty, youth unemployment, endemic corruption and elite impunity, vastly inadequate public services or the existence of ungoverned spaces). When young people have no basis for comparison, the singular and direct views of extremism can appear attractive and worthy of support.

Programmes also need to focus on serving youth in crisis- and conflict-affected environments to have a positive impact on income, employment, connection to community and/or sense of purpose, and thus would mitigate their contribution to unrest. Targeted programming, which meets the needs of these particular populations, is critical in these environments.

The World Economic Forum on Africa 2015 takes place in Cape Town, South Africa from 3-5 June.

Author: Asantewaa Lo-liyong, Youth Fellow, UNFPA and Global Shaper, Juba Hub. Follow the Global Shapers Community on Twitter, Facebook, or at www.globalshapers.org

Image: School children receive life skills and psychosocial support in emergencies at a child-friendly learning space inside Mahad’s internally displaced persons (IDPs) camp in Juba October 14, 2014. REUTERS/Jok Solomon