January 29, 2020

4 Ways to Strengthen Youth Programs in Conflict and Crisis Areas

These strategies can help build programs that support healing and resilience.

EDC delivered education over the radio during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Liberia.

In 2012, a coup d’état in Mali led to loss of life, destabilization of the government, and widespread school closures. In 2014, an Ebola virus outbreak in Liberia put regular life on hold for months. And in Honduras, years of conflict among rival gangs have disrupted nearly every aspect of Honduran civil society.

Young people are a critical part of the rebuilding process after disruption and conflict. However, the resulting trauma can have detrimental effects on their mental and physical health and access to education. Youth development programs in crisis and conflict contexts, then, must incorporate trauma-informed, evidence-based approaches to meet the many needs of affected young people.

EDC’s Melanie Sany and Heidi Kar have both been at the forefront of EDC’s youth development efforts around the world. Here, they offer four ways to build programs to support youth living with crisis and conflict.

1. Integrate education, livelihoods and leadership programming

Sany, an international development expert, says that youth living in crisis or conflict areas often have unmet health, educational, and economic needs.

“Young people living in these environments have often been displaced, had to drop out of school, have experienced trauma because of violence, and may have lost family members,” she says. “They may be the head of their family now. We need to find ways to combine education and livelihood skills so that they can support themselves.”

As an example of integrated programming, Sany points to EDC’s work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a country that has dealt with health and security crises over the past several decades. There, youth are benefiting from EDC’s comprehensive development program, which delivers accelerated education, vocational training, opportunities for civic engagement, and mentoring. The program also includes a sexual and reproductive health intervention.

This integrated approach to development supports young people as they develop all the skills and habits they need to build a better future, regardless of what their past has been, says Sany. Those skills are also critical for building a culture of peace.

“It’s important for them to get back their self-confidence and belief in the future,” she says. “I think in our programs, especially our work readiness programs, this idea is foundational.”

2. Be responsive to changing situations

Conflict and crisis zones are notoriously unstable, but that doesn’t mean development programs for youth are doomed to fail. Practitioners just need to plan—and then adapt as conditions change.

In Mali, for example, four years after a coup that led to violence and the long-term closure of schools in the northern part of the country, EDC is working to expand basic education opportunities for more than 10,000 children and youth—many of whom have never been to school. Sany credits the success of this program to a rapid education and risk analysis conducted at the outset, which generated key information on political risk factors, children’s educational needs, and the state of local schools. This information was critical to ensuring that accelerated education opportunities in the active conflict zones of Gao and Menaka were implemented in a way that was sensitive to the context and promoted resilience, peace building, and inclusiveness.

Another example? When the Ebola virus swept through Liberia in 2014, many schools were shuttered, and curfews implemented. EDC had to find a way to continue providing its accelerated basic education programming as part of the USAID Advancing Youth Project. So the project took advantage of the available technology and broadcast lessons via mobile phones and radio.

“By using technology, we could continue our work, even though youth were not coming to class anymore, says Sany. “We were actually delivering the class to them.”

3. Build social cohesion

Programs also need to address the deep sense of isolation that is often a by-product of living in conflict and crisis situations.

“After conflict, youth really have a sense of despair and mistrust,” says EDC’s Heidi Kar, an expert on mental health and trauma. “They often feel like they are not a high priority after conflict, so there is a sense that ‘I am alone, I have no institutions to rely on, and I have no future because everything is in crisis.’”

Programs can provide vulnerable youth with resources and opportunities to become productive, engaged citizens. For example, in a conflict-heavy region of the Philippines, EDC’s Mindanao Youth for Development (MYDev) project recruited out-of-school youth to join local development alliances, allowing them to gain a voice in their community—and providing an alternative to violence.

“You have to find ways to re-engage youth and help them live together again,” says Kar. “It promotes both safety and a better future.”

4. Address trauma

Finally, the trauma that many individuals experience when they live in a conflict or crisis area must be addressed. Take Honduras, for example, where gang violence is widespread.

“Many teachers have gone through trauma or are in the midst of a range of negative experiences,” says Kar. “And if these teachers are traumatized themselves, then they don’t have the skills to deal with their students when they misbehave.”

How can international development experts address this issue? In Honduras and the DRC, teachers are receiving guides, tools, and audio-guided meditation to address some of their own traumatic experiences. EDC is also training a cadre of master instructors to help teachers learn how to use these resources. These are core elements of EDC’s accelerated education curriculum, which emphasizes the development of social-emotional skills that help children and youth manage themselves while simultaneously providing teachers with tools for positive discipline.

Young people also need to confront and address the trauma they have suffered. Kar advocates the use of brief psychological interventions, such as anger management training, because they can be taught in a couple hours yet have a profound impact on young people’s lives.

“You want to ensure that youth are emotionally resilient and can also heal from previous trauma,” she says. “Helping youth manage negative emotions is a big part of that.”