When people discuss youth in the Middle East and North Africa, the focus tends to be on young people’s potential for turning toward political and social extremism as opposed to more constructive options. Violence and unrest in the region have increased young people’s disenchantment with politics, frustrated progress, and led to hopelessness in prospects for the future. Youth are the largest and fastest expanding population group in the region. Political leaders have important questions to answer if they are to engage young people. How can extremist attitudes and actions be averted? How can young people be brought into political processes to find alternative means for change? Does increased knowledge of democratic systems lead to political reform?
In Jordan, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) is using an innovative program to help young people use democratic methods and community action to become invested in their nation’s future. Through “Ana Usharek” (“I Participate”), university students throughout the country are learning about democratic values and political systems, human rights, non-violent dispute resolution, and civic responsibility. As the program has grown, young people’s interest and participation in politics and civil society increased, and more Jordanians are being introduced to democratic ideas.
Ana Usharek coordinators facilitate dialogue and debate with groups of university students on the topics of democratic practices and principles, human rights, political and electoral systems, local and national governance, the role of media, and the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. In four short years, the program has grown from working with a handful of universities to its current partnerships with 25 universities throughout Jordan. More than 20,000 students have already completed the program, and more than 10,000 students are now involved each academic year.
Ana Usharek participants put their knowledge into practice by holding regular town hall meetings with Members of Parliament to discuss community needs and legislative priorities. They meet with MPs and senior government officials, including ministers, to discuss pending legislation, policy proposals, and potential reform. Since July 2015, there have been more than 30 discussions between Ana Usharek participants and politicians about the implementation of the recently passed government decentralization law. The students have also been part of the debate about election law reform, the process for ensuring fair elections, and changes to articles of the constitution. In each case, students have informed politicians about young people’s priorities for reform and how legislation and political processes are impacting youth.
As Jordanian youth better understand the benefits of political participation, their knowledge is also reaching an adult audience across Jordan. Ana Usharek participants compete in national debates about current events, policies, and government actions. These debates are so popular they are broadcast every Friday night, in prime time, by a national television network. Through each debate, more people are introduced to democratic ideas and some of the pros and cons of political party and government policies.
Since its inception, the Ana Usharek program has continued to expand its reach to help students work directly with communities. The Ana Usharek+ program works with standout Ana Usharek graduates to design and conduct community improvement projects. Without any outside funding, these students have completed 55 projects, including:
- Refining university curricula;
- Addressing local community needs for infrastructure improvement such as more designated buses to their university;
- Protecting victims of rape and amending the law on domestic violence and;
- Encouraging increased transparency and better citizen engagement from the Jordanian parliament and government.
Each project is designed to improve an aspect of community or political life that the students see as a priority, and serves as a way to practice the democratic knowledge and issue advocacy skills they learned in the Ana Usharek program. Through these projects students experience how political and civic engagement can impact their day-to-day lives, how problems can be addressed in productive ways, and what challenges they face in promoting reform efforts.
Testimonials about the impact of Ana Usharek and Usharek+ tell the true story of increased political participation of Jordanian youth in their nation’s future:
- “Usharek+ was an amazing experience. It enhanced our skills in advocating for a cause and developed our personalities. Through the program we realized our true potential as youth leaders and as active citizens serving our society.” - Alaa Thalgy, Hashemite University
- “At first I didn’t know what campaigns mean; after joining Ana Usharek and Ushrek+ Program, I could advocate and learned how to rally support for a cause. I advise all students to join the program to invest in their abilities to serve their country.” - Amjad Al Zboun, Al-Abayt Universit
- “Through Ana Usharek and Usharek+ Program I was able to communicate with decision makers and understand how a politician or a decision maker thinks.” - Suzan Tallozeh, University of Jordan
Building on the success of its work with university students, NDI started the Ana Usharek Schools program in late 2015, working in conjunction with the Queen Rania Foundation schools initiative. This program takes the topics of Ana Usharek – democratic values, civic responsibility, human rights, and political systems – and incorporates them into a civic education program for middle and high school students. In coordination with the schools, NDI developed a program curriculum and instructor manuals to help teachers design lesson plans, class discussions, and school activities that incorporate the Ana Usharek topics. In a few short months, the curriculum is already in place in more than 150 schools, including schools for the blind and deaf, with more than 1,000 participants as of March 2016.
There isn’t one answer to the question of what causes extremism in young people, nor is their one solution to address the problem. The Ana Usharek provides Jordanian students at the university level - as well as in high school and middle school - with an entry point to learn more about democratic values and to get involved with the community and politics. While it isn’t a panacea for every problem, it is a way to start conversation, give students and community members an outlet for discussion, and help spread more moderate, non-violent, democratic ideas.
“Ana Usharek” and its related programs are supported by a grant from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).