On World Peace Day, let’s reflect on whether we are giving young people the skills and space to shape peace together
As global education systems face uncertainty over what the new academic year will bring – whether young people will be in school, bombarded by new social distancing rules, or whether they stay at home, engaged in blended learning via screens or paper – organisations delivering education initiatives have also had to adapt.
In the case of the USAID-funded Tony Blair Institute (TBI) Wahda programme in Lebanon, the implementing team doubled-down on its approach of involving project beneficiaries, youth between the ages of 13 and 29, in shaping all interventions of the project. It was these young women and men that the team turned to for inspiration when the country went into lockdown for context-relevant ideas on how to adapt the programme.
Meaning unity and togetherness in Arabic, Wahda seeks to facilitate youth-led group discussions on tolerance, the power of acceptance and pluralism, and how communities can engage peacefully and productively across social divides. The sessions were designed to be delivered by a cohort of young Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian facilitators, trained in dialogue skills by TBI, to youth from different ethnic and religious backgrounds.
When the announcement of a nationwide lockdown brought all project activities to a standstill at the end of February, TBI reached out to Wahda’s 22 facilitators and 171 participants, to better understand how they felt Covid-19 was impacting young people in Lebanon, and whether the development of dialogue skills might support the situation, and how Wahda might be adapted accordingly. While this consultation was not representative of the wider population, it yields unique insights for those engaged in youth programming during Covid-19.
When asked whether dialogue skills such as critical thinking and active listening were helpful during the pandemic, participants gave a range of positive responses on how using these skills relieved tensions between family as well as community members in lockdown. These were at the time being exacerbated by the effects of the economic crisis Lebanon was already suffering before Covid-19 struck. Dialogue was also described as a general coping method that could relieve stress and anxiety, and build a feeling of community, acceptance and understanding. As one respondent noted, “it alleviates the existing situation and makes people feel more secure, hopeful and a sense of belonging by communicating with their community members”.
As restrictions on movement and the deepening financial crisis of the country grind on as well as in the light of the horrendous explosion in Beirut in August, many facilitators have reported applying the skills they had learned during the training in communicating with local households during volunteer activities, such as the distribution of food parcels.
Participants and parents initially expressed scepticism about using technology to continue dialogue activities during lockdown. Some parents had concerns about their children spending even more time online and in front of screens, while others raised issues about the availability of laptops and the internet. Even when available, they often come at the cost of work or siblings accessing their own educational resources. Some facilitators felt that distance learning would make it extremely difficult to build safe spaces and genuine interactions between themselves and the groups of young people they were working with.
Sensitive to these concerns, TBI worked closely with local implementing partner Naba’a, to explore with facilitators the best mechanisms for low-tech engagement with participants. In online sessions, designed to build facilitators’ dialogue and facilitation skills, the team showcased different technologies and platforms, such as Google Classroom, Zoom and WhatsApp. An integral component of the sessions was to encourage facilitators to share their ideas and reflections on the use of these tools and how these might be used with participants of Wahda:
WhatsApp, used by many community members already, allows participants to communicate in small and large groups via voice notes, emojis, video and photos;
A Facebook page has been suggested by facilitators to create awareness and encourage conversations around fake news and hate speech online;
Zoom’s breakout room functionality can be used to ensure every participant voice has space to be heard.
While the team is committed to delivering socially distanced in-person activities when possible, initial reflections from delivering sessions via WhatsApp have been positive. However, it is also important to note that these dialogues would not have been as easily possible without the provision of data bundles to households, made possible by the generous funding of USAID.
By putting project beneficiaries at the centre of design from the outset, a baseline expectation of youth engagement was created. This encouragement and creation of a space where beneficiaries could confidently share their ideas have contributed significantly to shaping the current programme as well as building community among a group of young people from diverse backgrounds. The buy-in created through this engagement has allowed the programme to respond swiftly to unanticipated events and the challenges faced by those in Lebanon.