Ilwad Elman returned from Canada to war-torn Somalia nine years ago, at age 19. Earlier this year, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, for her work to establish the first rape crisis center in her country and helping to reintegrate hundreds of youth into society by creating new economic and educational opportunities after years of conflict.
“Young people who have gone through our programs become ambassadors to their peers,” said Elman, who is also a 2014 Mandela Washington fellow and joined officials from U.S. Africa Command and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) last month to highlight the threats to peace as a result of not engaging youth. “We know that it works, and now we’re actually scaling outside of Somalia and bringing our solutions to other countries, like Mali, Cameroon, Nigeria, and other epicenters of violent extremism.”
Military and Development Agree on Youth
With the youth population in Africa projected to double to 1 billion by 2050, America’s military and development professionals have increasingly recognized that engaging youth is critical to peace and prosperity. USAID Administrator Mark Green warned, “when young people are disconnected from civil society … [they] turn to other outlets for expression, outlets that are maybe corrosive instead of constructive … This can lead to disillusionment and apathy, or much worse, to unrest and incivility.”
The National Intelligence Council also listed the growing number of youthful states as one of several key areas of concern as those governments often lack infrastructure, educational opportunities, and the capacity to generate economic growth. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Africa needs to create 20 million jobs annually as millions of young Africans join the labor force each year, a daunting task for a continent that is home to 21 of the 30 most fragile states in the world today.
General Waldhauser, commander of U.S. Africa Command from July 2016 to April 2019, testified that “the lack of economic and educational opportunities, a large, disenfranchised youth population, and inadequate natural resources are potential drivers of extremism.” The solution to preventing conflict and instability thus is through “economic development, leading to employment,” especially since 40 percent of people who join terrorist organizations are driven by a lack of economic opportunity.
American Legacy of Empowering Youth
The United States has a remarkable legacy of leveraging its development and diplomacy programs to drive economic growth and mitigate the conditions that make communities vulnerable to recruitment by extremist groups.
The Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders – launched in 2010 by the Obama Administration and embraced by the Trump Administration – has empowered more than 5,000 young African leaders and entrepreneurs, including Elman, equipping them with skills and expertise to advance Africa’s economy and peace. Elman credited the program for empowering her to build new partnerships and ideas that enhanced her ability to rehabilitate disenfranchised youth in Somalia.
Furthermore, the State Department and USAID’s Joint Strategy on Countering Violent Extremism emphasized engaging youth as a means to combat violent extremism, stating that the United States “will design programs to support youth empowerment, nurture networks, skills development, and civic and economic opportunities.” These programs have helped 150,000 young Somalians gain access to quality secondary education and created 13,000 job opportunities for vulnerable Somalian youth. USAID also helped more than 16,000 young Kenyans gain access to essential public services, reducing the opportunities for extremist groups to gain a foothold in the region.
Bipartisan Members of Congress recognize that America’s development and diplomacy programs to empower youth are critical to combating violent extremism. Representative Michael McCaul (R-TX) has said that “bullets and bombs alone cannot defeat an ideology. We need to deal with [violent extremism] at its core, root problem and that is despair, lack of hope, poverty. Destabilized nations, fragile states where there is no governance — that is where they [extremists] go.”
He is one of the co-sponsors of the bipartisan Global Fragility Act, alongside Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY), Senators Chris Coons (D-DE) and Lindsay Graham (R-SC), and more. The act identifies that bringing marginalized groups like women and youth into dialogues and decision-making processes is one of key approaches to tackle the root causes of violence and prevent conflicts.
Through sustained investments in our development and diplomacy programs, the United States can help young leaders like Ilwad Elman and empower them to bring peace and prosperity to their own communities and across the continent of Africa.