The important role of young people in building peace and challenging violent extremism is gaining recognition within the international community. The United Nations Security Resolution on Youth, Peace, and Security (SCR 2250), passed in December 2015, is evidence of this trend. It represents a shift from the dichotomy of youth as either perpetrators or victims of violence to a perspective in which youth are viewed as agents of positive change and peace. In moving forward with this resolution and similarly reflective and supportive policy, one of the greatest challenges for the Middle East and North Africa will be the current geopolitical context and obstacles to opportunity. In a region fraught with conflict, stemming from domestic and foreign policies, as well as a history of unrepresentative and repressive governance systems, leaders have often sought to maintain the status quo. This is a problem in a region where more than 30 percent of the population is between 15 and 29 years of age, and are increasingly frustrated with and stymied by a lack of meaningful political space--leading to lost faith in political systems. (1) In such a setting, regional policymakers must be challenged to meaningfully incorporate young people into decisionmaking processes, to ensure that peacebuilding programs target young people early on in their development, to avoid the securitization of youth in the development and implementation of national and local policies, and to address the underlying social, economic, and political grievances that often drive extremism and impact young people's relationships with their communities and states.
Last December, the United Nations Security Council passed the first-ever Security Council Resolution on Youth, Peace, and Security (SCR 2250). (2) This historic resolution urges UN member states to elevate the voices of young people in decisionmaking at all levels and stresses the importance of inclusive environments for youth peacebuilding through economic, social, and development activities. (3) It also recognizes the rise of violent extremism among youth, highlights the importance of addressing conditions that can lead to radicalization and violent extremism, and advocates for designing disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration programs with the needs of young people in mind.
Set against a background of ever-younger recruits to the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, hereafter referred to as Daesh, and other groups in conflict zones and more stable countries further afield, it is not surprising that policymakers have elevated the "youth issue" to the top of the peace and security agenda. From a White House summit on countering violent extremism (CVE) in February 2015 to a Global Leaders Summit on the same topic later in September and a G20 meeting in November highlighting the nexus, the issue of youth, recruitment, and violent extremism has featured prominently in global debate.
In conjunction, there is growing acknowledgement that hard-security approaches pursued by governments and militaries on national and local levels to combat extremism and stem recruitment to extremist or terrorist groups may be ineffective or counter-productive. (4) Take Nairobi, for instance, where, following the attacks on the Westgate Mall in 2013, the police's indiscriminate profiling and heavy-handed approaches to security in Somali-dominant neighborhoods may have in fact fueled recruitment. (5)
If the international community is to advance policies that bring security, social cohesion, and the prevention of violent extremism, focus and support should be placed on those building peace; and greater, critical attention given to the underlying drivers of extremism, rather than heavy-handed responses. In stressing the need to address the underlying conditions that can lead to radicalization, both the Secretary-General's Action Plan for the Prevention of Violent Extremism and the Youth, Peace, and Security Resolution attempt to provide a wider lens through which to view contributing factors and responses to extremism.
Advancing legitimate and effective governance as a means for long-lasting security and sustainable development in the Middle East and North Africa will continue to face entrenched and established resistance. Yet, investments should be made to meaningfully implement the youth, peace, and security agenda and to support such a compelling demographic. There are 1.8 billion young women and men globally between the ages of 10 and 24, more than ever before in history. (6) In the Middle East and North Africa, 30 percent of the population is between 15 and 297 Not to recognize their contributions to peace, capitalize on their innovation and energy, and invest in their growth would come at significant opportunity costs for economic and social progress, and security.
EXTREMISM AND CONTEXT: A SNAPSHOT
Of the estimated 27,000 to 31,000 "foreign fighters" swelling Daesh's ranks, around 16,000 are believed to come from the Middle East and North Africa. (8) The majority of these come from Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. (9)
Yet, there is no single "extremist" profile; recent studies indicate that adherence to an ideology has less to do with the pull to join than with a search for belonging, purpose, adventure and camaraderie. (10) In countries with the largest flows of fighters, recruitment to Daesh is highly localized. (11) Simultaneously, for many, the digital age has made the global local, bringing into focus global inequity and perceptions of injustice and creating additional spaces for community, and radicalization, online. Regardless, many of the push and pull factors conducive to violent extremism are byproducts of ineffective and unresponsive governance, alienation, and structural barriers to economic, social, and political opportunity. (12) As Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has articulated, "We also know the critical elements for success [to prevent violent extremism]: Good governance; the rule of law; political participation; quality education and decent jobs; full respect for human rights."
The lack of equality and opportunity in the region is well understood. As highlighted in a 2015 World Bank study, while many Arab states made macroeconomic progress in advance of the 2010-2011 revolutions, their citizenry felt increasingly frustrated by the deficiency of decent jobs and public services, political corruption, and lack of government accountability. (13) Perry Cammack, of the Carnegie Endowment, has stated, "That the region's...