Young Democracy: Engagement as a Deterrent to Radicalization

Publication Date: 
31 Aug 2015

News Type:

On August 26, 2015 the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) and the Office of Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18) hosted “Young Democracy: Engagement as a Deterrent to Radicalization,” a breakfast briefing marking International Youth Month.

Michael Svetlik, IFES Vice President of Programs, opened the event by highlighting the importance of engaging young people before the age of enfranchisement. Event moderator Augusta Featherston, IFES Youth Adviser and Regional Officer for the Center for Applied Research and Learning, then introduced IFES panelists Ambar Zobairi, Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA); Matthew Cohen, Program Officer for Africa; Jessica Huber, Senior Gender Specialist; and Juliette Schmidt, Deputy Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific.

Featherston opened the discussion by providing remarks focused on recent global trends in young people’s attitudes and beliefs surrounding democracy and political participation, as well as positioning IFES’ youth work within the context of the broader youth development field.

Following a question by Featherston on existing challenges to youth engagement, Zobairi mentioned the youth bulge in MENA coinciding with the Arab Spring in 2011. Young people in the region have faced high levels of unemployment combined with a lack of educational opportunities and upward mobility, and they have had little, if any, experience with democracy. Zobairi encouraged programming that fosters an understanding of citizen rights and responsibilities at a young age, as “people raised with democracy have higher expectations” that “can have higher dividends and impacts” on creating a culture of democracy.

Discussing challenges to youth engagement in Africa, Cohen remarked that an apparent failure of State institutions to deliver economic growth and opportunities has impacted the region. In cases of transition post-conflict, he found that “the line between victim and perpetrator is quite blurred among youth,” particularly those who have been integrated into militarized political parties, for example, in Burundi.

Huber discussed the “double marginalization” faced by young girls by virtue of their age and gender. She highlighted access to education, including civic education, as a particularly important issue, especially in light of challenges such as being confined to the home, early marriage and pregnancy. She also stated that “not everyone can participate in the same way,” emphasizing inclusion and the engagement of women and girls’ family members.

Echoing Cohen’s concerns over the role of youth in conflict, Schmidt spoke of the dangers faced by young people searching for a sense of meaning. “Youth is a particularly important and intense time,” making them vulnerable to messages from groups that wish to exploit youth for their own political gain. Schmidt has also found that countering apathy towards democracy requires a shared sense of hope and belief that change is possible through the democratic process. She then highlighted IFES’ civic education work as one method to “equip people to talk about what’s on their mind” and discuss issues of personal importance to them.

The event, which was aired live on C-SPAN 2, concluded with audience Q&A, featuring questions from several Congressional offices and a Mandela Washington Fellow visiting from Nigeria.

For more information about this or future events, please contact IFES Congressional and Outreach Liaison Liz Sidell at

To view a photo gallery of the event, please click here.

An archived video of the event can be viewed here.