Youth Leaders: Vital to Countering Violence and Extremism

The world’s most violent conflicts currently beset its most youthful populations. In the five countries that suffered nearly 80 percent of recent deaths from violent extremism, half of all people are younger than 22. Thus, young leaders—the peers of those most targeted and recruited by extremist groups—are critical to any strategy to address the disputes, poor governance and radicalization that breed violent conflicts and terrorist violence.


In any country facing violent conflict or extremism, youth form a powerful constituency for building the more inclusive, just governance that is vital to resolving conflicts and achieving sustainable peace and stability. The U.S. Institute of Peace has trained hundreds of youth worldwide who have founded or who lead local efforts to build peace in countries afflicted by bloodshed. Since 2016, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has partnered with USIP to mentor—and, he says, to learn from—such youth peacebuilders. Few world leaders can understand their experience as fully as the Dalai Lama, who at age 15 was thrust into the leadership of his people as they faced the traumas of war. Like many of the youth leaders he meets through USIP, the Dalai Lama fled his country as a refugee and has lived for years in exile.

Who are the youth leaders?

USIP gathers these youth leaders from violence-afflicted countries such as Iraq, Syria, Tunisia, Colombia, Afghanistan, Burma or Nigeria. Warfare, violence or extremism in their countries has imposed obstacles, and often personal traumas, upon them. But these youth have surmounted those difficulties to become leaders in their communities.

What is the Dalai Lama’s role?

The Dalai Lama, the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is one of the world’s most recognized and respected advocates and builders of nonviolent methods to resolve conflicts. He is both a spiritual leader within and beyond his Buddhist community, and a long-experienced, hands-on practitioner of the art of conflict resolution. Also, he is an excellent teacher. At his residence in Dharamsala, India, the Dalai Lama spends two days conferring with USIP’s youth leaders, offering both practical guidance and inspiration for their struggles against violence, prejudice and extremism.

What do youth leaders gain from this experience?

Many of these youth leaders work in isolation in their communities, often at risk from extremist or combatant forces in their countries’ conflicts. For many, the opportunity to gather with peers from across the globe is an unprecedented source of shared knowledge, inspiration and strength to bolster and renew their own work. The youth also are able to seek the Dalai Lama’s counsel on specific challenges they face. Altogether, the project helps the youth leaders develop their conflict management and leadership skills, while expanding their ability to work across religious and cultural communities.

What is the impact of this project?

Participants in the program report that they have taken home both concrete ideas and personal inspiration that has served their peacebuilding efforts at home. One example: From their 2016 exchange with the Dalai Lama, a youth leader from the Kurdistan region of Iraq returned to start a youth interfaith program to embrace the diversity of his home community. The participants’ roles as local leaders make them “multipliers” of the program’s impact. The youth leaders’ engagement with each other and the Dalai Lama also strengthens the impact of USIP’s Generation Change Fellows Program, from which some of the participants are drawn. Generation Change is USIP’s main, ongoing program for training and supporting youth leaders in a dozen countries afflicted by civil war, violent upheavals or extremism.

map of where the Youth Leaders come from

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