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Devin D. Thorpe
Devin Thorpe

Engage The Youth You Hope To Serve

This post was originally produced for Forbes.

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The youth you hope to help as a social entrepreneur or nonprofit leader may be your most powerful tool for helping them. This message comes from a recent report published by the United Nations University called “Cradled by Conflict.”

The report’s author, Siobhan O’Neil, 39, points out that youth discussed in the report about kids who have been recruited or coerced into joining militant groups are vulnerable but also capable of helping to define and manage their own recovery.

O’Neil, the project lead for children and extreme violence at the U.N.-based think tank, says that studies show that when children are engaged in finding solutions, the solutions can be effective. As an example, she says that students in a high school experiencing violence were asked to help design a program to reduce violence in the schools. The result: violence dropped significantly within a year.

O’Neil says it’s about not seeing youth as “beneficiaries for programs, it’s about seeing them as partners.”

The tragic context for the lesson is the violence going on around the world, but particularly in Syria and Iraq with ISIS and in Nigeria with Boko Haram.

O’Neil visited with me about the report. You can watch our discussion in the video player at the top of the article.

Siobhan O’Neil

The report’s central message for social entrepreneurs and NGO leaders is that youth are as complex as adults and don’t all do things for one single reason. Most particularly, kids aren’t typically joining ISIS or Boko Haram for ideological reasons.

They are often victimized strategically by recruiters who prey on their youthful desire to rebel against their parents and to belong to something. O’Neil says that militant groups often provide “a readymade community, a readymade identity and a readymade sense of purpose.”

Thomas Kontogeorgos, section chief for disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) at the U.N., provided some funding and expertise for the report. He says, “DDR aims to contribute to security and to sustainable peace by reintegrating ex-combatants in their communities and to prevent recruitment of new combatants by stabilizing vulnerable communities.”

He worries that states are treating young ex-combatants from extremist groups less favorably from kids involved in other conflicts because they are afraid of the radical indoctrination.

Kontogeorgos says, “The Cradled by Conflict study, however, clearly showed that the ‘exceptionalism’ of violent extremism has no basis in evidence and that groups labeled as violent extremist or terrorist share many features with other armed groups. Particularly, children joining a group deemed violent extremists do so rarely based on ideology but based on a variety of intertwined motivations such as physical and food security, family and peer networks, financial incentives, coercion, status, and identity.”

O’Neil notes that there could be many children involved. One of the researchers asked ex-combatant youth about the number of children engaged with ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Some estimates were that as many as 75% of combatants were children.

While not all of the children are necessarily actively engaged in conflict, their proximity to it as cooks, guards or in other support capacities make them vulnerable potential victims and frequent witnesses to violence.

Furthermore, it is difficult to define recruitment practices as being voluntary or involuntary when the recruits wouldn’t legally be allowed to vote, drink alcohol or buy cigarettes in most developed countries.

Consider the case of Anar, not his real name. The Islamic State killed his father when he was 12. He became the primary breadwinner for the family. Five years after his father was killed by ISIS, he was recruited to be a cook for ISIS fighters; he agreed because they offered more money than he could make otherwise. It is difficult in each case to determine to what extent a child has a choice about joining a militant group.

Among all these challenges, social entrepreneurs and others serving at-risk youth can take from these tragic experiences, lessons that can help lead to greater success. First, recognize that the youth you serve can be partners with you in solving the problems you hope to address. Second, remember that youth are motivated by a broad range of facts and circumstances and that it may be unfair or impossible to attribute a choice to them at all.

If you share my passion for doing good with your money, learn how you can become an impact investor with my online course, 25% off with this link.

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Devin is a journalist, author and corporate social responsibility speaker who calls himself a champion of social good. With a goal to help solve some of the world’s biggest problems by 2045, he focuses on telling the stories of those who are leading the way! Learn more at!

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