Why young people are a critical resource in the fight against a pandemic

Iraqi youth unite to find sustainable solutions to the most pressing issues during the COVID-19 pandemic

May 31, 2020

"The current pandemic is a true opportunity for youth to contribute and share their creativity. Our response to COVID-19 will help show the world that young people in Iraq are capable of leading positive change." said Mohamed, member of a youth-serving organization participating in UNDP Youth Leadership Programme’s 6th edition.

In Iraq, the term ‘youthful country’ isn’t far from the truth. But even with more than 50% of the total population below 25 years old, and amongst them, a high unemployment rate of 16.6% [1], there is both an opportunity and a need to engage young people in innovative and sustainable economic development, peace building and social cohesion.

Recognizing the untapped potential across the Arab States region, the UNDP Regional Bureau for Arab States launched the Youth Leadership Programme (YLP) in 2015 – and UNDP Iraq has been an active member since its inception.

Each year, the YLP engages Youth Serving Organizations (YSOs) across the region to participate in training and capacity building through workshops, hackathons and innovation camps, priming them to unleash their potential as social innovators and leaders. The aim? To equip youth with the tools necessary to develop unique and innovative solutions to real-life challenges; helping them contribute to achieving Agenda 2030 which includes the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The idea is to inspire young people to become effective change-makers, leaders, social innovators and drivers of sustainable development and social change, capable of realizing impactful ideas from conception to practice.

However, UNDP’s 2020 launch came at a time when the world was facing new and unprecedented challenges. In March, as we witnessed the unfolding of a global pandemic, UNDP launched YLP-6, focusing on SDG 16 – Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions, and SDG 13 – Climate Action. YLP’s initial series of webinars was hosted virtually to adapt to a new life of social distancing and a reliance on digital communications. But this wasn’t the only lasting impact of COVID-19 on YLP 2020. Cognizant of the impact that fight against COVID-19 will continue to have on society, UNDP has woven the urgent response needs of the pandemic into this year’s theme of Climate Action & Civic Engagement.

Why? Because we believe that young people should be at the forefront of pandemic response, enabling them to support their communities to recover.

UNDP Iraq has partnered with 17 YSOs from all over the nation to support them to design and implement sustainable solutions by  strengthening the capacities of young people in key areas of political and civic engagement, climate action, and understanding pandemics in the context of COVID-19. YLP supports youth by providing the necessary trainings to enable them to become leaders and change makers in their community.

The first training sessions were hosted by Ines Cheniour, UNDP consultant and trainer on systematic and design thinking, behavioral insights and online facilitation. "The current lockdown and social distancing measures have forced us to adapt and change our whole way of thinking. For me, I'm learning more about technology and online facilitation because our success is counting on it," she says.

Forty participants were trained on how to use a new local Design Thinking training manual that was developed in 2019 by Iraqi youth, with support from UNDP. Young people learned how they could then facilitate their own online workshops, to transfer these new skills to even more young people. UNDP is also working to provide YSOs with the virtual online tools needed to facilitate their workshops and explore innovative ways to solve internet stability - a key issue in times when internet usage is very high.

But how did we know the potential was there? A number of YSOs were already on their way to implement innovative solutions to COVID-19’s myriad of obstacles.

From toy-shaped soap to incentivize hand-washing for kids, the manufacture of low-cost personal protection equipment, distribution of food and essential goods – including psychosocial support – to vulnerable populations and support to UNDP’s own Accelerator Lab to develop an online detection and tracking platform for COVID-19, YSOs have led the charge in the fight against the pandemic in Iraq and its challenging knock-on effects.   

As we continue to overcome the new and unique challenges of life under coronavirus, UNDP Iraq – along with the other participating Arab States in YLP 2020 – will provide further capacity building and skills training sessions to YSOs, with a view to creating a series of changemakers and leaders that will go on to train more young people and encourage them on a new path of innovation. We want to support the next generation of effective political and civic leaders, social and climate innovators to explore unseen approaches that will accelerate youth engagement to achieve the SDGs.

In 2020, it’s time for young Iraqis to innovate. Together we can make an impact and increase the focus to find innovative solutions that will help to flatten the curve, fight COVID-19 and reduce the lasting impact on economies, especially for vulnerable communities.