Representation in the Age of Populism: Ideas for Global Action

By Devin O’Shaughnessy, WFD Director of Programmes

On 18-20 June, WFD supported a conference on populism in partnership with International IDEANetherlands Institute for Multiparty DemocracyOSCE/ODIHR and REPRESENT. The event, held in the Belgian Senate, saw leaders from politics, civil society and academia from across the world gather to shape a “Global Agenda for the Renewal of Representation”, a guide aimed at reinvigorating the relationship between people and democracy.

What stuck with me most was the diversity of views around the table on what populism actually is, whether or not it was a dangerous trend or a flash in the pan, and what impact populism in Europe and the U.S. was having in the developing world. I felt there was strong consensus that our democratic institutions needed to be better – more open, more representative, more accountable, and more participatory – or people would continue to lose faith in them. I was also inspired by the passion in the room for defending the principles of liberal democracy, of the importance of educating people, especially the younger generation, of what democracy protects, defends, and promotes: human rights, freedom, protection of the vulnerable.

Yet, despite these positives, I was also concerned that we weren’t addressing the elephant in the room, the main driving force at the core of populism. Despite the economic growth that democracy, globalisation, and free trade brings, Western democracies have failed to prevent these gains from going primarily to a narrow elite, the 1% and multinational corporations. “Whose GDP?” was the response of an average citizen when asked why she was upset with her government despite delivering decades of steady GDP growth.

Even worse, elites are increasingly manipulating the democratic system to lock in their gains, using their access to political leaders – often gained through large campaign contributions – to ensure that policies they oppose are never even discussed. For example, in the U.S., a recent study showed that only 4% of policies that the elite strongly oppose are ever adopted, while nearly 50% of the ones they support are enacted. The lack of repercussions for those who caused the 2007 financial crisis, and the increasing dilution of the already weak reforms put in place after the crash, is a direct result of a system where the wealthy and powerful shape the rules in their interest. Meanwhile, the average citizen suffers and is nearly powerless to fight back, which fuels the growing populism we see today.

Clearly a combination of economic and political reform is needed to even the playing field, to make sure all citizens’ views are represented and that there are opportunities for everyone to succeed. For this to happen, a sustained, global effort is needed. More research to better understand the drivers of populism and possible solutions. Joined up efforts by political leaders, civic activists, academics, media and NGOs to change the way politics works, to ensure that all voices are given equal hearing and not just those of the powerful and well connected. New policy ideas to manage the negative consequences of globalisation, automation, and climate change.

WFD must play its part in making these reforms happen. Through our programming and research, we must contribute to reforming political institutions to be more open and participatory. We must ensure that all people are empowered – particularly women, youth, people with disabilities, and the LGBT+ community, but also the economically marginalised, refugees, and other vulnerable groups. Political parties and parliaments, two of the main vehicles for representing and defending citizens’ interests, need to be refreshed and move back to the centre of political life. We can be a critical part of a wider, UK effort to reinvigorate liberal, representative democracy around the world. In doing so, we can beat back the worst instincts of populism, while retaining what is good: a yearning by all citizens to be heard and shape their own futures.

 

 

(Photo(s): International IDEA/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)
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Inclusive elections: promoting youth political participation in Sierra Leone

On 7 March, over 3 million Sierra Leoneans will go to the polls to elect the President, Parliament and local councils. As part of a broader programme to make the electoral process more inclusive, WFD trained 35 Youth Peace Ambassadors to promote peaceful political participation.

Violence marred all previous elections, with young people often behind incidents due to high rates of unemployment and high levels of political misinformation and intolerance. This is why activities to support disengaged young people are at the heart of the WFD Sierra Leone Programme.

The WFD Sierra Leone programme for inclusive and peaceful elections

Ahead of the general election, WFD, in partnership with government, political parties and local civil society organisations, is implementing a comprehensive programme, as a member of the Standing Together for Democracy consortium, to engage youth, women and vulnerable groups, such as people with disabilities, in the political process.

Activities included sessions to develop election manifestoes with representatives from 14 political parties, the launch of a National Agenda to involve people living with disabilities in the elections in partnership with the Sierra Leone Union on Disability Issues (SLUDI) and a nationwide outreach tour in 9 districts to promote tolerance and educate about politics in partnership with Community Agenda.

