CIVICUS Member Interview: Omaid Sharifi of Sela Foundation in Afghanistan

Omaid SharifiMr Omaid Sharifi is a member of CIVICUS and the Co-Founder of Sela Foundation in Afghanistan. He is also the Country Representative of the Hungary based International Centre for Democratic Transition; Asia Society 21 Fellow and Co-Chair of Afghanistan Young Leader's Initiative and a Board Member of the Paywand Afghanan Association. He also holds memberships with: the Global Youth Anti-Corruption Network; the Clinton Global Initiative University; the South Asian Good News Channel; and the South Asian Youth Conference.

What experiences and emotions have drawn you to working with the challenges that face the youth in civil society today?

Since my days selling cookies on the streets of Kabul to the current days working full-time as a youth and civil society activist, I am no stranger to hard work. I have invested my time and limited resources to the redevelopment of my country. I have stretched my time and energy to its utmost limits as I am involved in a number of initiatives as a civil society member through the various organizations that I work with.

I am a Board Member of the Paywand Afghanan Association, a training and consultation organization that works with women and youth in different provinces. I led the design and implementation of several projects such as a civic education project in which a mock election was conducted in schools and universities to showcase the importance of voting. I also co-founded an emergency charity association called Sela Foundation, which aims at volunteerism and youth mobilization, an aspect that has disappeared through the war years in Afghanistan. Besides that, I have worked with several national and international organizations such as USAID, the World Bank, and with the Afghan government. Youth in the contemporary world face several problems that are different from place to place. However, there are some shared issues that are affecting young people in general. Most discussions on youth focus on issues such as drug abuse, crime, violence, sexuality and poverty. However, new challenges are also there to address such as, low self-esteem, immigration, the escape of intellectuals from low-income countries, unemployment, rapid migration from rural areas to cities and many others. Coming from a country such as Afghanistan, I have faced similar problems; however, I found a way out. I was lucky enough that my father had given me a book instead of a gun. But, I do understand that there are many young people that do not have the same resources or guidance. Perhaps, this laid the foundations for me to build a vision based on acceptance and hard work in delivering the message of unity to my fellow youth. I chose to work for civil society because I believe I have an obligation towards my peers and other human beings.

As a male youth, what are the differences you see between older and younger generations of women in society in terms of access to human rights and gender equality within the civic space?

In my country, Afghan women's presence in civic space has always been restricted and women were oppressed and degraded to its most extreme level in the Taliban era. Things have changed significantly now. Two-thirds of Afghans believe the situation for women in their country has improved over the past years, according to an Opinion Research survey (Opinion Analysis, U.S. Department of State 2012). In addition, 82% of people believe life for women is better now than it was under the Taliban (Opinion Analysis, U.S. Department of State 2012). Still, when asked to name the biggest problem for women in their area, both men and women are more likely to cite restrictions caused by gender, like domestic violence, lack of women's rights, or absent maternity care, over general issues like the economy or security. I came across another result of an opinion research. The author of the report (Opinion Analysis, U.S. Department of State 2012), portrays Afghan woman as follows:

"The typical Afghan woman is a married housewife with 2 boys and 2 girls. She is likely married around her 19th birthday and had her first child when she was about 21. There is a 1-in-4 chance her husband has other wives besides her. She is illiterate and cannot recognize numerals, since she has no formal education because it was not made available—or if it was, her family did not allow her to take advantage of it. The farthest she has visited is a neighbouring province to see family and friends, which she probably reached by public bus. Even this entrée to a wider view of the world is not guaranteed: 1-in-3 Afghan women have never visited anywhere outside their village. There is a 50-50 chance she has access to a cell phone, though it is unlikely that the phone belongs to her personally. But it's just as likely she has never communicated with anyone outside her village. She feels she has little control over what happens in her own life, but, taking everything together, she is generally happy. If she could change one thing to make her life happier, she would want either better health or more money." (Opinion Analysis, U.S. Department of State 2012)

This is the understanding of the international community about Afghan women. Certainly, it is true to some extent.

Afghanistan has 27.5% of women elected parliamentarians which are one of the highest numbers of female Members of Parliament in the world (Women in National Parliaments, But the symbolic nature of women having a key position because they are only women has to change. Their representation should be enhanced based on substantive representation that will improve their image as active members of society.

In contrast to younger women, the older women have more respect in society and family and can raise their voices in the community. It is my generation's women who have the mountain in their way to climb. There is certainly a need for change in the existing structure of the society and government that will allow women to establish themselves in their respective societies.

