Youth Combatant Recruitment in the Levant Part II: Alternatives to a Propaganda War

“As the acronym shifts daily, we don’t know if these videos are actually being produced by a ragtag force seeking to provoke a superpower and her allies into war or if Isis is rather a front for more institutional actors, even states, pretending to be such a grassroots group. This is vital for knowing whether this development is one toward or away from the democratisation of the narrative.”

American documentary maker Eugene Jarecki

While some have attempted to distinguish between the disassociated “romantic freedom fighters” and actual terrorist cells, the concern is that these young volunteers, some now radicalized and combat-trained, will wreak havoc and become uncontainable. The driving question here is why, precisely, have these young civilians turned combatants elected in a life of insurgency? Namely, why would anyone with an entire life ahead of them even want to risk their life to fight in someone else’s war?

With a special reference to the factors motivating drivers of violent extremism amongst youth foreign fights, one must take pause to summarize what is it that we actually already know about youth participation in violent extremism in the first place– be it as a foreign combatant recruit or otherwise. Some of the most common misconceptions in the study of youth violent extremists are propagated by misinformed theories supported by inherent limitations, i.e. those which rely heavily on generalist, macro-level “root causes.” Amongst youth scholars and experts one such diminutive general theory of conflict is the “youth in crisis” paradigm whose premise juxtaposes the youth specific opportunities for violence and rebellion with the econometric “greed versus grievance” model of human development and conflict manifestation. In discussing the different factors motivating youth recruitment, this debate attracts attention. While the opportunity structure arguments emphasize the preeminence of rational choice, grievance arguments specify the role of identity, disparity in intergroup relationships, and the effect of unmet basic needs.

However romantic, this argument disregards new empirical knowledge evidencing that the majority of youth affected by the underlying conditions linking them to violent extremism are not clear; few among them are actually motivated primarily by these so called “youth crisis” conditions in question. It is important to note that youth foreign fighter recruitment has manifested itself in a wide variety of socioeconomic settings across both impoverished societies to advanced industrialized countries. Therefore, it is very difficult to generalize about these underlying conditions since violent organizations emerge in radically different social, political, and economic environments. Furthermore, these explanations often framed in terms of causality or “root drivers” disregard the importance of the role of human agency. With a solitary focus on rationalist presumptions and explicit concerns with particular social and economic conditions, the role of essential push factors have been largely overstated. Such assumptions underestimate the potentially critical role played by the important pull factors like the appeal of a particularly inspirational leader or the material, emotional, or spiritual benefits which affiliation with an extremist group may confer to potential youth recruits.

Recent research has begun to look at how parties of conflicts have effectively used social media to increase their visibility, spread their message, and communicate to scale. Noting “Why Terrorists Love Twitter,” Time Magazine addressed ISIS and the challenge social media sites face when violent groups use their platforms in social media to engage and converse amongst themselves as well as to effect change on a global level. In recent years, policymakers, practitioners, and the academic community have begun to examine how the internet influences the process of radicalization extremist activities are recurrent theme to this topic. As a place where individuals find their ideas supported and echoed by other like-minded individuals, it is difficult to argue against the idea that the internet plays an important role in the process of recruiting young violent extremists. Many violent groups see organization on social media as a way to get money from wealthy foreigners sympathetic to a cause. This fits well within the widely utilized tactic of putting a young face at the forefront of campaigns deploying youth to combat zones.

This may be the reason why, in combination with many other strategies, the US State Department headed by the tiny Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) has ramped up efforts to strategically neutralize jihadist propaganda online as violent militants flood social media. Every attempt from the production of a State Department branded Youtube Channel to a Facebook Group and Twitter account has been generated under the US’s newest approach to use their PR and communication skills as a way to “engage in our very particular brand of adversarial engagement.”