Engaging young people

In December, WFD organised a two-day National Youth Conference in Freetown in partnership with the Network of Youth for Development Sierra Leone (NYDSL) and the National Youth Commission (NaYCom) and was attended by over 300 young people representing all 14 districts in Sierra Leone.

This conference trained youth leaders on dialogue, community engagement and politics. It brought together political parties, the Minister of Youth Affairs, the Minister of Tourism and Cultural Affairs, the Political Parties Registration Commission (PPRC), the Sierra Leone Police and Office of the National Security to discuss the role and commitment of political parties and their leaders in ensuring peaceful elections.

The conference agreed violence-free elections and meaningful youth engagement are a shared responsibility of all: political parties, civil society as well as citizens. Political parties were invited to redouble efforts to conduct drug and violence free campaigns. A group of 35 Youth Peace Ambassadors was selected to reach out to local communities across the country and implement specific action plans.

Over 85% of Youth Peace Ambassadors have been able to take forward the training they received to concretely deliver action plans, as monitored and supported by the WFD programme. The work of young leaders has been integrated by local events involving young people, including a football match in Kabala, and media activity, including the participation in popular radio talk shows to further educate about peaceful political engagement.

In February, Youth Peace Ambassador Matthieu Conte, organised a regional youth non-violence and voters’ education training for 100 young people in Bo City, Sierra Leone. The event, part of Matthieu’s action plan to educate youth in his community, involved speakers from the police and the National Electoral Commission (NEC) and an educational drama performance by Community Agenda.

At the end of the event participating young people made a personal pledge to promote peace and political tolerance in their communities ahead of next week’s election and beyond.

The Sierra Leone elections will take place on 7 March 2018. The WFD Sierra Leone programme will continue its work after the election with activities involving the new Parliament and Government.

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New programme: helping Nigerian youth build a democracy that delivers

On 25 July, Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) launched a new Youth Empowerment Programme (YEP) to support the advancement of democracy in Nigeria through increased political participation and electoral representation of young people.

At 60%, Nigeria has one of the highest shares of people aged between 18 and 35 in the world. Young people make up over 55% of registered voters but are not able to stand as parliamentary candidates until they turn 30, meaning a large share of voting adults are not represented in the National Assembly.

The three-year, 114 million Nigerian Naira programme (279,000 GBP) will support Nigerian youth groups and political parties with the objective of enabling greater youth participation. It will focus on three levels of intervention:

  • Helping establish national cross-party consensus to lower the minimum age for candidates
  • Supporting major Nigerian political parties to develop effective youth wings
  • Enabling Nigerian civil society to engage more young people in the democratic process

The programme will work closely with the Young Parliamentarian Forum of the National Assembly, the youth wings of the APC and PDP parties, local NGO Youth Initiative for Advocacy, Growth & Advancement (YIAGA), the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Youths and Sports (MoYS) and Nigerian Youth Parliament (NYP).

Launching the programme at a workshop with Nigerian youth leaders in Abuja, Anthony Smith, Chief Executive of WFD said:

“A multi-party democracy can still fall short of citizen expectations when a large chunk of the population is not represented in Parliament. WFD Nigeria’s Youth Empowerment Programme aims at tackling this challenge.

“In 2019, the republican Constitution of Nigeria will turn 20. By then, we hope many candidates born under democratic rule will be able to stand for office and shape the future of Nigerian democracy.”

Participating in the launch, Kate Osamor MP, chair of the UK House of Commons All-Party Parliamentary Group on Nigeria said:

“Nigeria’s success as a prosperous and progressive country depends on enabling young people to get involved in the political system, shaping the agenda and taking decisions about the future of their country. That is what the WFD programme will focus on.”

WFD will be supporting this three-year programme with funding from the UK Government. It will be one of WFD’s innovative ‘integrated programmes’: bringing together political party and parliamentary expertise to address a policy issue from multiple angles and involving a variety of decision-makers. The WFD Nigeria ‘Youth Empowerment Programme’ will benefit from a partnership with the international offices of the UK Conservative and Labour parties.

(Photo: young women participate in the youth empowerment programme launch, 25 July 2017)
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Hope for democracy: young people and politics in sub-Saharan Africa

George Kunnath, Regional Director, Africa and Europe

Sub-Saharan Africa has a youth population of 265 million. By 2045, the population of people under the age of 25 across the African continent is expected to rise by over 40%. Africa is full of young men and women with huge potential, eager to help build the continent’s future.

