Before the uprising in Yemen I worked as a Computer Engineer in Sana’a, Aden, Mukalla and Hodiedah. It was a good opportunity and I was happy to have a stable job in a country where unemployment is so high. On my free time I would volunteer with civil society organizations. Increasingly, I started to love my volunteer work, more than I did my job. When the revolution finally came to Yemen in 2011, I knew then that my place was with the youth and the civil organizations that demanded reform. During that time, I quit my job and started working full time with youth and civil society organizations.
Since then I have personally witnessed the fearlessness, hope and commitment that the youth of Yemen have to offer. Through my work with adolescence I know firsthand that Yemen’s true transformation will come through the efforts of youth—youth whom will rise to the occasion to lead within their communities and government. During my time with Saferworld, I had the opportunity to work in the Amplifying Youth Voices program, where I met a young woman by the name of Zuha Yassin; she was one of those young people that believed she could change the world. I loved her energy, and I truly believe that it is young people like her who can make a difference.
Angry, Young and Poor
Youth have always been the engine of civil society activities in Yemen. They have worked tirelessly as vital volunteers to bridge the gaps between communities by providing aid to society’s most needy. They communicate and share their ideas and stories with each other and are priceless advocates for various causes.
Unfortunately youth have also played a role in fueling conflicts as well. This was due to the neglect they faced from local governments before the 2011 protests and uprisings. There were no sufficient funds to support them from neither national nor international donors, or even from the private sector. To make matters worse, extremist groups used religion and other youth-centered social activities, such as sport outings, trips and charity work in poor communities, to attract at-risk Yemeni youth.
If we go back to the days before the 2011 uprising, most youth activities were at a very local level. Youth activists mostly worked in their own neighborhoods and focused on engaging their communities through sports, humanitarian aid and educational initiatives within schools. By the beginning of the millennium more youth-focused programs had been created. These programs focused on providing youth with the interpersonal skills that they needed to thrive in the civil society sector. Youth also learned how to lead workshops and seminars within personalized spaces for intellectual discussions. During this time, there was a boom in new youth organizations and civic collaboration between different youth groups.
Inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Yemeni youth took to the streets in 2011, demanding that the government address some of the most important issues affecting Yemen’s development – issues that disproportionately affected youth. Yemen has the fourth lowest human development index rating in the Arab world. There has also been ongoing conflict between Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Yemeni government, complications of the wars in Sa’adah, as well as a secessionist movement in Yemen’s south. All of these factors played a central role in the 2011 conflict. Even after an agreement through the GCC initiative and the resignation of President Ali Abdullah from his 33-year presidency; Yemeni youth continued to feel their demands were ignored. However, this didn’t deter them from attempting to get government officials’ attention. Youth turned to more innovative and non-traditional ways to express their concerns: through campaigns, social media, arts and music.
Let Youth Lead
In recent years, Yemeni youth have successfully conveyed to the government and international donors the importance of bringing youth into the conversation through an inclusive governance approach. This approach would enable youth to have input on the new policies that will affect them; in turn, the government should provide youth meaningful roles during the transitionary period. Since then, funding for youth centered programs and initiatives increased to an extent, but many people think that it is not enough, since youth make up more than 70 percent of Yemen’s population. While there are many organizations and donors who are offering training opportunities for youth, these trainings are not necessarily what they need. Many youth organizations have weak organizational structure – an area that is seldom addressed by donors. Additionally, the trainings that donors fund teach skills that are connected to very specific projects. Thus, the skills may not prove to be very universal or useful after the specific project ends.
However, when you allow youth to lead, great, inspiring work follows. For example, while I was working in Yemen during the uprising I had the pleasure of working with Abdulrahman Hussein, a youth that created an Oscar-nominated documentary on the role of youth during the Yemen revolution. Most recently, during the days of the charge squares, youth activists made strides in creating stronger networks for collaboration, such as the establishment of a media center to represent those who participated in protests in Change Square. They even created youth councils to support the tribal coalitions in Mareb and Hadhramout. In addition, many youth-led advocacy campaigns succeeded in the release of political prisoners; the establishment of new civil society units in Taiz; and they organized to support new NGO registration policies that decentralized the registration process for local organizations.
The local sector has responded to some of their concerns, and smaller local businesses are now offering support to their communities by helping to provide basic services to those affected – such as delivering water to areas where there are extreme shortages.
If Yemeni youth activists continue to work closely with local governments to promote a culture of accountability and good governance, while also pushing political parties towards a much needed political solution, Yemen will have the opportunity to reach its full potential. A great starting point for more accountability and transparent government practices would be utilizing digital communication platforms such as radio and Whatsapp as a new method for information sharing, garnering support and forming coalitions. Second, programs should be built around youth’s interest, along with the desired skill sets they request to learn; this would support development goals long after a project’s termination. Third, organizational capacity building skills must always be incorporated. Through education, youth will be able to encourage their local communities to collaborate for safety and security. This will inevitably create a sustainable culture of grassroots civic engagement.
Written by Guest Blogger, Mohammad Al-Shami