Considering the idea of internet based self-radicalization, at the individual level, evidence does not necessarily support the suggestion that social media and ideological fit can alone accelerate extreme violent action. The spectrum of potential radicalizing factors and the triggers prompting an individual to move from extreme beliefs to violence vary widely. Committing terrorist acts does not necessarily require radical beliefs and extremist beliefs do not lead one directly down the path to terrorism. The confounding of radical beliefs with terrorism remains a highly contested topic exacerbated further by the role of individual and group processes. There remains a significance to localized grievances as well as the need for creating credibility among those who seek either to radicalize or to counter such resistance; group dynamics are a powerful component in pressuring individual action. In regards to the ISIS experience as it relates to youth combatant recruitment, a particular focus on ideology and self-identification highlights the complexity of cause and effect.

Beyond the international coalitions sending troops and conducting airstrikes over Iraq and Syria, perhaps one of the most valuable but unsung approaches thus far has come out of the underfunded State Department CSCC office. Taking it one step farther, and in considering the lack of knowledge in addressing the phenomena at hand, one must look specifically at the constructed perceptions and individual experiences of youth combatants before making any broad assumptions about the trajectories of this situation. With a commitment towards communicating a message for social good, strategic communication here is key to countering the narrative of terrorism. When it comes to new media technology, research shows that access to the internet via social media platforms cannot justifiably replace the need for recruits to meet in person during their radicalization and/or de-radicalization process. However, seeking to account for how young individuals have come to support certain forms of extremism associated with terrorism experts have since argued that the internet may have the ability to enhance and/or catalyze pre-existing opportunities available to young people seeking to become radicalized by providing a greater opportunity than offline interactions to confirm existing beliefs.

Though this does not prove causality for their mobilization in the first place, what is does show is that the internet facilitates the radicalization of individuals, but it is only one part of the whole process. Focusing on the potential interplay between the offline and online worlds of personal history and social relationships, communication across various formal and informal platforms offers a counter narrative supporting opportunities for peaceful coexist.

Right now is our lynchpin moment in terms of positive outreach to young people in the region. Playing upon their identities and experiences, there is opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue with the young leaders responsible to shape the outcome of this protractedly violent situation, both off and online. The assumption that there is one singular ISIS brand of socio-political religious doctrine which is uniquely extremist will not help us understand the cycles of brutality that have festered for decades. Our approach must acknowledge first through the many means available the circulating narratives and images of torture, violent murder, and desecration. Rather than engaging in useless propaganda banter, and potentially alongside a greater and well planned long term strategic communication strategy, the US and its allies should align not behind their weapons but their words in order to seek out and show solidarity with those young persons resilient enough to risk their lives in the fight for a positive change. With that, perhaps next time it will be to the benefit of social good.

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Youth Combatant Recruitment in the Levant Part 1: Challenges and Misconceptions

Going by the commentary on Iraq and Syria in recent days, many would assume that the region has already past the breaking point under the lightning campaign of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant/Syria (herein referred to as ISIS). Reinforced by resources and fighters from sympathetic communities at home abroad, the insurgents’ powerful control is news to few these days. What remains to be explained, however, is the genesis by which this phenomena came to be about.

Coming out of the +Social Good Summit, I cannot disregard the sense that the international community is desperately seeking support in facing challenges such as these. They recognize that the face of civilian uprisings across the globe is getting younger and, as such, have sought out young leader’s opinions in evaluating approaches to the problem. Many of us at the summit met to discuss how we are affected by and have experienced this issue in more detail during informal conversations. The following two posts are to serve as a summary and recap of those reflections. They are neither a full solution nor strategy for our leaders. Instead, let them serve as a means to open the inadequate dialogue we currently have as young constituents and leaders in order to set in motion the positive changes necessary to transform the conversation.

