The role of youth work: Employability, peacebuilding and gender in Europe and beyond

After one year working on the subject of social entrepreneurship, peacebuilding and gender it is time now for UNOY Peacebuilders to make a balance of what has been done and what has been achieved so far. Hence the main purpose of this article is to give a contribution and boost youth work in terms of the mentioned subjects.

The conclusions and recommendations hereby suggested are a result of the project ‘Voices of change: Employability, peacebuilding and gender in Europe and beyond’, which foresaw the mobility of a youth worker from CEIPES (Italy) to UNOY Peacebuilders (Netherlands) aiming to exchange know-how and reinforce the cooperation between the two partner organisations. In the framework of this project the youth worker collaborated in several of the activities implemented by UNOY on the subjects of youth employability, social entrepreneurship for peacebuilding and gender equality.

Starting from a personal reflection on the relevance of this type of mobility it can be said that the experience was certainly meaningful and my recommendation as the youth worker directly involved would be to continue to finance this type of long-term individual mobility. Differently from the more common job shadowing experience, which is shorter, a project of this kind allows for so much to happen in terms of professional development, intercultural experience, networking and personal development. Naturally the conditions for this to happen need to be put in place, such as a good partnership and a serious working plan that all parties respect and follow. And as every project requires there should be a constant monitoring and adjustment to new needs and challenges.

Furthermore, this project constitutes a real contribution to the advancement and recognition of youth work in Europe. Although this is often a difficult dimension to evaluate, as it is quite subjective and hard to grasp, I have decided to address it in this article hopeful that my reflections and conclusions might become useful to other youth workers and those policy makers who are interested to develop policies informed by youth work practical experiences.

The most important dimension touched by this project was the relevance of youth work to the field of social entrepreneurship, with a special focus on the peacebuilding and gender dimensions. Social entrepreneurship is quite a trendy concept nowadays and many youth organisations in Europe have it as a strategic priority in their annual working plans. Yet, as youth workers, we should ask ourselves an important question, that is ‘whether or not youth work has a real role to play in this field and what kind of role would that be?’.

The role of youth work

The experience of this mobility enabled me to take part in a long-term project on social entrepreneurship, involving youth from several European and African countries. It was a thorough experience upon which I have reflected and discussed quite a lot. One of the most important conclusions I could come up with is that youth work role in social entrepreneurship is quite specific and in a way very limited too. Due to the complexity of the subject youth workers cannot expect that short-term trainings on social entrepreneurship will transform young people in social entrepreneurs enabling them to create their own social venture. While this is an unrealistic expectation, it is true however that youth workers have a privileged role to play in this field. That role is defined by being intermediaries and networkers, mentors and trainers of specific skills. This role should be nurtured keeping an eye on the holistic dimension of the intervention, meaning that it should be a long-term and local intervention with a specific group. A more elaborated description of the role and tasks of the youth worker is available in this link.

Therefore my recommendation to youth workers is to be specific and realistic, planning interventions and trainings that address the specific aspects mentioned. As well do a lot of networking and establish partnerships with local public and private entities with the goal of working in close cooperation. Keeping in mind that young people will need support after the training course have finished it is essential to put in place mentoring mechanisms where experienced social entrepreneurs give support throughout the development of the ventures.

Gender

Regarding the gender dimension of social entrepreneurship I could notice a trend related to interest and/ or accessibility in terms of region of provenience. For instance in Europe the number of female applicants to the project was higher than in Africa, while the drop out of female participants was also higher in Africa than in Europe. I did not observe any other gender based difference in terms of the participation, motivation and relevance of the projects. Yet, I realised that gender was a concern for African young people as they were aware about its influence in their lives. The same was not true for young Europeans who showed little or no interest on the subject. This is perhaps linked to the general idea that gender issues were overcame in European society, what could not be farthest from reality. More details concerning gender are described in this link that offers as well comprehensive guidelines to mainstream gender on projects related to the subject of social entrepreneurship.