The continent’s young leaders are inspiring, ambitious and passionate. However, many of them are denied any real political voice or influence. Yet their role is essential in addressing the continent’s major problems of youth unemployment, underemployment and the lack of education, healthcare and basic social services.

According to the World Bank, Youth account for 60% of all African unemployed. While most African economies are growing, they are not growing fast enough to solve the problems of unemployment. The outlook is not much better for those in employment, as the region continues to report the highest youth working poverty rates globally at almost 70 %. The number of poor working youth has increased by as much as 80 per cent since 1991.

That’s why WFD is committed to supporting young people to engage in politics. To borrow the words of Mohamed Jalloh, who runs our programme in Sierra Leone: ‘we have a generation of young people facing the harsh realities of unemployment, limited space in decision making, exposure to sexual risks, crime, violence and a lack of opportunities for quality education. The energy, talent and determination of youth can be used to sustain development.’

“Despite making significant progress in the last five years, Sub-Saharan Africa continues to have the lowest levels of youth development in the world. All of the ten lowest-ranked countries in the 2016 Youth Development Index are from Sub-Saharan Africa.”

2016 Global Youth Development Index

The problems of unemployment are linked to education. Young people in Africa are receiving education in industries that have stagnated and have not kept up with global trends. Structural unemployment remains a major problem and governments need to start linking the education system to match the demands of the labour market.

Unless young people have a voice in the legislatures and the spheres of influence their needs will continue to be ignored until the problem spills over into conflict. Critical to giving the youth a place at the table is the reform of political parties to become more inclusive. Parties that offer the youth real leadership opportunities. This is a major challenge as the status quo has served the aging political elite well.

Yet, all is not lost in Africa. The youth of Africa has shown increased political awareness and a willingness to make their voices heard. Credit must be shown to youth of the Gambia who played a significant role in protecting the outcome of the 2016 elections. And let’s not forget, that in 2012 the Senegalese opposition mobilised the youth around the issue of unemployment to defeat President Abdoulaye Wade. Young leaders are waking up to realise that in a few years the youth vote will determine the outcome of every African election.

A window of opportunity exists to help mainstream youth into the governance structures of African countries. Unless the investment is made to support Africa’s youth, there is the ever-increasing risk that many will be led away into tribal, ethnic, religious or political conflict. That is why WFD’s Africa team considers strengthening youth political participation and inclusion as the key pillar of our African strategy.

As our Country Representative in Nigeria, Adebowale Olorunmola put it: ‘Democracy thrives when citizens, regardless of age, gender, and social status, are involved in decisions that affect their lives and the society they live in.’ This is why young leaders must get a seat at the decision-making table and why WFD programmes in Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Uganda are working to do just that.

 

 

 

 

Photo: Jo-Ann Kelly

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Interview: Samson Itado

(Above: Youth Initiative for Advocacy Growth and Advancement (YAIGA) organising for change programme, 2014)

Samson Itodo, Executive Director of Youth Initiative for Advocacy Growth and Advancement (YIAGA), explained the contribution young people can make to political life in Nigeria.

WFD will support YIAGA as it seeks legislative reform to the constitution that currently blocks 60% of the population under the age of 35 from participating in political life, whilst sharing the UK political party experience of engaging with young people through sister-party networks.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got involved in YIAGA?

YIAGA got started as a student discussion group in the University of Jos nine years ago. We all started meeting in each other’s rooms to discuss student unionism, human rights issues and how the school was intimidating the student union. We grew from that – promoting human rights to educate and enlighten students about their rights.

Over the last nine years the organisation has carved an image for itself as one of the leading CSOs working on youth. We have built a reputation for ourselves in that field as well as in elections, democracy and public accountability. Today we sit on several committees in the parliament and the electoral commission. And it might interest you to know that YIAGA is still led by young people under 35.

Why are young people so important for Nigeria’s future?

First and foremost, the point needs to be made that developed nations were able to tap into the resourcefulness of the productive workforce, which is the young population that make up 60% of population in Nigeria.
Young people – history and studies have shown – are energetic, skilful and resilient. These are the qualities developing countries like Nigeria need to tap into for development.

And secondly, the issue of inclusion. When you talk about inclusive government for democratic development you need to involve all of the critical stakeholders. If 60% of your population are young then they should actually have a say in the way their society is being governed, in how their resources are being used.

How involved are young people at the moment in Nigeria – what outlets and channels exist for them to participate in political life?