First off, what remains evident about the threat of terror coming out of groups like ISIS—at least amongst some of the socially attuned young scholars and practitioners I had met in New York—is that our collective knowledge about the functional activity and recruitment strategy of such entities is minimal. Beyond the sensationalist and propagandized accounts that we are fed through mainstream media channels, little factual knowledge is known about ISIS’ activities on the ground. We have very inconsistent and unreliable information about its social base, how it has made its military gains, the nature of the coalitions into which it has entered with various local tribes and political groups (Islamist and/or secular), or how it manages and administers the daily lives of millions of people residing in the territories it now controls.

At the same time, and concurrent with the markedly high levels of peaceful youthful participation in the Syrian uprisings since 2011, we see the simultaneous and rapid counterbalance of youth recruitment by the various combatant forces now vying for power inside the Levantine region. Those who have successfully recruited young people willing to traverse the continent for a fight reflect perhaps the most salient feature of terrorist mobilization occurring across the Middle East, namely, the notable presence of internationally sourced and exceptionally young combatants.

In recent months there has been much alarm about young Muslims joining Islamist oriented combatant groups in Iraq and Syria. That is the so called “foreign fighter” syndrome of unpaid militants with no direct link to the political substance of the conflict other than their religious affinity to Islam and, in some more specifically extreme cases, the foundation of the Islamic State. During the initial stages of the pro-democracy opposition movement in Syria in 2011, many foreign fighters are documented to have fought for the country’s originally secular oriented Free Syrian Army as well as other more radical and Islamist factions including the Sunni backed Jhabat al Nusra, known colloquially as “al Nusra Front”. While Western attention has focused on preventing and mitigating the conflict infiltration by transnational terrorist groups (such as, for example, the coalition in the US House of Representatives voting to authorize the training and arming of Syrian rebels to confront ISIS), disassociated and youthful foreign groups are continuing to infiltrate the conflict all the way from the Gulf Arab states, Northern Africa and other Arab states, Bosnia, China, Russia’s Chechnya and North Caucasus region, and even Western countries in Europe and the United States.

More challenging, however, is the rate and trajectory in which these young (typically, but not exclusively male) combatants purport to have been drawn to the vague ideology of radical violence. Estimates on the total saturation of young foreign fighters currently traveling as combatants across the region since the initiation of the Syrian Civil War in 2011 range from around 5,000 to over 10,000 combatants. Ostensibly, the international community’s capability to effectively differentiate between and intervene amongst the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ youthful rebel groups mobilized within the context of the situation vary broadly and, as such, our global leaders’ inclination to develop an actionable strategy to address it regrettably stagnates further.

Further demonstrating the scarcity in information regarding the identities of militants who fight for ISIS, most of what experts claim to know has been gleaned from the few unreliable resources available to them: recruitment videos and propaganda. Though the USA and its allies have asserted their plans to solve the problem by “eradicating the ideology of terror,” there is little tangible data on the backgrounds and motives of those individuals choosing to join the cause in the first place— especially the non-Western recruits it absorbed from Syria who actually form the bulk of ISIS’ fighting force. Instead, the European and US strategy of mere “ideology eradication” seems to have focused narrowly on pinpointing and stopping the recruitment pathway (estimated at 3,400 people per month through successful social media and online campaigns) rather than changing the orientation of the terror and threat based conversation as whole.

In the absence of clarity on this information, it is difficult to define and predict the actions of ISIS beyond the group’s self-representations. Coming out of +Social Good filled with positive endorphin induced inspiration to tackle even one of the most daunting challenges of our globe’s social stratosphere, we lament at least partially that older generations are continuing to treat the situation of youth combatant recruitment as an entirely novel problem. The next post here on The Global Present will look into the origin of the problem and propose an alternative viewpoint from the reflective eyes of some youth grappling with defining and fostering “Social Good.”

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A Post 2015 To Do List, Welcome back to +Social Good!

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+Social Good speakers Robi Demelin, Idris ELba, Tara Abrahams, and Jeff Martin discuss their vision for 2030.

“Young people should be at the forefront of global change and innovation. Empowered, they can be key agents for development and peace.”

