Investing in Egypt’s youth

Investment at the community level is where the largest impact will be made over time.

Youth in Egypt writes: Down with military rule 390 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Youth in Egypt writes: Down with military rule 390 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As Egypt marks the anniversary of the January 2011 revolution and continues to confront its many challenges, we must remember that the primary driving force in Egyptian electoral politics has not changed. The same energy that propelled hundreds of thousands to peacefully demonstrate for weeks against Hosni Mubarak and later against the military council also fuels the hopes of Egypt’s young people, especially working people. Every poll and survey indicates that Egyptians want equitable and honest social and economic development. And real, sustainable development begins with young people: they have the energy, the openness and the hope to turn ideas into reality.
Nowhere is this truer than in Egypt and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa whose underdevelopment squanders talent, restrains ambition and fosters instability. Nearly one in five people living in the Middle East and North Africa is between ages 15 and 24. It is this group that will build the next generation of businesses and civic institutions, infusing them with their own attitudes and expectations.
Investment in the youth of Egypt and the Middle East has the greatest potential return. However, a large and sustained commitment by governments and nongovernmental organizations will be needed to initiate, execute and monitor this public investment – a challenge in today’s fiscal and political environment. Egypt’s leaders and civil society groups must work together to enhance the nation’s capacity and encourage long-term development – the only real source of national strength.
I believe the Egyptian government will come to terms with international organizations willing to assist in its transition to a more open, dynamic, stable and, ultimately, stronger and more influential nation. I also believe the international community’s commitment to Egypt’s and the region’s social and economic development is a reasonable, even self-evident, investment compared to what we might have to spend should the hopes and expectations of today’s demonstrators again be frustrated. More than just a voice, youth in the Middle East need resources to forge their own futures and contribute to national and regional dialogue.
Investment at the community level is where the largest impact will be made over time. It is here that projects, even when implemented by global nongovernmental organizations, best reflect and respond to the needs and input of local leaders and institutions.
There are many successful models for how this can be done. One such project is the USAID-funded Iraq Community Action Program (ICAP), managed by my organization. Our work and local engagement begins with locally designed community programs based on global best practices that provide the creative space for young Iraqis to forge their own future. Through ICAP, IRD has mobilized all-volunteer citizen groups that are helping bridge the gap between a government that wants to help and citizens with the skills and know-how to deliver it. Health clinics, road repairs, schools and hundreds of other direct-impact projects have grown out of a participatory planning process involving all segments of society.
More importantly, each of these projects is generating immediate and long-term jobs for Iraqis. In 113 of Baghdad’s 115 neighborhoods, ICAP is helping launch community groups in support of local improvement projects. Notably, elected government officials are encouraging youth participation in these programs. Impressed by their initiative, Baghdad’s Provincial Council has reached out to youth groups, offering advice and working alongside of them in some of the community group planning sessions.
Another example is the World Bank’s Youth-Driven Development Grant competition that identifies and supports small-scale projects developed and implemented by young people in the Mideast and North Africa. Since 2010, grants have been made to promote local entrepreneurship and civic engagement, especially among marginalized groups. Funded projects promote partnerships, intergroup coordination and conflict resolution. All are scalable and their results measurable. Like ICAP, this program makes the kinds of community- centered investments that will help secure the positive changes youth are demanding and create the foundations for long-term regional security.
In the West Bank, USAID’s Infrastructure Needs Project is investing in infrastructure that is vital to the developmental needs of youth – clean water, safe roads and high-quality modern schools. For example, in the district of Hebron, IRD and its local partners have constructed three schools that now serve more than 2,100 students, teachers and administrative staff.
In Egypt and other countries, investment in social and economic development can accelerate the transformation into a more democratic, civilian-led and stable state that at the same time can be influenced and shaped by diverse religious interests and shared religious attitudes. Such a state will no doubt pursue an independent foreign policy and may even challenge US priorities on occasion. But it will also be a more stable and predictable partner – and better able to contribute to the social, political and economic development of the international community.
Turkey has successfully made this transformation and, like Turkey, Egypt is a culturally and religiously rich and diverse society driven by youthful energy. If modern values are about representative and accountable institutions that release and effectively channel the pursuit of universally shared values, a democratic Egypt infused with the great values of Islam is sure to be a friend of the United States and its allies as well as a critical bulwark for national and regional security.
Engaging Middle East youth, and the political parties and religious groups they join, is a tremendous opportunity for all of us. These are active citizens and creative workers. Their energy, whether motivated by religious or secular hopes, will create and sustain change for the long term. As a nation and a member of the international community, we must do what we can to eliminate roadblocks to the legitimate desires and energies of Egypt and other nations’ young citizens.
The writer is president and CEO of International Relief & Development, a global development organization based in Arlington, Virginia.