We must look from two perceptions. There is formal political participation and then informal spheres. For the formal structures, of course you’ve got voting at elections. You’ve also got youth institutions like the national youth council and the Nigerian Youth Parliament. There are also young people who are used as election officials by the Electoral Commission.

But within the political parties we have noticed a low turnout of young people as candidates and this is related to the lack of internal party democracy, the increasing cost of politics and running for office in Nigeria, as well as legal factors.

The constitution excludes young people from actually running for office at a very young age. You have to be at least 40. This is unlike what you have in the UK, with an alignment between the voting age and the age of being a candidate. In Nigeria, you have to wait to be a certain age before you can run for office and that is completely undemocratic.

Why do you think these attitudes exist towards young people in Nigeria?

The Constitution was introduced in 1979 following military intervention and decided by the constitution drafting committee, who thought that young people are too adventurous and can be too destabilising if not properly monitored.

Young people have been organising at different levels since then. There are different social political movements across the country advocating for constitutional amendments. One of the most successful campaigns ongoing in Nigeria is the #NotTooYoungToRun campaign – a local campaign that aims to increase the number of young people running for office.

Our political parties have contributed to excluding young people from the political process through party constitutions, party guidelines and the selection of delegates for party congresses. And what has worsened the situation is the fact that the youth engaged in the political parties do not have youth wings or caucuses to represent them.

(Above: #NotTooYoungToRun campaign)

Are young people eager to get involved in politics in Nigeria?

Yes, there is an appetite for young people to get involved despite the argument that political engagement is not interesting for them. Politicians think young people are too adventurous, and that they care too much about fashion, music and entertainment than governance, but that is not the case.

There is a huge appetite amongst young people who want to run for office, but how can they run for office when the constitution excludes them? How can they run for office when they are economically disadvantaged? The stereotypes have been institutionalised and learning is needed if the space is to be opened up for young people.

Capacity is also an issue. We look at our education system: What kind of subjects, what’s in the curriculum, do we have state education? There are a lot of issues that will need to be addressed if we want to increase the participation of young people in the political process.

How do you hope the programme with WFD will help contribute to greater participation of young people in politics in Nigeria?

There is the need to build very strong partnerships between youth and political parties, including those who are not members. Strengthening their advocacy skills and supporting party reforms to open up the space for young people to get involved is central. We need to engage the youth leaders of political parties and build their capacity to strengthen youth engagement. Political parties do not have structured party programmes that are targeted at building youth leadership. Parties do not improve young people’s capacity for advocacy, political organising or even on standard governance issues of how to participate. So those platforms will need to be created and the political parties can actually help these platforms.

By looking at good practices elsewhere we can learn from them. Promoting cross-cultural engagement or peer learning is a key tool that can help close the knowledge and capacity gap. It would be nice to learn how young people are organising in political parties in the UK, as well as what is also happening in Nigeria.

Experience-sharing has proven to be one of the fastest ways young people can learn, because they learn from the practical experience of their peers who have actually gone through the murky waters of politics and have succeeded, and learnt from the challenges of their experience in office. So, for young people who want to run in 2019, they will learn from this experience and ensure that they structure their campaign well enough to help them secure the needed votes..

You mentioned earlier that the Government’s perception of young people is that they are only interested in fashion and music – can focusing on the issues that are important across Nigeria show that young people have the ability to succeed politically?

Yes, absolutely. But check the social media use in Nigeria. Today young people are asking questions on social media platforms and asking their elected representatives critical political and governance questions.. There is a new paradigm with state actors and public officials today, who have used social media for getting policy and feedback for the Government.

We can use music to talk to young people about issues of our governance. And young people can also use music to contribute to democratic development or even public accountability. The point must remain that young people as a social category have a way of doing stuff. We have our own language, the way we dress – some will continue to use the tools that we have to propagate our own message, mobilise our peers, engage the government and make them listen, whilst also creating platforms where government can interact with young people on policy related issues. That is very key.

You have a big task ahead of you – what are the key challenges you will face?

The first challenge will be access to data. Ours is a country that has no privatised data, we have no data. Because this programme is hoping to be cascaded at the state level and not just the national level, we are looking at local communities as well. That will require data from all different levels about who is active in politics.

The second issue will be the political climate and the political parties. Working with parties who are floored with leadership crisis will make it very difficult to actually coordinate. That is one of the traps. Identifying young people as the key beneficiaries of the project is something that will take time.

