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By Basel Mansour
The last few years have witnessed a substantial increase in youth leadership programmes funded by foreign donors. These activities generally aim to nurture a new generation of enlightened Palestinian leaders. The political agenda driving these programmes is not so difficult to envisage, and youth clubs and unions are enticed to participate through several incentives, among them the relative ease of getting funding. This doesn’t mean that the programmes are not valuable. Personally, I believe that a genuine youth leadership is needed nowadays, especially in the context of the current political crisis. Rather, I want to shed light on the reasons that, too often, lead to their inefficiency and poor performance.
The startling results of the last PLC elections forced many donors to review their strategies; others suspended entire youth-targeting programmes, as in the case of USAID, the US aid agency. The question that arises immediately is why this poor performance by parties and politicians with views favourable to donors?
The answer to this question is simple. It involves the consideration of a variety of historical and macro-political reasons beyond the scope of this essay, but I will boldly suggest what I believe to be a large part of the explanation: The post-Oslo political order and the newly born institutional structure have created a rigid if not destructive environment that has distorted and hampered the natural development of a young leadership. The absence of a just and fair system of incentives played a major role in the problem. In comparison, retracing the leadership perspective during the pre-Oslo era, it is quite evident that the youth have played a crucial role in leading their community.
The main features that characterise pre-Oslo young leaders were their popularity and their strong ability to mobilise and influence the masses not only politically but also socially and morally. They also represented a wide profile of the Palestinian grassroots society; many of them were university students or labourers. Moreover, most of them had practised leadership in a spontaneous manner, as volunteers. They had their own careers and were not paid for their activities as leaders.
However, during the post-Oslo years, these leaders have been replaced by a new, paid elite. The youth leaders of the past were offered some executive jobs, mainly in the security apparatus, as a reward. As a result, this has deepened the gap between them and the masses; it also changed their pristine image in the eyes of their constituents. Unlike the pre-Oslo era, it was quite impossible for new young leaders to break through in the new regime due to its glacial structure. Many attempts to break through were smashed severely or surrendered to the inclusion policy. However, loosely speaking, that structure has rerouted the demand of young leaders into two seemingly contradictory sectors: the first is the political parties’ military wings, and the second is the so-called NGOs youth leaders. At a first glance, these seem to be very different sectors, but in my opinion, the youth’s role in both represents two faces of the same coin. In both cases they are manipulated and have no power in the decision-making process in their community.
Reading a newspaper or just walking in a main street of any Palestinian city, you will always find posters of dead, young armed men with the caption, "the martyr was the military leader of x brigade in the area." Many of them earn these leadership titles once they are dead. The manly appearance of the persons in these posters, which usually highlight their skills in using their guns, together with a high-ranking leadership title, is confusing when you look at their ages. Many of them are just in their early twenties and they are in charge of military operations for a whole city or an entire region? The question that I used to ask myself when seeing these posters is: How did they develop so quickly to attain such leading positions? The majority of their cohorts, who are involved in less risky or in bureaucratic tasks, do not work in leading positions, or at least it takes them forever to get promoted. Why should young men have to die to get a leadership position? Maybe this is the only system that allows them to do so? I don’t know.
The other extreme case is represented by the NGO leaders. I use the term “NGO leader” on purpose, rather than “civil society leader,” because many of these youth have poor social mobilisation abilities and are alienated from their own community. I've read many articles (notably, in English) about young Palestinian leaders who went to Europe or America to talk to people, politicians, or other leaders, about their experiences as young Palestinian leaders. Many of these stories give an amazingly positive impression to Western audiences. However, I wonder why the same leaders don’t leave the same impression on their local audiences. The answer is that these leaders have been trained according to Western models of leadership, which don’t necessarily function properly in our local cultural context. The constructed young leaders usually reflect the narcissism of westerners; their rhetoric discourse represents the mirror through which they, the westerners, can see themselves. This same rhetoric doesn't sound credible in the local, Arab culture. In this sense, these leaders are constructed in a stylised way that makes them able to attract Western admiration but at the same time alienates them from their own community. Many of them are perceived by other youth as an elite class that is benefiting from the misery of the youth-at-large. They have developed their own professional jargon that is too difficult for normal young people to understand, and this also creates an obstacle for the masses to become involved in such activities.
During recent years, it has become fashionable for some donors to create their own young leader model; select him (or her), train him, make him appear famous, apply for him to represent Palestine in a certain international conference about youth, nominate him as the best Palestinian young leader or volunteer, and then eventually recognise him in a public ceremony and reward him with a valuable prize. Then they write a wonderful success story about the experience. These chosen young leaders don't seem to be too involved in the preparation phase, but he or she has a well-defined role to play later. Everything seems to be natural; the youth leader seems to be really influential and the selection mechanism seems to be very transparent and professional. However, although I am not suspicious about the professionalism of the selection mechanism by the donors (I am very sure they have developed modern tools for that purpose), I would argue that they never choose people out of leadership factories, that is to say choosing them from their natural environment which has plenty of pure, undistorted, genuine young leaders, letting them talk about their simple but real successful stories. This is how most talented football stars have been discovered in Latin America's soccer teams. But unfortunately this is not true in our case. The chosen leaders satisfy pre-determined requirements - they must talk in a certain way, they must have a certain political point of view, they must have a nice-looking appearance, and they should speak good English. These handmade young leaders have not developed in their natural environment; hence they do not fit well into Palestinian society. While I do not doubt that the parties involved in these programmes, including the donors, have goodwill, unfortunately, oftentimes and for several reasons (including their dual standards in dealing with Palestinians and Israelis), their mere involvement or sponsorship of such programmes dismantles the young leaders from their social legitimacy and negatively affects their image in their community. As a result, many of their immense efforts end up with drastic adverse effects on the participating youth.
This in no way means I undermine the valuable endeavours of many of these young leaders in changing the stereotypical image of Palestinian youth abroad. But I believe a more pressing role is for these leaders to make a dramatic change in the size of their local constituencies. Indeed, these constituencies, not the Western audiences, will decide who is going to be the main actor on the stage. The rhetoric of these young leaders must not only respond to the local "tastes" but it must be able to change it when necessary. In this sense, the last PLC election results, if used as a benchmark, are vivid evidence of the poor performance of secular young leaders.
In essence, there is very little difference between the two cohorts of young leaders. Both of them have been used as puppets in a show for somebody else's consumption. In both cases there was no space for the development of a genuine, moderate and grassroots young leadership able to agitate public opinion and mobilise the masses toward pure, moral or social causes independent of any donor agenda, self-interest, or partisan ends.
Basel Mansour is an economist and youth activist. He is a candidate for a PhD in Economics from the University of Pavia in Italy, has a master’s degree in cooperation and international economic integration from the European Institute of Advanced Studies in Italy, and a bachelor’s degree in economics from Birzeit University. He has worked for various non-governmental organisations doing community development and research. He is a founding member of Dalia, the first Palestinian community-based foundation. He is also a founding member and chairman of Nawafeth Youth Forum. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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