Engaging Youth to Raise Society for All

Publication Date: 
14 Aug 2013

Adam LeClair, former IFES Civil Society Officer in Afghanistan, has extensive experience in youth engagement, starting from his time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Moldova from 2005 to 2007. Following his time in the Eastern European nation, he joined IFES’ team in Afghanistan to focus on programs targeting young people.

As he transitions to his new role as Project Director for World Learning’s Institute of Political and Civic Engagement (IPACE) in Myanmar, he reflects on his three and a half years at IFES and the importance of including youth in civic and political life.

Many of the projects you worked on focus on youth engagement. Why is youth engagement so important and how does it help society?

Working with young people in the context of development is fantastic. In Moldova, I worked with summer youth leadership camps and created a youth and community development program in my village. It was a small program, but this first exposure to youth development led me to realize the importance of integrating young people in the development process – everyone benefits when the voices of young people are heard.

The youth sector is unarguably a critical facet of international development. This is punctuated by the fact that, in many places where we work, there is a “youth bulge” to contend with.

Take Afghanistan, where the UN estimates upwards of 75 percent of the population is under 25. Here, elements of security; conflict and transition; economic viability; and democratic development intersect to create a complex set of challenges. The country’s young people are going to inherit these challenges and they must be poised to lead their country in a direction that is on track with its democratic trajectory. If we are tasked to strengthen the course of development in a country, then we are responsible for ensuring the next generation is able to build on and sustain that development. Inattention to youth issues seriously threatens to exacerbate these challenges by breeding indifference and intolerance.

Young people are going to need a lot of innovative problem solving and critical thinking skills. That is why youth engagement activities, like debate clubs implemented by IFES in Afghanistan, are so great. They provide a learning platform to acquire and practically apply those skills. Youth engagement is a holistic, long-term approach to helping society by embedding an aptitude for positive change in its young people.

What are the best ways to reach and engage youth? What has to be included in youth programming for it to be effective?

You have to meet youth where their interests and passions lie. You have to identify where the gaps exist, what the ambitions are and create a cross-section of initiatives that will be demand-driven. You have to tap into youth leaders as a major resource. In Afghanistan, there are countless youth leaders demonstrating outstanding initiative. You reach these people, and they find the outlets to reach their peers. It is a domino effect.

On the other hand, when working with youth groups it is important to realize capacity is often lacking – capacity to advocate around issues, to manage projects or organizations, and so on. I have found that their drive and passion is there, but the deficit of organizational skills is a real challenge. You have to leverage that passion while balancing those gaps.

In Afghanistan, you worked on two programs that were devoted to youth, the Future Leaders Club and the IFES Debate Clubs. Tell us how they came to be and what were/are their main goals. Both projects have seen immense success. What do you think are their greatest accomplishments?

The Future Leaders Club (FLC) was piloted in Kabul in 2010. It was launched by my fantastic colleagues with IFES as a civic education and leadership training program for young women aged 18-25. Through a series of courses (such as elections, good governance, women’s issues, self-confidence, public speaking, leadership, etc.), FLC targets young women with an aptitude for political and civic activism, and aims to create a network of informed young women leaders.

FLC quickly expanded to include five provincial centers throughout Afghanistan. I remember the IFES Satellite Officer Coordinator in Herat Province told me when she started the program, only a few young women were interested. This past year she received over 150 applications for 25 slots.

The university debate program trains students in the British Parliamentary Debate model. Much like FLC, it was a small Kabul-based pilot that quickly grew to include 12 universities in six provinces. It was the first debate program of its kind in Afghanistan. Debate was introduced as a tool to increase students’ critical thinking, public speaking and research skills, as well as their tolerance of opposing viewpoints.

Both programs experienced immense success because we tapped into students’ passion. FLC and debate club participants want to be heard and there are few other opportunities for them to do so in Afghanistan because of a lack of extracurricular activities at universities.

I think the greatest accomplishments are how FLC and debate club participants have taken these activities into their hands and made them their own. Through FLC, a group of 2010 and 2011 program alumnae founded the Future Leaders Organization (FLO) because they want to someday take over IFES’ FLC programming and share what they learned with other young women. From IFES’ debate program, a group of talented debaters from the 2010 pilot program established their own organization as well, the Open Debating Society of Afghanistan Organization (ODSAO). Since its start-up, ODSAO has sent debaters overseas to compete in debate competitions and train many other students.

What is your favorite memory of working with youth in Afghanistan?

There are so many favorite memories. What I am really taking away from Afghanistan are the people and the lifelong connections with colleagues who are also family. I learned so much from all of them and they taught me how to be a better person.

The youth in Afghanistan are some of the most impressive I have ever come upon. When I think about initiatives such as the FLO or ODSAO, I am truly inspired. These young people want to share what they have learned with peers and usher in a new era of positive change.

In your next position, will you also focus on youth engagement?

I am taking on a new opportunity with World Learning as their project director for the Institute of Political and Civic Engagement (IPACE) in Myanmar. IPACE provides education and training courses to civil society, political party and labor union leaders. These courses educate participants on fundamental democratic principles and prepare them to engage citizens and forge more representative, accountable governance.

For nearly five decades Myanmar has been cut off from the rest of the world. Now the country is facing a wave of unprecedented economic, social and political reforms. Its young people need the skills and training to embrace that change. Myanmar, too, faces a youth bulge – the median age is only 27 – many young people who will be looking for jobs and ways to be involved in their country’s future. I hope I can find ways to help them along this path.