The theme of the conference had clearly touched a nerve in the international youth work community, not least evidenced by the large number of participants. The impact of global political developments of recent years is now being felt on the ground, too. Organisations have to deal with security issues, political conflicts, declining participant numbers and cancelled exchanges. Many team leaders as well as decision-makers inside the organisations are having to engage in difficult conversations with their international partners. Keynote speaker Dr Martina Fischer, desk officer for peace and conflict management at Bread for the World, the Protestant Development Service, assessed the situation and encouraged the international youth work community to develop its own solutions.
Global politics and civil society
In her address, Fischer covered three profound global political developments: one, the proven rise in violent conflict and terrorist activity since the early 2000s; two, the global shift in power away from the west to countries such as Brazil, Russia, India and China; and three, a widening wealth gap, due amongst other things to the exploitation of natural resources and the resulting destruction of certain human habitats. These developments are accompanied by collapsing states, new and existing violent groups, and displacement. Efforts by, e.g., the international community to prevent violence remain limited. The discourse at UN and EU level has changed, she continued, with security taking precedence over peace considerations. Today, priority is given to isolationist activities, terrorism prevention and the setup of police and security forces.
Civil society as a political corrective can only work effectively if it is recognised as such, Fischer said. However, civil society actors currently face severe restrictions and oppression even in democratic countries. Their limited room for manoeuvre is a result, amongst other things, of governments’ fear of losing power, the destruction of the environment through resource exploitation, and the curtailment of some groups’ rights. Fischer believes that this ongoing phenomenon is the direct result of the developments outlined above. She also pointed out that as power shifts away from the west, emerging states are insisting on sovereignty although not necessarily embracing western-style democratic structures.
Taking action – What can international youth work do?
In light of the above, should we simply give up? Certainly not, according to Fischer. Youth exchanges have always taken place in difficult times, and young people have always been agents of change. International youth work, she said, has a dual educational role: it should use verifiable facts on flight, reasons for terrorism and globalisation to return what has become an emotional debate to an objective level. And it should empower young people to ask critical questions, to think in terms of peace rather than security, and to show empathy, Fischer continued. International youth work can support civil society groups and give them more scope for action in countries where they face restrictions – islands of a kind, where committed individuals can continue to do their work.
What does this mean in concrete terms?
This complex situation was subsequently transferred to the practical level. Six priority themes were chosen to help structure the discussion:
- Cooperation with public-sector and civil-society partners;
- evaluation of the situation in partner countries;
- new impulses for international youth work to combat racism and extremism and to promote integration and work with young refugees;
- new international youth work strategies for a strong Europe;
- the significance and role of funding bodies; and
- impulses to strengthen the political dimension of international youth work.
In the working groups, there was broad agreement that the international youth work community must regain a clear political position. At the same time, actors must remain very mindful of the room for manoeuvre that exists in the partner countries and find ways to maintain a stronger political stance also when working in repressive regimes. How do the partners feel about this? What can be done? What cannot? In the run-up to an exchange, it is essential that all parties shift perspectives and engage in a dialogue between equals. The full proceedings of the conference will be available in April 2017.
One thing is clear: the conference put out a very encouraging signal! However big the challenges, the willingness to overcome them is there. The process has begun. Now participants need to follow up on their ideas. An ideal opportunity for this is the conference “Encounters. Change. Renewal. Challenges and opportunities for international youth work in a globalised world” on 18 May 2017 in Berlin.