Published on Arab Voices

Why countries in Middle East and North Africa should invest in Youth Volunteering

ImageThere were over 1,000 Lebanese youths together in one large auditorium, all from different communities, confessions and party affiliations. Some were chanting the Lebanese national anthem, waving the country’s flag. Others were holding hands, and screaming every time their pictures or that of their new friends appeared on a large screen. These young men and women all had one thing in common: they put aside their different socio-economic, religious, and political backgrounds and gave up their spare time to jointly identify and implement community projects across Lebanon.

On December 5, 2015, on the occasion of the international Volunteering Day, 1,300 youths aged 15 to 24 were recognized for their participation in the 22 volunteering projects that were implemented by NGOs over the summer of 2015, and which were financed through the first Call for Proposals (CfP) of the National Volunteering Service Program (NVSP). The NVSP, a US$2 million grant from the State and Peace Building Fund (SPF) to the Lebanese Ministry of Social Affairs (MoSA), seeks to increase youth civic engagement which, in the medium term, it is hoped will contribute to improved social cohesion and youth employability. To date, around 5,000 youths and approximately 100 different NGOs and municipalities have been directly involved in the project’s activities.

Countries with large percentages of youth who have limited opportunities for social  participation  are likely to face significant social tensions. It is the result of young people  becoming frustrated at their inability to positively affect their  own lives or that of society at large. Volunteerism can help to address this challenge. First, volunteerism is believed to defuse tensions by bringing groups together around shared goals, thus building more cohesive societies through the development of more meaningful citizenship. A basic principle of the NVSP is volunteering outside of one’s own community. Why is this so important?

Consider the case of Dima, one of the young women I met during the December 2015 event. After taking a ‘selfie’ with me, she explained how volunteering with NVSP was an eye-opener and an overall life-changing experience. Dima was able to work in a community she had never even heard of, and meet other youths who, despite some differences, were so similar to her in terms of interests, challenges, and goals. In her own words, “we sometimes live in a bubble and are afraid of the unknown. NVSP busted that bubble and I am now free to further explore and contribute to my country’s unity and peace.” Given Lebanon’s highly complex political, religious and social landscape as well as its large and increasing number of refugees, volunteering is an important mechanism to improve understanding among individuals  and communities,  and thus contribute to the country’s overall civil peace.

Image On the other hand, volunteerism provides youth the opportunity to participate in an unpaid work experience , thus increasing their employability. In order to complement the volunteering work and maximize both the results and impact that NVSP is having on the ground, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Multi-Donor Trust Fund as well as the World Bank’s Leadership Learning and Innovation  have complemented SPF funding to train the young people participating in NVSP  on soft skills, as well as to forge partnerships and closer integration between the private sector and the NVSP through the development of a multi-stakeholder coalition. Indeed, many enterprises complain that Lebanese youth lack soft skills , partly because the formal schooling systems focus primarily on hard/technical skills. Soft-skills, which include the ability to work in teams, innovate, manage and resolve conflict as well as responsibility and flexibility at work, enable youth to work efficiently and effectively at the workplace, thus improving overall performance and productivity.

NVSP is the first project of its kind in  the region and has enormous potential in Lebanon  and across MENA countries, as voluntarism has proven to be an effective mechanism to address unmet social and economic needs, especially in post-conflict settings. Indeed, given NVSP's proven success in mobilizing youth from across Lebanon to serve communities other than their own, as well as in working with NGOs and municipalities, the MoSA is considering NVSP as a potential mechanism to address the increasingly urgent needs presented by the impact of the Syrian crisis on the country’s most vulnerable populations.

A robust impact evaluation has been launched, and its results, which will be available by the end of the year, will help to determine whether NVSP did in fact have an impact on social cohesion and youth employability, as well as to inform future relevant policies and programs in Lebanon. Equally important, NVSP is now ready to launch a second CfP targeting schools and universities. The selected projects will be implemented over the summer of 2016, and will benefit an additional 600 youths and over 13 different communities across Lebanon. As the logo of the program says, “Together, We Make a Difference”, and Lebanese youth have a great potential to continue making a difference through NVSP .


René Leon Solano

Program Leader for Human Development

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