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Sowing the Seeds of Stability in Fragile Environments: Lessons from Iraqi Youth

  • Like many young people in Iraq and conflict affected countries around the world, Mustafa and Rania faced bleak futures devoid of opportunities for either work or social engagement.
  • A multi-dimensional youth project focused on job apprenticeships, and community activities gave Mustafa and Rania the opportunity to realize their potential and change their lives.
  • The youth project is an example of what can be achieved in difficult environments but more, scaled up efforts are needed to give the millions of young people in conflict affected countries a chance to contribute to the development of their communities.

When she was 12 years old, violent conflict forced Rania Khadir and her family to leave their home in Baghdad. When they resettled in Basra in southern Iraq, at 17 she had to drop out of school to care for her sick mother and look after her siblings. Stuck at home for five years, with few other prospects, it looked as if Rania might remain silent and invisible, another victim of the many consequences of conflict.

That all changed when she turned 22 and found her voice as a writer and actress.

Mustafa Mizher, who comes from another southern Iraqi city, Amara, left school when he was age 11. One of five children, he worked as a day laborer to support his family. With few skills and poor job prospects, had he stayed a laborer, he may have ended-up joining the Iraqi army or one of the many militias operating in the country. Instead, now also 22, he runs a thriving micro-enterprise.

How did they turn their lives around?

An opportunity to participate in a youth project on strengthening life and work skills and confidence, along with a program to help apply them to their goals, acted as the catalyst they needed to transform their lives. In Rania’s words, it helped her “break the barrier of fear” that had grown from years of living at home, rarely in contact with her peers. It enabled her to develop her talents. Far from remaining silent, Rania is now highly visible on stage, bringing audiences together with her performances. The awards she has received testify to a talent waiting for the chance to express itself.

Mustafa, too had felt he was wasting his life before starting his business. “My youth was slipping away,” he said, “and I was stuck at the starting gate.” The Youth Livelihoods Development in Southern Iraq project adopted a multi-dimensional approach that focused as much on civic engagement with youth led community projects, as on developing life and work skills through training and apprenticeship, developing entrepreneurship skills and facilitating startups through small grants. It gave him the training and support he needed to realize his ambition. “I registered because, like most of you, I had no job,” Mustafa said in a speech to the program’s fellow graduates, “so I thought that maybe this training would help me find employment.” It did more than that.

Step by step, Mustafa turned a US$450 grant into the business he runs today. While continuing to work in the evenings as a cook in a restaurant, he used the grant to buy a motorized scooter, a sattotta, to deliver fruit and vegetables. Eventually, Mustafa sold the sattotta and launched his own kebab stall in the market where he’d spent his childhood as a day laborer. He now earns almost twice the amount of his original grant a month—a decent local income that is higher than many government salaries.

Iraq alone has about 19 million people aged 15 to 24, and they are disproportionately affected by a decade of conflict and sectarian strife. Close Quotes

The project was funded by the Japan Social Development Fund. Over the course of three years from 2012-2015, 3,567 young people have participated in its programs, over half of whom (52%) were young women. The youth who took part in the project had had to drop out of school or were limited to working in the informal sector. Of these young people, more than three-quarters (82%) who went on to start their own business were still managing them more than a year later.

“We partnered with Save the Children who had the resources on the ground to implement the project,“ said Ferid Belhaj, World Bank Country Director for the Mashreq, “overall it demonstrates what is possible in even the most challenging environments.”

More, or much larger, projects like this are needed.

“There are 1.5 billion people living in conflict affected regions around the world, and about half of them are young” addedBelhaj, “Iraq alone has about 19 million people aged 15 to 24, and they are disproportionately affected by a decade of conflict and sectarian strife.” At 30%, youth unemployment in Iraq is high. Figures for people aged 15-29 who are neither at school nor employed or in training are higher: about 72% for women and 18% for men. Many of them, though, are waiting for a chance, like Mustafa and Rania.

Development institutions have a contribution to make in creating these opportunities. A scaling up of the project is proposed to reach about 300,000 young people in other areas of Iraqi and in mixed Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish communities. It may include other components, such as engagement with local governments.

At the heart of this expanded effort is a shift in perception. “We need to change how we view young people,” said Gloria La CavaWorld Bank Senior Social Scientist and the project’s Task Team Leader. “We tend to see young people as only perpetrators or victims of violence,” she observed, “and miss their potential as agents of development and stability.” This means investing in young people as part of the solution to stability.

Rania and Mustafa’s examples offer an antidote to despair. They are a testament to resilience and creativity. Their stories offer a vision of how engaged and active young people can be. Unless more men and women like them are given hope, young Iraqis will remain economically marginalized, and perhaps more vulnerable to radicalization. The project in southern Iraq is the only youth focused project in the country. More like it are needed in Iraq and other countries and regions whose stability is at risk.




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