02/11/2015 10:28 GMT | Updated 02/11/2016 05:12 GMT

Youth, Violence and Extremism: The Urgency of a Counter-narrative

I leave Madrid after two days participating in the Club de Madrid, the world's largest forum of former Heads of State and Government, where the subject for discussion was countering violent extremism. As I do so, I reflect on how much the world has changed in the past ten years, and how the issue of violent extremism has become exponentially more complex.

It hardly needs stating that we are living through a time of momentous upheaval - a complex, multi-polar world where disparity is rising, and where there are more displaced people and more countries in conflict than any time since World War II. There's an arc of conflict, fragility and poverty across the Sahel, through northern Nigeria, across Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia, over to Syria, Yemen and a swath of the Middle East, and on over to Afghanistan and Pakistan, all countries where Mercy Corps is working. Interconnectedness across this 'conflict belt' is increasing, with greater access to communication platforms and mobility. The number of foreign fighters inside Syria now tops Afghanistan in the 1980s, making Syria the training ground of choice for today's violent jihadis.

It is no coincidence that some of these countries are the poorest in the world. Many have been segmented by artificial borders, have weak governance, and most did not win the climate lottery. Moreover, violence and conflict is contributing to keeping these places poor. It is vital that any efforts to tackle the underlying causes of fragility and poverty must tackle violent conflict, including extremism. And that means focusing on youth.

Most youth are peaceful, but nevertheless young people form the backbone of the world's paramilitary and terrorist groups. The number of young people is also massively expanding. A 'youth bulge' means more than half the world's population is now under the age of 30, including 66% of the populations of the Middle East and Africa. They form the majority of a global population now projected to reach around 11 billion by the end of century, with 2.5 billion in Sub-Saharan Africa alone.

What this means is that we cannot have short-term solutions that plaster over the cracks of conflict-affected countries. If we do not engage effectively with youth we will not succeed in tackling the connected issues of violence, extremism and poverty. We need long-term, holistic programmes that look at engaging - not isolating - them. How do we do that?

Importantly, we need to engage young people and base our actions on evidence rather than assumptions. It was long assumed, for example, that joblessness contributed to youth turning to violence - but Mercy Corps research has shown no evidence for that. In Afghanistan, Somalia, Colombia and Jordan we have found that the principal drivers of political violence are rooted not in poverty, but in experiences of injustice: discrimination, corruption and abuse by security forces. For many youth, narratives of grievance are animated by the shortcomings of the state itself, which is weak, venal or violent. Or all three. Young people take up the gun not because they are poor, but because they are angry.

Once we understand why young people become violent, we must tailor programmes to address the sources of violence, not just the symptoms. Our approach must use a development lens rather than a security one. This requires programmes tailored to explicitly and systematically address drivers of violence, based on rigorous research and learning, not assumptions. Success requires patient peace-building between religious, political and ethnic partisans. Importantly, these efforts should be rooted in peace-building dialogues not only within communities, where there may be a consensus of grievance, but also between those with differing views. We must increase political and financial support for programmes that address governance gaps that drive extremism.

We also need to act at scale. At the Club de Madrid, I was privileged to meet five former heads of state, several of whom have experienced conflict, uprisings and upheaval during their tenures. I was inspired and humbled by the numerous examples of highly impressive project interventions that are changing and improving lives at local levels. But I felt examples of impact at the kind of scale we need were missing.

To reduce violence at scale we urgently need a major counter-narrative for youth. A positive narrative that engages, excites and motivates them. A truly global platform that enables youth to connect with one another; one which celebrates rather than fears youth empowerment. We must move with greater speed, harnessing the power of technology, social networks and social media to highlight the positive, productive power of youth; one of inclusion, opportunity, celebration of diversity. Building on the hundreds of individual youth-led peace groups and mentoring programmes, we must connect and empower youth to create opportunities to address grievances and injustice through non-violence.

If we are going to reduce violence and conflict in some of the most fragile places in the world, youth are going to be the ones to lead. We must not simply clamp down on youth as the trouble-makers, the dissenters, and isolate them. We must engage with youth and the opportunities they bring, offering them a new narrative and a better vision for the future.