-Kofi Annan

Checking in on the second morning of the 2014 +Social Good Summit immediately following an impromptu brainstorming session with the Blogger Fellow cohort facilitated by UNA-USA Executive Director Chris Whatley.

With the city abuzz in constant meetings, summits, and committees, one simply cannot walk into any discussion without the sometimes subtle but more often overt attention to the overarching objective of this year’s General Assembly.

Our leaders are gathered here in New York right now to collaborate in setting into motion a comprehensive post 2015 global development agenda. While most agree that about three of the eight original Millennium Development Goals established in 2000 have been achieved prior to the final deadline this month, the sentiment remains that progress and reporting on impact has been uneven within and across countries at a local level.

Interestingly enough, our leaders at the UN are still grappling with the foundational questions regarding the world’s post 2015 to do list. In fact, they even recently put out a survey to assist them in determining the issues that matter most to those most impacted by its activities.

This is what Chris Whatley calls “crowdsourcing sustainable development”….how #millennial!

In maintaining our thematic approach intended to open to discussion a conversation about solutions to the greatest challenges of our time, #2030NOW has united our diverse group of bloggers and participants at +Social Good in order to foster partnerships between those of us willing to accelerate progress and reach targets come 2030.

This is a massive task intensified by the nuanced complexities of global development priorities. Assuming that we can solve these problems in a few moments of discussion is injudicious at best.

In light of this, the blogger fellows took a few moments with Chris Whatley to solidify a clear list of items we see as key inflection points able to galvanized efforts. Find here our top items we want to see on the world’s post 2015 to do list:

  • Access to clean water and sanitation
  • Action on climate
  • Support for newborn health and further prevention of infant mortality
  • Technology expansion in education
  • Pressure for responsive governments
  • Mitigation of conflict and support for positive peace
  • Transparent communications pathways for impact reporting
  • Youth leadership and engagement

As practiced policy wonks, it comes as no surprise that our goals line up nearly identically to that of the UN’s (at least thus far). What I found most important though, is the renowned consensus for a commitment to fortify our youth leaders.

In recognition that young people have managed to creativity become more involved and informed about the topics that matter most to them, there remains a need to come up with a unified strategy to engage young people. Many of the above referenced challenges will be confronted by this young generation. Nevertheless, there is still an insufficient attempt to proportionately have a youth voice here in New York.

One such correlated example is the precedent we are setting forth as a young force for “social good” (more on what that means to come). Beyond the traditional self-gratifying “slacktivist” approach to engagement (i.e. live tweeting high-level events like the +Social Good Summit), we spent the morning founding a list of easily digestible and actionable items required for imitating a movement for change on the complex issues that define our generation.

The first step is to eliminate dilatory language. US Under Sec. of State Richard Stengel demanded the audience at +Social Good to refer to youth as the present, not the future. Though we haven’t resolved world hunger, transformed a conflict, or stopped environmental degradation, we do have our own “To Do” list and there is much more of that to come…perhaps even today.

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#2030Now United Nations Foundation +Social Good Summit

Greetings from New York City’s 92Y‘s world-class cultural and community center!

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Get a glimpse at the conversation that will change the world: http://bit.ly/SGS2014video #2030Now #SocialGood

As many of you know, this week marks the commencement of the 2014 UN General Assembly in New York. I am excited to announce I am spending a hectic two days reporting to you live as a Blogger Fellow and participant at the UNA-USA sponsored +Social Good Summit!

The Social Good Summit is a two-day conference examining the impact of technology and new media on social good initiatives around the world. Partnered with Mashable and the United Nations Foundation (amongst many other influential platforms), the Social Good Summit unites a dynamic community of global leaders and grassroots activists to discuss solutions for some of the greatest challenges of our time.

Coming up on the culminating anniversary of the Millennium Development Goals, this year’s UN week is shaping up to be one of the most historic to date. From terrorizing violence, health epidemics, and the much-deserved attention on global climate change, it is safe to say that the world’s top-level diplomatic leaders have their hands full. Adding to that the overtures to address the post UN-MDG situation as an institution, the stress level on the East Side of Manhattan is certainly intense.

