I was surfing the web, looking for some material on “leadership”, when I came across this music video-clip which I found striking and wanted to share with you. And not because it is my favorite type of music…
The video depicts a Liberian rap band sing about their pride of having Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as their President; the first female leader elected in Africa. American-style hip-hop/rap music is a centerpiece of Liberia’s current youth culture; it is something you hear all over Monrovia. I find it fascinating to see Liberia’s President turned into a pop-icon in a country where cynicism related to government is wide-spread. Presiden’s Sirleaf election has managed to capture the imagination of young people and this is anything but a small feat given that half of her county’s population is estimated to be under 20 years of age and over 60% under 30. This group, which has only known life in war, many of them as combatants, will ultimately determine if the country is going to stick to its peace and reconstruction agenda or slide back into conflict.
Coming out of more than a decade of war, Liberia is facing severe and complex reconstruction challenges. Decades of state abuse have severely impacted popular beliefs that good governance is possible; Liberia’s population is deeply skeptical of government actors and institutions; the youth being no exception.
The tremendous popularity of Ms Johnson-Sirleaf constitutes both; a window of opportunity and a challenge. Young Liberians are waiting for her to deliver on her platform of change, inclusion and development. Post-conflict reconstruction being a slow process, meeting these high expectations is going to be a challenge. Patience will wear thin. Finding effective ways of giving the youth a constructive stake in the reconstruction process and keeping them hopeful will be crucial for Liberia’s stability.
The effect of a “youth bulge” on social and economic development in low-and middle income countries has recently begun to attract wide policy attention. The relevance of the issue for post-conflict countries in its particular relation to stability is now also being discussed. “If you have no other options and not much else going on, the opportunity cost of joining an armed movement may be low,” says Michelle Gavin, an international affairs fellow at the US Council of Foreign Relations.
Far more thinking and research has to be done to find out what measures targeting youth in post-conflict places make the most sense and yield the best results. Once I heard the idea of “youth corps” being discussed; a nation-wide initiative where young people would receive training and be given a role in society and in the reconstruction process. I see potential value in this.
No post-conflict country can afford a “lost generation”; trying to turn a “youth bulge” into an eventual engine of growth might sound ambitious but is the only way to go forward. Most tend to agree that programs providing vocational training and employment prospects are useful. What ever measures are taken it is important to recognize that young people, traumatized by exposure to violence, displacement and loss, will require sustained engagement to become productive members of society and learn to trust again. This will not happen over-night.
In Liberia, seeing the President succeed in delivering on her promises of inclusion will help to strengthen the youth’s budding trust in the government institutions they have hardly known. Engaging them in the national process might secure the President’s current status, not only as a pop-icon but also as the thoughtful and seasoned political leader Liberia needs now.