The level of funding and the frequency, as well as the time frame for delivery can also constitute a challenge. But my sense will be that within the limited resources available we will have a maximum impact.

Sam, thanks very much for talking to us.

No problem.

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Young people need democracy – and democracy needs young people

(Above: Social media training with Youth Ambassadors from the East African Legislative Assembly)

Well-functioning democracies can help young people tackle the biggest problems they face – and Westminster Foundation for Democracy is working to help them do so.

But across all kinds of democracies, the disconnect between young people and those that represent them seems to be growing.

Just look at the recent EU referendum vote in Britain. Despite being a decision which would impact on young people’s future for decades to come, fewer people aged between 18 and 24 turned out to vote than did those aged over 65.

Across the Atlantic, both the Democrat and Republican parties have seen popular anti-establishment candidates driven in part by dissatisfied young voters.

And in the Middle East and Africa, young people out of work are demanding to know why youth unemployment is not being tackled – and increasingly using social media to make their dissatisfaction heard.

Young people need effective and inclusive governance because policies in areas like education, climate change, healthcare and job security will have a fundamental impact on their futures. The young face huge debts, inadequate services and a planet whose natural resources are quickly running out. Engaging in politics is key to ensuring that what they care about is addressed.

At the heart of much of WFD’s programming is an effort to involve young people. Their representation and involvement in the political process lies at the core of an effective democracy.

So this International Youth Day we wanted to highlight some of the ways we’re supporting young people’s engagement in politics. Here are five examples which show what WFD does for young people around the world.

(Above: Africa Liberal Network at London Youth Academy 2016)

Political party youth networks

Youth engagement features prominently across the work of all the political parties whose programmes are supported by WFD.

From the Labour Party support to young social democrats in Moldova to the Conservative Party development of the International Young Democrat Union, long-term efforts are being made to train the next generation of political activists.

Supporting and developing the skills of young people to play an active and effective role in party politics, decisions, and representation at local, national and international levels is fundamental to political party youth networks.

Take the Liberal Democrats support to the Democratic Alliance’s Young Leaders Programme in South Africa. This year they want to build on their previous success, by cultivating a new generation of emotionally intelligent and politically astute leaders within the Democratic Alliance and contributing to South Africa’s political future.

Children’s rights are human rights

Young people can be excellent advocates for change. When given the right encouragement, they can be shown how to engage with parliament and be real champions for progress on human rights.

Civil society organisations supported by WFD’s Macedonia programme are seeking legislative change on a range of issues which affect young people. They’re seeking better child marriage laws and legislation outlawing discrimination in educational institutions.

By showing young people how to achieve change by getting involved in changing legislation that impacts on them, WFD is raising awareness amongst young people in Macedonia about their rights.

An active civil society which can lobby parliament effectively to achieve changes in legislation will also show young people it’s possible to get involved in politics outside of political parties.

(Above: Ben Jones participating in the EU election observation in Guinea)

Training the next generation of election observers

Ensuring elections take place without corruption or manipulation is a fundamental part of any democracy.

WFD wants its cohort of observers to be truly representative of all parts of society, which is why we’re so committed to encouraging young people to be involved in this process.

It was great to see the level of participation from young people at WFD’s training, held in January 2016, on election observation methodology.

Ben Jones , one of WFD’s youngest election observers has participated in missions from Gabon to Serbia, and found the training in January extremely useful. He now wants to share the principles he learnt at the training with the election observation organisation he works with, AEGEE, who are committed to empowering young Europeans to make a direct personal contribution to democracy as election observers.

Advocating for Iraqi children’s future

Westminster Foundation for Democracy’s support for Dar Al- Khebra Organisation (DKO), a think-tank based in Baghdad, has led to numerous policy proposals being put forwards which had the promise of helping young people, from legislative ideas protecting orphans to proposals to improve the country’s national curriculum.

One promising policy change now submitted for consideration within the Iraqi Education Ministry is a legislative amendment which would finance a major push to improve Iraq’s schools infrastructure.

This potential change in policy has not yet occurred – yet by influencing the Council of Representatives and the executive, the WFD-supported DKO is helping improve representation of young people’s interests.

Our new programming in the country works to support the country’s Anti-Corruption Commissions, which will also help its representative institutions better represent the interests of Iraq’s youth.

Engaging Youth Ambassadors with the East Africa Legislative Assembly

Understanding how young people communicate is key to getting them more involved in politics – especially in the context of rapid growth in social media.