It is therefore important to bear in mind that gender might play a role in the accessibility and participation of young women in projects related to social entrepreneurship. Additionally it is essential to be aware and knowledgeable about the gender dynamics that might determine women’s participation. For instance, as shared by African region participants, in very traditional societies males might see women’s success as a treat. Consequently this may become an obstacle to women’s participation due to the fear that their economic success and independence might lead to a lack in terms of marriage and family (as men would not be interested to marry women that are equally or more successful than themselves). Other kinds of obstacles that are less obvious might also influence the development of female led social enterprises, as the one described by Sheryl Sandberg in her well-known TED talk ‘Why we have too few women leaders’. For all these reasons the gender-mainstreaming tool for social entrepreneurship projects developed in the framework of this mobility project is relevant and might contribute to avoid or diminish this type of situations to happen.

I strongly invite youth workers engaged in social entrepreneurship initiatives to be aware of these factors and to use the tool proposed to mainstream gender throughout their projects therefore contributing to achieving gender equality in terms of economic participation.

Peacebuilding

I would like now to highlight the relevance of social entrepreneurship for peacebuilding. In the project experience all the social ventures proposed by the participants were aimed to peacebuilding in their communities. But what is peacebuilding?

In a world where literature on the topic is so vast it is almost impossible to come up with a concept that is not too broad and that can embrace peacebuilding in various contexts. Indeed one of the difficulties faced during the project was exactly in finding a ‘good’ definition of peacebuilding. Peacebuilding seems to embrace everything that relates to achieving a better society (peace within, peace with the other, peace with nature) and therefore become too broad and difficult to apply. My suggestion is to choose a very specific and concrete working definition of the term that is bind to specific criteria and dimensions.

This being said it is also important to highlight that social entrepreneurship has something to contribute to peacebuilding, especially if considered in the context of post-conflict countries or communities in conflict. The first aspect to mention is the fact that ventures that bring together people from communities in conflict become a tool to bridge communication gaps. This happens mainly because these ventures enable people to joining efforts and resources in solving common problems and needs. Thus parties in conflict work side by side, mediated by professional figures, creating the opportunity to see each other as humans and not as enemies.

On the other hand social ventures are a concrete way to enhance economic participation and increase quality of live, what is a positive factor in combating violence and conflict.

Finally, a third possibility is a venture that addresses the factors behind the conflict, ensuring this way a solution based approach that at the same time becomes a source of income.

Conclusions

To conclude I would like to highlight the relevance of these findings to policy makers. Bearing in mind the importance of the role of youth work to social entrepreneurship and simultaneously its specificity it is essential to develop relevant policies in terms of project funding. So, prioritise projects that realistically contribute to youth entrepreneurial competences from a youth work point of view. These would be for instance projects addressing mentoring, training and networking, with a holistic dimension, well grounded in a specific local context (or European/ international if relevant) and happening in a realistic time frame (long enough to enabling networking processes and competences building).

On the other hand policy makers should recall the fact that gender is still a factor that determines participation in social entrepreneurship and therefore inform their policies based on this fact. For instance it would be relevant to require from projects addressing this topic to mainstream gender since the moment of the project ideation. This gender lens would certainly ensure a more comprehensive gender dimension and therefore make a real contribution to achieve gender equality.

Finally, in terms of the peacebuilding dimension our experience shows the need for a more specific approach to peacebuilding. This has an influence in terms of the project objectives, the target groups and the suitability of the venture ideas proposed by participants. Keeping all this in mind is an added value to projects and a way to bring more effectiveness and concrete results in terms of the proposed objectives.

I hope and wish this article might be relevant to all those who work on this field. I would like to underline that the conclusions and recommendations proposed are not the only one possible and they are based in a very concrete experience. Hence this article aims to be a contribution to the field and I wish that more people will have their own say creating this way debate and reflection around what is the role youth work in social entrepreneurship and contributing to the professionalization and recognition of the field.