Young Peacebuilders Highlight the Platforms — and Obstacles — on the Way to Sustainable Development
The case for including youth in efforts to build peace and pave the way to development is obvious. We spoke with two trailblazers from Kenya and Indonesia, to learn about their work to ensure the voices of young people are heard.
Christine Achieng Odera grew up in Riruta, a low-income neighbourhood in Nairobi near Kawangware, a place where, she said, “theft cases were so frequent that one had to be very careful moving about the neighborhood.” Many of her classmates dropped out of school because their families could not afford the fees. Disillusioned and bored, some became addicted to drugs, or turned to street crime, but if caught they faced vigilante action from local gangs, which operated in a justice vacuum. “I lost many school mates from mob justice after they were caught stealing,” she recalled. Other pupils in her school were refugees that had fled from Ethiopia and South Sudan, who shared their harrowing stories of conflict. During her school years, Odera became involved in student counselling work, and started having conversations with her peers about the community issues that impacted their lives.
At the age of 27, Odera is a member of several youth-led peacebuilding organizations in Kenya and beyond, including the Commonwealth Youth Peace Ambassadors Network and the Kenya National Youth Service. She works to include the views and opinions of youth in discussions about a variety of topics, from peace and security and the rule of law to countering violent extremism.
“We need more conversations with duty bearers and decision makers, not for them to speak to us, but to speak with us, and we need them to be youth allies to build trust and strengthen relationships,” she told Politically Speaking. She noted that while Kenya is known as a hub for innovation, obstacles such as the high cost of living and the costs involved in starting a business, can be prohibitive for young people. The perennial problem facing Kenyan youth is that they are often seen as a “problem to be solved” instead of people who can contribute meaningfully to development, she said.
Odera credits United Nations Security Council resolution 2250 on youth, peace and security for giving her “a voice and the courage” to participate in peacebuilding activities. She began by translating language from the resolution into Kiswahili, so that young people not fluent in English could understand the text. It also provided her with the opportunity to work with others in the peacebuilding field, including participating in discussions on Youth, Peace and Security at the Peacebuilding Commission, an advisory body to the General Assembly and the Security Council on peacebuilding issues.
The Role of the Peacebuilding Commission
Speaking at meeting of the Peacebuilding Commission on Youth, Peace and Security (YPS), in May 2022, Odera highlighted her experiences working in Cameroon in 2019 alongside other youth leaders from Ghana, Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria. Together they collected and submitted recommendations to the Minister of Youth on the participation of young people in the peace process. The Minister, in response, publicly received the recommendations and committed to supporting youth. Their support for Cameroonian youth also resulted in the forming of the Cameroonian Youth Mediators Network (CYMN). For Odera, it was an example of the effectiveness of south-south cooperation, spearheaded by the young.
Also at the meeting, Assistant Secretary-General for Peacebuilding Support, Elizabeth Spehar, took the opportunity to address the structural barriers faced by youth, particularly with regard to political participation, stressing that “we all need to do more to place young people — who make up the majority of the population in many conflict-affected areas — at the centre of strategies for peacebuilding and prevention.” With that in mind, she recalled the useful recommendations contained within the 2022 report of the Secretary-General on youth, peace and security, including the need to accelerate investments in the capacities, agency and leadership of youth.
Spehar went on to highlight the work carried out by DPPA to enhance the participation of young people, including its recent collaboration with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in the production of policy documents on youth, peace and security. She added that the Department was also helping to address the scarcity of financing in this area through the Peacebuilding Fund, which is the largest funding window in support of the implementation of resolutions 2250 (2015),2419(2018) and 2535 (2020), all of which recognize the positive role that young people can play in peacebuilding.
Participants at the meeting also took the opportunity to build on the Peacebuilding Commission’s Youth Plan of Action, which was adopted at the previous meeting in February 2021 to help guide and monitor the Commission’s support of young people in peacebuilding. Since the adoption of the plan in February 2021, the Commission has stepped up its efforts to support young people and youth-led organizations working for peace. This is already paying dividends: The percentage of meetings at which young peacebuilders briefed the Commission increased from 5.4 percent in 2020 to 44.4 percent in 2021, providing a platform that allows the sharing of experiences and discussions on youth and peace and security. The first annual assessment of the plan also confirmed positive trends in the work of the Commission and provided follow-up recommendations
The View From Indonesia: Promoting Dialogue for Youth
The meeting was also attended by Odera’s fellow youth peacebuilder, Agatha Lydia Natania, the Executive Director of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Youth Organization. She leads projects in the region to promote the inclusion of young people and the youth, peace and security agenda, as well as collaboration between governments, civil society and youth-led organizations.
Natania is 27-years old and hails from Bogor, Indonesia, a town about an hour outside of Jakarta. During her early school years, she recalled that some classmates did not welcome her because her religion and cultural background was different from theirs and, in later years, she encountered racism when she studied in Europe. These experiences, she said, “made me eager to conduct interfaith and intercultural dialogue, to build bridges between local, regional and global communities.” In Indonesia, she has also seen the threat of violent extremism growing, and with it a rise in hate speech, intolerance and online recruitment. All of this spurred her ambitions to become a peacebuilder, to promote tolerance and dialogue between people of different creeds and cultures.
“The main challenges for youth in Indonesia and the south-east Asia region are socio-economic”, Natania said, as “socio-economic discrepancies have become the root causes of many conflicts”, due to differences in wealth, religion and culture. “Because Indonesia has six official religions, as well as more than 700 local languages and 300 ethnicities, intercultural and interfaith understanding are vital to maintain harmony in society,” she stressed.
Of her participation at the Peacebuilding Commission meeting, she said it was a “great platform” to bring together youth representatives from diverse backgrounds and regions to share their experiences, ideas and recommendations directly to the Member States as well as with other young peacebuilders.
“From the other youth representatives, I learned that even though we come from different regions, we have similar challenges in implementing the youth, peace and security agenda,” she said.