The commitment of the East Africa Legislative Assembly to reach out to citizens, especially the young, has led it to seek to modernise its approach to communications with WFD’s support.

Our programme trained EALA Youth Ambassadors on the importance of social media and how this can be used for three-way interaction between civil society organisations, citizens and the Assembly.

Videos and a new website accompanied the training in a bid to increase knowledge amongst young people about what the Legislative Assembly could do for them.

Young people bring an enthusiasm for innovation and change where communications technology is concerned. This should inspire politicians to connect through the channels that are the most effective.

This is exactly what has happened at the East African Legislative Assembly. It’s the kind of change which WFD, committing to improving the representation and engagement of young people around the world, is delighted to have helped bring about.

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Saving Ajloun’s forests – the ‘lungs of Jordan’

“Ever since I was a child I used to go to the forest near Ajloun,” says Roqaya Al-Orood, a resident of Jordan’s most wooded region. “We always went to the same picnic spot and we had many happy times.” North-western Ajloun is close to Syria and the West Bank – locals refer to Jordan being surrounded by a “ring of fire” that also encompasses Iraq and Aqaba – but Ajloun’s forests have always been peaceful. “Then, one day in June 2014, I arrived at my favourite spot to find the forest had been annihilated. All the trees had been burned down.” These trees were several centuries old and Roqaya was appalled at the destruction. “It was very, very hard for me.”

Forest fires are a perennial problem in the Ajloun area, but their frequency jumped dramatically in the years following 2006. High energy prices were prompting some locals to circumvent rules forbidding the use of living trees for fuel. Retrieving wood from dead trees is permitted, so it was obvious why, as energy costs spiralled, the number of deliberately started forest fires was also spiking.

“This couldn’t be solved from a security perspective,” says Fadi Huwarat, who as head of the Agriculture Department in Ajloun at the time was tasked with finding a way to stop the trend. Many of the initiatives put in place only sought to clean up the garbage dumped in the devastated areas. Even these did not impress Mr Huwarat’s department. “They were all words and no action,” he adds. But he felt he had one piece of information which he could work with: “We knew the people violating the forests were young, because they were able-bodied.”

Mr Huwarat was still pondering this when the biggest violation of all took place. In late 2013, 27,000 square metres of forest were destroyed in one huge fire. Those working in civil defence were under intense pressure; many of those responsible for violating the forest had learned to deliberately set several fires at once to ensure firefighters could not combat all of them.

Mount Carmel forest fire
Mount Carmel forest fire

It was clear the threat faced by Ajloun’s trees was reaching a new alarming level. “In Ajloun the forest is a symbol for the town and for nature,” Roqaya says. “Every time you plan a family trip, you immediately think of the forest. I love the forest in Ajloun and think about it with pride and love. Everyone who lives here has a deep-rooted relationship with the forest.”

The forest’s biodiversity and its status as a source of oxygen are important in environmental terms, but they matter because of their economic benefit too. Almost 20% of the population benefit directly from tourism, driven by the healthy air and pilgrimage sites attracting both Muslims and Christians. Officials believe if Ajloun’s potential is realised 50% of local residents could benefit. Yet as the woods near the famously scenic road into Ajloun began to be despoiled by blackened wood and widespread fly-tipping, all that seemed in danger.

Mount Carmel fire damage - flickr - Hanay

It was at this point, in September 2014, that a young man who had recently started working at the Princess Basma Youth Resources Centre approached Mr Huwarat with a proposal. Suleiman Al-Qudah – who grew up in a village near Ajloun – was among those selected for participation in a youth leaders’ training programme. The sessions, run by the Jerusalem Centre for Political Studies in 2013/4 and funded by Westminster Foundation for Democracy, aimed to increase citizen participation in the political process. Our goal in funding the training was to equip around 60 young Jordanians with the skills they need to make a real difference. Report-writing, editing, networking, policy drafting, interactive workshops and study visits to assess the Moroccan experience in this field were all included in the sessions.

“If I hadn’t taken the training,” Suleiman told us, “I wouldn’t have had the motivation or the ability to try and start an initiative dealing with the forest fires. I got to learn about my rights and duties. I was given a framework for my thoughts and identity.”

Suleiman wanted to come up with a proposal which could tackle the crisis faced by ‘the lungs of Jordan’. His first draft, says WFD’s Country Representative Ruba Fraihat, was very strong, but it was improved by the additional support she provided in helping him focus on its key stakeholders.