The genesis of the summit circulates around the theme #2030NOW and asks the question, “What type of world do I want to live in by the year 2030?”

But really, I must ask …. what is social good?

On that note, I am grappling with the potential prescriptions I can offer in my response to this question. Considering the oftentimes pessimistic tone staining the post MDG conversation, it seems time to consider the growing sense of change in the air here in New York. Our leaders have since begun to realize that their constituencies are looking to shift their focus away from the proliferation of crisis towards strategic solutions. The data show that, though perhaps bumpy at times, the pathway towards sustainable peace is widening.

Going into my experience at the +Social Good Summit as a young and often times exuberant voice for youth leadership in the pursuit of peaceful resolutions to conflict, it seems finally apparent that some of the most influential institutions in the world have finally come to the realization that the time is ripe to open a dialogue about the ways in which young people. This is the most “connected” generation in human history and we can act as catalysts to unlock the potential of technology to make the world a better place.

During the Social Good Summit, our UNA_USA cohort will be blogging and engaging through social media to address some of these seemingly boundless questions. Some common perspectives will surely circulate around the topics of gender and female empowerment, progress in the pursuit toward sustainable social development and humanitarian support, innovations for combating violence, and, more broadly, communication the notion of social good.

Granted the challenge ahead, my goal moving forward is simple: reach out to (in whichever way possible) those who can offer defining examples and actionable approaches for our collaborative effort towards establishing social good.

Please be sure to follow me and UNA-USA on Twitter and Facebook for updates. You can pose questions, attend a local meet up, and watch the summit live via web-link. Also be sure to check in here for regular reflections, musings, and direct insights from the leaders themselves!

Livestream available here: Mashable.com/sgs

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April 6th…20 Years Later

On this day 20 years ago began one of the worst atrocities the world has ever witnessed.  While a single event acted as if a switch was flipped to start the genocide, there were many things leading up to April 6, 1994 that paved the way for a nearly countywide policy to exterminate fellow countrymen.  Today, and for the next 100 days we remember those who died. And we stand with their families, their loved ones, and their friends.  But while we remember we must also look to the present and the future.  We must take the harsh lessons that Rwanda taught us and put them to use.  We must not say “never again” while we habitually fail again and again. Still, to this day, 20 years since Rwanda, the prevention and mitigation of episodes of mass atrocities and genocide are not a priority for the world.

While more needs to be done for the international community to be able to respond better in the face of horrific events, we must also look to affect real, lasting and sustainable change domestically around the world so that mass atrocities and genocide are never a possibility. Ending genocide and mass atrocities is both an external and an internal struggle. 

Externally we need to be better able to assist in capacity building, education, reconciliation, and support.  We need to be able to stand up for those who may otherwise be unable to and we need to speak truth to power to those who would seek to exploit or exterminate others.  Internally we need to look to our own actions, our own issues, and behaviors.  The only way genocide and mass atrocities are able to occur is if people are willing to carry them out.  People like you and me, just people.  So long as the voices and actions of those who seek to profess hate and do harm are louder and more forceful than those who extol compassion and kindness, we will never achieve “never again”.  For never again to be a reality, for genocide and mass atrocities to be something that kids only learn about in history class instead of from first hand experiences, we have to take it upon ourselves to write our own future.  

Today on the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda I ask you to think about the world 20 years from now. Will we be commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide and looking at comparisons to other places fraught with genocide and mass atrocities as we do today in places like CAR, Syria, and South Sudan? Or will we be commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide and celebrating a shorter but equally meaningful anniversary of the last instance of genocide or mass atrocities? I sincerely hope for myself and for my children that it is the latter. 

