As Tunisia last month celebrated the 2011 overthrow of its dictatorship, thousands of young Tunisians protested in streets nationwide, often clashing with police. Young Tunisians widely voice an angry despair at being unemployed, untrained for jobs, and unable to build futures for themselves. The single democracy to have arisen from the Arab Spring uprisings is undermined by the feelings of hopelessness among many youth, and by their exploitation by extremist groups linked to ISIS and al-Qaida. To help Tunisian, U.S. and other efforts to build hope for Tunisia’s youth, a small, USIP-funded project is measuring which kinds of programs are actually effective.
USIP supports a nongovernmental organization, Generations for Peace, that specializes in programs to develop the abilities of disadvantaged youth and give them hope for their futures. That effort can divert young people away from radicalism and violent extremist groups. Generations for Peace, founded by Jordan’s Prince Feisal al-Hussein, has been ranked by a Swiss monitoring body as one of the most effective groups doing such work worldwide.
Tunisia’s Vulnerable Youth
Despair among young Tunisians is a generations-old problem, rooted in the country’s decades under authoritarian and corrupt rule. Parts of the country, notably in the interior, have been left behind in the economic development concentrated around Tunisia’s main coastal cities. The World Bank has warned that unemployment among young Tunisian adults, an estimated 30 percent or more, is a critical problem. In recent years, Tunisia has been a predominant source of recruits for ISIS and other extremist groups in Iraq, Syria, Libya and other countries.
Tunisia’s peaceful, post-2011 evolution has achieved successes, including a democratic constitution, credible elections, and significant cooperation among the country’s main rival political parties. But these have not led to prosperity. “The objectives of the  revolution haven’t been attained, particularly when it comes to the economy,” said Linda Ben Mehnni, a campaigner with a protest movement called Fech Nestanew? (“What Are We Waiting For?”). “The situation is getting worse by the day, most notably in the marginalized regions that triggered the revolution,” she told a TV interviewer last month. “For youths in those areas, nothing has changed.”
“It’s worrisome that many young Tunisians feel excluded from opportunities to build careers and lives, and are alienated from participating fully as citizens of a democracy,” said Raya Barazanji, who oversees USIP’s grants in the Middle East and North Africa.
Targeting Effective Solutions
The State Department awarded Generations for Peace a $1 million grant over two years to create programs—using sports, art, education and leadership training—that can reverse those trends among high-school-age Tunisians in economically and socially marginalized parts of the country. The program operates in three of the country’s 24 governorates—Ariana in the far north, and the southernmost regions of Medenine and Tataouine.
“USIP saw an opportunity to measure the effectiveness of these programs through a very small grant,” Barazanji said in an interview. With that funding, Generations for Peace trained and mentored a Tunis-based nonprofit organization, the Tunisian Youth Development Academy, to help it conduct the research. Academy researchers surveyed more than 1,400 students and teachers, and held 200 focus group sessions among marginalized, impoverished youth in the three governorates.
“Development programs often are designed on the basis of what experts and practitioners feel has worked in the past, but we don’t always have hard data to prove what is effective and what isn’t,” said Barazanji. “These research findings, which we should have by the end of the year, will help us see which programs actually changed the attitudes and behaviors of youth in these communities. Which programs really reduce the vulnerability of young people to radical ideas?”
The hard evidence from the research, which cost $40,000, can help both U.S. and Tunisian government agencies better target millions of dollars that they spend to undercut ISIS and allied groups, Barazanji noted. The project will help nongovernmental organizations improve programs to oppose radicalization and violence. It also is building Tunisia’s domestic capacity to conduct this kind of research.
USIP’s Tunisia Partner Recognized
In issuing the USIP grant, “we were impressed by the results that Generations for Peace has been able to show” in its earlier work, Barazanji said. In January, an independent Swiss group called NGO Advisor, which evaluates nongovernment organizations worldwide, ranked Generations for Peace 30th among 500 organizations it surveyed for overall efficacy. NGO Advisor ranked the group second among organizations doing conflict resolution, or peacebuilding, work. (It rated a Chicago-based organization, Cure Violence, first in that category.)
NGO Advisor commented that Generations for Peace’s “army of young, articulate, peace-pushing volunteers” shows that “something big is going on” in the areas where it works. The Generations for Peace executive director, Mark Clark, tweeted: “This incredible ranking and global recognition would not be possible without support from our partners every step of the way. Huge Thank You to @USIP for your support to @Gens_For_Peace in #Tunisia, powering our research to ensure maximum effectiveness, impact and sustainability!”