Just 27 years old at the time, Suleiman risked rejection on the grounds of his age. In Jordan, young people are usually expected to defer to their elders and challenging this approach risks encountering outright hostility. “Once when I was speaking at a symposium,” Suleiman remembers, “a tribal leader challenged me, saying; ‘who are you to say you know all the answers?’” The Arabic word for ‘old’ – kabeer – is the same as that used for ‘big’ or ‘important’. Suleiman’s message to young people in Jordan is that “you don’t need to be kabeer to be kabeer”. It was never guaranteed that Suleiman’s proposal, which sought to engage a wide range of stakeholders, would get the green light.

Fadi Huwarat; Suleiman Al-Qudah; Roqaya Al-Orood

In the event, it was exactly what Mr Huwarat needed. He had recognised that engaging with the young people responsible for many of the forest violations needed a youthful initiative. So ‘Rabaty’ – ‘My Forest’ – received approval in October 2014 and support. “The violations of the forest were giving me a pain in my heart,” Mr Huwarat says. “I chose ‘My Forest’ because the subject was very important; this was about reinvigorating the forests, not just cleaning them. It was innovative. And it engaged all parts of society, including a very important component of the community, women and young girls.”

The 45-day programme, which began in earnest in January 2015, saw the distribution of products, attendance at workshop events and a re-planting initiative. Suleiman’s was a comprehensive effort to reduce the number of forest fires. Both Christian priests and Muslim imams were engaged and spread the need for restraint. The programme saw academic groups highlight the environmental damage caused by the fires: citizen awareness about birds leaving the area, plant extinction and the shrinking forest’s falling oxygen production levels was raised. The programme’s supporters pushed for stronger punishments for forest violators, which led to a change in Article 43 of the region’s forestry by-laws.

“Ajloun represents a model of co-existence between Christians and Muslims,” Mr Huwarat adds. Suleiman, he says, helped strengthen those bonds. He did so in a “tactful way” which engaged the views of elders in the local communities the project was helping.

The programme achieved a tangible result. In the year before the programme, there were about 70 forest fires which were thought to have started deliberately. In the following 12 months, that number fell to about 30.

But there were many social benefits, too. In April 2015, Roqaya obtained permission to appropriate 6,000 square metres of land as an investment with her Loyalty Foundation. School students from all groups of society participated in her work. “The experience of ‘My Forest’ was the most important and effective so far,” she says. “I learned from Suleiman about the effectiveness of carrying out partnerships with local institutions and uniting the community as a whole. We had renovated and rehabilitated a whole new forest, with a new immigration system added for the seedlings too. When you are successful, you want to repeat it in other areas too.”

And that is exactly what Roqaya did. Drawing on the example of ‘My Forest’, she sought to repeat the process with a project cleaning the east bank of the Jordan River. The same principles of environmentalism and economic empowerment apply, she says; young women who have dropped out of school are additionally taught handiwork skills. “I was inspired by Suleiman’s approach of networking, courting strategic partnerships and gaining support of the local community,” she says. “I hope Suleiman can join me in my new experience.”

Suleiman’s focus is expanding beyond Ajloun. He has been involved in the foundation of a new Social Democratic Party which aims to field candidates in upcoming parliamentary elections. He is running a campaign to improve the prospects of people with disabilities, based on his growing experience. And he is working to ensure the achievements of ‘My Forest’ are sustainable by implementing a follow-up plan with the local authorities. Ongoing prevention measures are being carried out in cooperation with a local civil society initiative called ‘Ajloun Neighbours’.

“I could have started the ‘My Forest’ initiative without Westminster Foundation for Democracy,” Suleiman says, “but not with a successful outcome or successful results. I used to be a regular guy, but after I went through the programme my personality was polished. It turned me from being a humble voter into a decision-maker.”

He hopes to persuade other people his age that they, too, can make a difference. “We are a very patriarchal society – but we need civil society organisations to work together to raise awareness that young people, and women, are capable of managing and being decision-makers.”

Roqaya agrees. “Thank you to Westminster Foundation for Democracy,” she says, “for supporting young people like Suleiman and creating a circle of people who are hearing these ideas.” Roqaya believes they help “reinforce the whole community” and says “such values only strengthen one’s loyalty to one’s town.” She adds: “The sustainability of the forests equals the sustainability of the people.”

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