by Alex Sardar, Chief of Party in Armenia; featured in the August edition of InterAction’s Monday Developments

The Arab Spring is truly historic. People are standing up in a region where customs have required deference to the wise and elder. This is nothing short of a socio-cultural quake.

Today’s mostly youth-led revolt is new for the Middle East but not for the world. In 1989 and 1990, young activists saw the culmination of their Leipziger Montagsdemonstrationen as they peacefully challenged the status quo and proved to be smarter than the Communist East German state.

Just about the only difference between the youth activists of Tashkent and Tunisia, Yerevan and Yemen, or Berlin and Bahrain, is the way they communicated their aspirations for change.

Instead of VHS tapes in 1989, today YouTube spins the pictures to the world; for every carbon-copied newsletter distributed out of a church basement, thousands of email names are put into the carbon copy lines of emails in mosque computer centers. The images, words and essence of the message, however, remain the same.

Likewise, as the development community comes face-to-face with the surge of the youth enthusiasm that has fueled the Arab Spring, we can draw on the more than 20 years of programmatic experience in the former Eastern Bloc nations and the Newly Independent States (NIS) of the former Soviet Union.

It is here that a myriad of initiatives helped us refine our work with youth groups, activists and champions of change in the institutions we have come to know as the linchpins of sustainable development.

In the mid-1990s, the floodgates opened and international NGOs began working with youth activists (most of whom were in their late teens/early twenties) to assist them in setting up NGOs and mobilizing their communities.

Today, we find those activists firmly grounded in two distinct establishments.

First, there is the non-profit establishment—a solid grouping of civil society organizations, which are, for better or worse, mainstays in their societies and on donor rosters.

Second, there is the state establishment. Youth leaders sought change by eventually taking seats in government. (In some unfortunate cases, NGO leaders became part of this category when their independent organizations became extensions of the state apparatus and began wearing PONGO (political NGO) and GONGO (government-organized NGO) badges).

In hindsight, during the rush to support young activists and the excitement surrounding the spark of change for the former Soviet bloc, donors and international NGOs made a number of mistakes:

  • They neglected or did not have the resources to ensure that there would be a succession plan in place for the next generation of young leaders in local NGOs, in government posts and as activists.
  • There was a lack of investment in deepening the capacity for managing short and long-term change among these erstwhile young leaders, who over time have become as entrenched in the business of public life as they once were in the ideals of public life.
  • Little attention was paid to sustainable forms of on-going youth development and ad-hoc camps and leadership exchanges littered workplans and proposals.

In the development context, youth is fleeting. As a mindset, it has a shelf life of about a decade.

The clock is ticking in the Middle East. As the Obama administration shores up international support for the change process that has begun in the region, the development community must also re-tool with sharp focus on meaningful and long-term interventions to build on the courage that has been on display in actions of these young activists.

Unlike our experience with the former Soviet Bloc, international NGOs and development organizations have several decades of work in the Middle East that can allow us to forego the niceties and missteps of new guests. Today, with our fundamental understanding of institutions and their role in the emerging Middle East, we are able to continue building on conversations with long-time civil society collaborators and show some tough-love to young activists, so that their talents and life investments today continue to bear fruit a few decades down the line. Moving forward, we may consider the following starting points for a new wave of development work in this region, particularly with young people.

Young Arab activists are the means and the end of the change process. Disenchantment with social change in the former Soviet Bloc has been occurring as more young people have seen themselves as having become mere tools to a larger agenda. To a great extent, young people have been excluded from the decision-making process and their seat at the table has been occupied by the formerly young.

Today’s individual young activist is an institution onto herself. She has the world’s attention through social networking and communication technology, and does not necessarily need an organization to legitimize her aspirations. We need to develop smart strategies for institutions to better understand and further complement this reality. We also need to understand how we tap into the power of networks without necessarily needing to formalize them into organizations and coalitions.

Consequences of young activists’ actions are exponentially more palpable given their reach to the masses. Their ability to feel and act responsibly in that context is just as essential. Our work must focus on leadership capacity development that combines focus on effective short-term activism, value-added advocacy and long-term accountability and follow up in the context of the shorter-term action.

Government and non-government institutions must come to grips with the role of the young in their organizations, and facilitate the space for youth engagement in positions of power. (Mirroring in governance circles the monopolies that may exist in economic life has proven detrimental to the longevity of organizations in other places.) And to be clear, coming to terms with youth also means adopting youthful thinking and the capacity to absorb internal and external change.

Donors and international NGOs can no longer not treat in-depth organizational development as an after-thought. In the Middle East and North Africa, engaging with an international program must mean that the national counterpart institution is willing to make organizational development (including change management, strategic leadership and governance) a top priority.

If the grandeur of this moment of opportunity is lost on any of us, we simply need to consider what the headlines will be 20 years from now if the institutional foundations of civil society do not reflect sustainable and well-grounded tenets of a just and free Middle East.

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