By Leila Hanafi*Washington DC, May 30, 2011
By Leila Hanafi*
Washington DC, May 30, 2011
With all the changes taking place in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, these are important times to stress the importance of engaged and well-educated youth to advancing the rule of law, under the context of a changing and interconnected global environment.
Building economic prosperity, maintaining good governance practices, and developing a strong civil society are all hampered when a nation’s young people are disenfranchised. The uprisings ranging from Tunisia to Egypt and Yemen are heralding a region-wide “youth revolution,” which re-affirms that the voices of youth are vital to achieving positive change and influencing the decision-making process, at the national and regional levels.
The call for dignity, justice and a better life are legitimate aspirations. As clearly laid out in the Preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for rule of law to prevail, citizens in a society need to know their rights and responsibilities. This means equal recognition, equal respect, equal rights, but most importantly, equal opportunities. The aim is not to ensure that individuals are made equal, but to ensure equal treatment for them under the law. It is particularly important to educate the region’s growing youth population about the meaning of citizenship: the rights and obligations that tie a citizen to his or her state. It is the responsibility of all stakeholders, from youth leaders to government officials, civil society and the private sector to take advantage of these opportunities to engage youth at all levels of decision-making processes, provide youth with education on their rights to cultivate active, engaged, and a well-educated generation for the advancement of the rule of law.
To glimpse the nature of what can emerge, we should understand the rapidly changing social structure of MENA societies. The region boasts one of the youngest populations in the world, with over 100 million young people between the ages of 15 and 29. Yet these young people are rarely consulted during the formulation of development strategies or identified as a major group in the policy making process.
In MENA, as in other regions of the world, an important fact is not yet universally understood: the effort to promote the rule of law requires the steadfast inclusion of youth. An inclusive and respectful dialogue will inspire concerted actions and meaningful progress in advancing the rule of law process. Without opportunities for productive active engagement in the region, young people’s frustrations may continue to boil over into violent behavior and lead to significant economic and social instability. Engaging the region’s predominantly youthful population will revitalize the role of civil society and enhance its ability to effectively participate in decision-making and the development of the rule of law.
Young people have catapulted onto the international development agenda with an absolute urgency in the space of just a few years. Yet their actual lives, struggles and desires are often little understood. One of the main priorities that should appear in the MENA reform agenda should be to situate youth perspectives on economic and social development. Morocco’s example is quite timely and relevant to this regional upraise.
Case Study of Morocco
As a young Moroccan-American, having grown and worked cross-culturally through progressive legal and social complexities, I feel the need to emphasize Morocco’s evolving experience in addressing youth issues as it can serve as a template for discussion for MENA regional reforms. Morocco is one of the few MENA countries that have been steadily empowering its youthful population to move youth issues to the forefront of the development agenda. Youth rights have undergone a seismic shift toward improvement in recent years, though obstacles still remain in the political, legal, economic and social spheres. Recognizing this, Morocco has initiated major reforms in social, economic, and political fields and made significant headway in the area of judicial reforms which go beyond the judiciary and encompass the entire justice system, following an inclusive multidisciplinary approach.
In a recent speech to announce the new Moroccan Economic and Social Council, King Mohamed VI highlighted the need to revamp the economy to create more opportunities for the youth and encourage their public involvement. The fact that the King stressed his desire to “forge ahead with the Moroccan model” is a clear reflection of the deep, mutual understanding and cohesion between the throne and the people.
In my view, current policy discussions across the region should center on the importance of catalyzing and channeling youth engagement in government and civil society by providing rule of law empowerment as well as leadership opportunities at all levels of the decision-making process. In particular, policy makers across the region ought to emphasize how investing in youth can be used as an effective tool to advance national development strategies. Now is the time for policy makers to suggest holistic, inclusive reform requiring the respective efforts of the MENA governments, international donor agencies, educators, business leaders, and of course young people.
Improving the situation of youth is not only for the sake of youth. The welfare of society relies increasingly on a country’s quality of human resources, and youth remain a largely untapped resource. Thus, youth issues need to be viewed as central in policy design and implementation. Specifically, governments need to focus their efforts on promoting youth participation with the firm understanding that these issues are principal elements of the development process.
Today, young people constitute a source of knowledge and innovation, and when harnessed effectively, they provide an excellent resource that can make a vital contribution to the development agenda of their countries. I believe that with the growing concerns in MENA over the level of youth inclusion in the development process, these times present a major break-through in the ability of youth to contribute to progress and development across the region.
As my generation experiences an unprecedented level of interaction and interdependence throughout the world, I can only hope that in years to come we will still have the idealism of youth to take risks, to look beyond obstacles, and develop innovative solutions to create positive change in the world.
Leila Hanafi is A Moroccan-American national. She is currently Staff Attorney and Programs Manager at the World Justice Project. Prior to joining the WJP, Ms. Hanafi held various legal positions at the World Bank. Her World Bank experience consists of work in operations, finance, and legal and judicial reforms. Ms. Hanafi was also the winner of the highly competitive World Bank Middle East and North Africa Innovation Fund through which she led a legal empowerment initiative for young women in Morocco. Ms. Hanafi is an Honors graduate from American University and Georgetown University in Washington DC, and she is currently pursuing her doctoral studies in International Law.