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Lets Hear it for the Girls! Contextualizing female leadership in conflict transformation

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In honor of celebrating International Women’s Day this year, let us reflect on the status of women across the world. Considering the pedagogical debate playing out between the various feminoti (i.e. those currently embroiled in a spate over whether modern women should be leaning in, reclining, or throwing in the towel altogether), it appears necessary to step back and reflect on the emblematic resilience women have demonstrated in the face of such adversity.

Whilst many self-proclaimed feminists from the likes of Anne-Marie Slaughter to Beyoncé vehemently support the increasing volume of media attention concerned with female equality and leadership—a non-existent conversation as little as five years ago—the primary paradox inherent to these so called “mommy wars”  is the misplaced attention to equity in defining female empowerment for ALL females.

A year since Sheryl Sandberg urged women to “Lean In,” Rosa Brooks has equally fought for women to “Recline.” In the fields of conflict transformation and international development, both points miss the mark. Regardless of how modern executive women and girls perceive themselves in terms of leadership, it remains that the majority of the globe’s females have dispelled little effort in contemplating their new found “empowerment” as a reference point for the broader social evolution of their communities. As of right now, and coinciding with 2014 International Women’s Day (IWD) on March 8th, women make up nearly 70 percent of the world’s absolute poor where those aged 14 to 44 are as likely to die from violence as from cancer.

At the turn of the century, concerned with the specific needs of adolescent girls, all 189 UN member states and at least 23 international organizations pledged to help achieve a greater commitment toward addressing a series of measurable health and economic livelihoods indicators by the year 2015. Set up by the Millennium Development Committee, The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) defined a new set of global targets to promote mainstreaming gender equality. They have since recognized that equality in expenditure for adolescent females can be a central driver of development success or, the lack thereof, a symptom of its failure. As such, the inclusion of socially marginalized groups like women and girls has spearheaded the conversation of effective programming for inclusive development and peacebuilding efforts across many regions. After years of planning and progression, the human rights and conflict transformation fields have also arrived at a pivotal moment: there is now documented proof that female education, engagement, and leadership has had tangible benefits for transitional communities. Billions of dollars have been funneled into aid agencies over the past fifteen years whose programs have strived to elicit female leadership in order to both meet the targets set up by the MDGs and to promote women’s leadership rights in the face of conflict.

Much to their chagrin, and in defiance of well-researched econometric projections for development in transitional states, many countries will not come close to meeting the targets of the MDGs before 2015. The general understanding of the criteria for evaluating the impact of the MDG on female empowerment remains nebulous and its’ generalizable results are largely mixed. Questions surrounding the returns to scale of such statistical findings indicate the large amount of work still to be done within the field of targeted programming for the most marginalized young female individuals.

Well founded as it is, one should always maintain a critical eye to the ways in which terms are defined. In projecting the conversation of female leadership to a globalized audience (as one should be doing on IWD), is there really any universally exemplified version of female leadership? How much crossover is there between this concept as expressed up by a high-status American CEO to that of young female leading oppositional uprisings in a conflict affected state like Syria? Perhaps very much but, the crux of this philosophical war on, between, within, and among women leaders has yet to address it.

IWD commemorations range from general jubilant celebrations of respect, appreciation, and love towards women to a much more contextualized acknowledgement for the economic, political, and social achievement of females. In order to shed some light on the actual lived experiences of contemporary women striving as leaders across the globe’s diverse communities, we must attune our critic’s eye to the received narratives of power, privilege, and exceptionalism amongst women. We must learn and respect how these factors are what actually impact the many ways in which we can talk about women leading change across the world. This is all even before tackling misogyny and patrimony!

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The question here is: does it even matter? Taking the exceptional case of women’s leadership in combat such as Syria’s all-female battalion fighting on the front line against President Assad’s government forces, how does one define contemporary feminist ideals of leadership alongside the more radical activities of females making do with what they have inside the lifecycle of protracted hostilities?

