Youth Engagement in the MENA Region with UNICEF: Reflection from AC4 Fellow, Rahma Ahmed

Arriving to ‘The Field’

For my project, I’m working as an intern in the Adolescent Development and Participation (ADAP) Section for UNICEF’s MENA regional office. The role is mainly focused on analysing the trends in youth social media engagement in the region, with an aim of understanding emerging digital technologies and how they can be leveraged for community engagement, networking and economic empowerment.

The original TOR of my field placement was slightly amended to include supporting the staff in Palestine in developing a pilot programme for youth-led enterprises in Gaza. While the initial phase of the programme is in Gaza, more broadly, the initiative aims to provide recommendations/ best practices for youth-led microenterprises in resource-poor settings.

With focus on the use of digital platforms, I’ve realised that it is crucial for me to keep in mind that it is much more meaningful and politically significant in this region, as evidenced by the pivotal role played by social media during the Arab Spring. Further, other factors such as the region’s large youth population, relatively high internet access rates as well as persistently high youth unemployment rates add to the significance of UNICEF – ADAP’s work. Lastly, the on-going Syrian conflict has added new pressures to this volatile economic/ political ecosystem and it is critical to understand how best to integrate the Syrian youth into existing support frameworks.

After a bit of time here, I’ve mainly worked on drafting literature reviews on two main topics:

a) understanding the digital landscape of the MENA region and how the youth participate in it, and

b) best practices linked to youth-led microenterprises in resource-scarce areas.

I’m also assisting the New York and Amman regional team in the launch of an Arabic version of a UNICEF-supported website for the youth. This involves pitching the idea behind the website and its potential to the youth and UNICEF’s partner organisations through UNICEF’s country offices.

As the team is yet to recruit a full-time consultant to spearhead the launch, I have to ask a lot of questions and do background research in order to understand the overall plan of the project, what has been achieved so far and what remains to be done. This launch process is supposed to conclude by the end of the month, after which its handed over to the website developer and regional team in Amman. I’ll focus on the entrepreneurship portion of the TOR in the next couple of weeks, and I look forward to connecting with the Palestine team.

At the Halfway Point

Things have been different from what I had assumed back in New York, not the least of which is that I am in an entirely different country from what was planned – I had originally planned to be in Amman, but wound up being in Istanbul! Being here, one thing that is surprising, which I am quite grateful for, is the flexibility I am able to enjoy and the many ways – some expected and others less so – that I am able to learn more about the topics relevant to my research-oriented internship: youth, migration and conflict. Turkey is currently host to more Syrian refugees than any other country worldwide and many of the issues discussed in my work are readily apparent in a simple stroll down the street.

I am starting to think about returning to SIPA and what I want to learn when I am back in classes next year. My undergraduate studies on the economic and political development of the Middle East/ Ottoman Empire have informed my understanding here. The founding of the Turkish republic was something I studied previously and has proven to be valuable in my understanding of the larger forces that affect my current work and UNICEF’s mission, and also beyond, to such things as the current political situation in Turkey. Growing from this foundation, I think I will concentrate more on the historical roots of present-day problems. I have looked at the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies (MESAAS) as well as the Political Science department and hope to find a few classes suited to my interest in political economy, with a component on understanding the region’s history.

Photo: the Bosphorus and view of the Maiden's Tower from the Asian side.

Photo: the Bosphorus and view of the Maiden’s Tower from the Asian side.

Approaching the End of Summer Fieldwork

I’ve had the pleasure of watching the team grow over the past two weeks and hearing different voices has enriched the work considerably (particularly as one of the recruits fits the target demographic – MENA youth). Progress continues on securing funding partners for the entrepreneurship and employability interventions in Palestine and I am, in fact, considering offering my support; if possible, I would like to assist with the work beyond the summer.

Perhaps the most exciting thing has been the launch of the beta version of the aforementioned UNICEF website in Arabic! We hope to have it fully operational and available to the public once internal testing and minor updates are completed. Hopefully it will be a valuable resource for the youth in the region and will provide a platform for voices that may otherwise not have been heard.

Photo: author, Deborah Spindelman, MDP Practice Manager, and Mehemed Bougsea, MDP ’17; at Taksim Square the day after the attempted coup.

Photo: author, Deborah Spindelman, MDP Practice Manager, and Mehemed Bougsea, MDP ’17; at Taksim Square the day after the attempted coup.

Author: Rahma Ahmed was one of the two selected internship proposals in the 2016-2017 cohort of fellows. She spent the summer working with the Adolescent Development and Participation (ADAP) Section for UNICEF’s MENA regional office, based in Istanbul, Turkey. Ms. Ahmed is in the Masters of Development Practice (MDP) Program at Columbia’s School of International & Public Affairs and will graduate in May 2017.

Images: Provided by author, Rahma Ahmed.

Editor: Meredith Smith

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