In charting a way forward after 2015, it is clear that women and girls must be more clearly classified as valuable stakeholders. Though statistically better off than their mothers and grandmothers because of investments in poverty alleviation, health, and education, much of the world’s female population continue to live in insecure environments. The definitional terms and identities as well as the challenges and barriers to their overall level of civic engagement operate within larger socio-political contexts beyond that of singular individuals. Their experiences are unique and they should be classified in light of their environment and the differences in needs they have from other minority populations. Unfortunately, the overall impact of the MDGs has been exploiting attention to young impoverished females as marginalized and incapacitated victims. Such assumptions are made worse by policies that exist inside toxic social contexts where young women are subjugated to other serious problems like sexism. These issues are exacerbated by the fact that traditional peacebuilding and development programs rarely address the diversity of ways in which females deal with the challenges that impede their activities.

Power and privilege in civic participation is often granted on the basis of identity; structural inequalities are linked to collective narratives and are also considered to be a starting point for a large portion of organizing and civic engagement activity. Female identities are not monolithic. Young men and women experience differences in equity impacted by their daily environment. They are a diverse group whose dissimilarities and commonalities often reflect the societies and communities in which they thrive. An individual’s quality of life is likely shaped by a multitude of factors including, but not limited by, gender.

Because they tend to be lumped together with other marginalized groups, organically established female leaders and social entrepreneurs are oftentimes snubbed in peacebuilding and diplomacy efforts. Recent measures of increased participation of young women in education and the workforce have demonstrated the existence of new patterns and opportunities for some. However, old patterns of gender division and new developments in gendered patterns are only a snapshot of change.

In making the case for female empowerment during the initiative activities of the MDG committee back in the year 2000, there were no Sheryl Sandberg and Rosa Brooks quarreling over nonsensical definitions of leadership. Today, global leaders have come to the realization that, for one thing, the MDGs must be reissued in terms of feasibility and, therefore, the targets must incorporate the constrictions that civil conflict and war have had on socio-economic development. Though it is highly unlikely that female combatants, political leaders, and business entrepreneurs making strides in the developing world have read anything of the “mommy wars” (occupied themselves with wars of their own), the data show that effective female engagement is a recipe for success. Young girls must be considered throughout project cycles. Understanding girls not as a homogeneous group, but as a diverse population with many needs and issues related to their age and environments depend on the project’s management.

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While the impetus of Sandberg’s social movement here is in 1) broadly addressing the various socio-structural roadblocks preventing the meaningful participation of women as leaders and 2) justifying that females can and do manage multiple career and family oriented identities (mother, executive, community organizer, etc), her concepts extend only to those aspirational identities assigned to westernized wealthy women climbing upwardly mobile career trajectories.

Considering this, and in order to implement sustainable peacebuilding plans, perhaps we should first parse out what female leadership even looks like. A mammoth endeavor as it seems, rest assured that it may not be as complex as our assumptive blinders lead us to believe. While the “leaners” and “recliners” spend time debating the level of time, space, and energy women should and should not employ within social spheres typically designated to men, women all over the world are actively addressing adversity, defiantly breaking down archaic and patriarchal social expectations, and collectively organizing to stand up against injustice.

While countless causal factors continue to undermine womens’ ability and inspiration to participate in conflict and/or its resolution, the core take away here is that women are not affected any more negatively by conflict than men. Both Sandberg and Brooks would agree that we should not build up our definition of female leadership in terms of vulnerability and weakness; regardless of gender, females can and do empower themselves to address adversity in their lives.

Adding to that the dimension of protracted civil conflict, development initiatives and international aid aside, our prescriptions for ‘solving’ the issue of female empowerment need to first address the lived experience of females, the perceived narratives and capabilities they already retain, and how we can turn the global conversation away from impractical examinations of “How to Balance the Work/Life Nexus” to, “What can we learn from the resiliency of females in the face of adversity?”

 (Images: Getty Images launched the “Lean In Collection” in partnership withLeanIn.org, featuring more than 2,500 photos of female leadership in contemporary work and life)

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