However, despite the hurdles and challenges the younger generation have, there is an advantage of being raised during a time where freedom of speech and particular gender issues has allowed more women to learn and advocate for their rights. Their education and access to the media and other civil society movements and initiatives have allowed them to be part of a larger community and thus, has helped them put their efforts for the cause of gender equality. I would say that not only women, but also young men stand with their sisters and peers to change the injustice not only towards women but also towards a society where women and men, young and old enjoy equal opportunities and exercise equal rights.

What value can youth voices offer to global debates on democratic transition and good governance today?

The increased amount of youth organization, youth volunteerism and community outreach has significantly changed the role of youth in their communities. Additionally, the presence of young leaders and an increased number of young philanthropists has influenced governments and communities to listen to my generation. As a result of advances in technologies as well as access to a number of media, young people are part of mainstream developments in their societies. Their education, knowledge and visions for themselves as individuals and their communities help them engage more actively in a meaningful way in the endeavours that the governments and other actors take. For instance, the important role of youth voices in democratic transition and good governance is more achievable now. Today's youth are using media in its best possible ways to influence policies and reach every corner of the world. The development of technology and ICT has enabled youth to be more in touch with their constituents and the people they are representing. In a school in Ecuador, one student decided to act against corruption and started a school campaign. The school reformed its structure making it more accountable to the students by creating school councils and student-teacher boards so students could air their ideas and concerns. The students of the school conducted a community survey and published the results in local papers. This campaign received so much attention and the school got the funds to publish an anti-corruption booklet for very young children explaining the dangers of corruption through drawings and comics. This campaign spread to schools in other parts of the country and had a lot of impact in the community (The Role of Youth, World Bank).

The value that today's youth can offer is their ability to think beyond borders. They have no limits in their thoughts, actions and visions. They are truly global citizens. They are well-connected with their peers all over the world and this has given them the best opportunity to learn from their experiences and share their knowledge.

Above and beyond, today's youth are committed to democratic values and are focusing on education. They have realized the importance of being the future leaders and they are acting now.

What roles should government, civil society and private sector leaders enhance in order to inspire youth in this trying time of economic downturn that has resulted in wide scale unemployment?

The under-developed and developing countries' governments should encourage youth leadership. Governments need to be more accommodating and respectful to youth and their ideas. Today's youth can come up with ideas that can change the current situation and make sure it does not happen again in the future.

I am a strong supporter of issue-based advocacy and cause-based civil society organizations. I use my influence and experience to encourage youth to establish organizations pioneering the usage of ICT and social media to advocate and tackle corruption in Afghanistan.

In the time of economic downturn, civil society should come up with projects that can accommodate a larger number of youth in their projects. Keeping youth busy with volunteer work can help decrease the level of pressure. Besides, civil society organizations can offer a platform to connect youth from all over the world. There is a chance for youth to work in other parts of the world with less pay and support important causes.

Coming to a particular country, for example, in Afghanistan, according to officials Afghan Department of Youth Affairs in the Ministry of Culture and Information (Tolo News), around 4 million Afghans are jobless in Afghanistan. Temorshah Eshaqzai, Deputy of Youth Affairs in the Ministry of Culture and Information said that the government is struggling to decrease the level of unemployment by implementing projects such as higher education and professional training education. Reports indicate that unemployment has caused some Afghan youths to join anti-government groups (Tolo News).

Despite lack of official unemployment figures, experts believe that nearly 65% of the Afghan population is jobless (Tolo News).
Another huge challenge the Afghan private sector has to deal with is capital flight. There is widespread propaganda expecting Afghanistan's economy to deteriorate after 2014, when foreign troops are scheduled to leave the country. As a result, apprehension about investing in the country is on the rise and capital flight is taking place. In order to ensure self-reliance, industries should be improved. That move would provide job opportunities to many.

On the other hand, according to the World Bank, in a post conflict environment, attracting new foreign and domestic firms is central to private sector development. New decisions about investment (in existing or new firms) usually depend on the availability of five basic factors: political and economic stability and security, clear unambiguous regulations, reasonable tax rates that are equitably enforced, access to finance and infrastructure and an appropriately skilled workforce. In Afghanistan, these conditions are lacking.

Is the presence of youth as the future generation in charge of global affairs being regarded enough at present?

Looking at developments around the world today, we find youth at the helm of some bigger businesses i.e. Facebook and Google to name a couple. The skills and innovation youth offer is hard to ignore. Youth are taking charge of some important institutions in governments around the world, and Afghanistan is no exception. Youth are working in leadership positions in ministries and are actively involved in policy making and program development.

However, there is resistance towards any change to give more prominent roles and presence to youth in global affairs. The older generation of bureaucrats find it hard to work under a younger person and changing this mentality and attitude is one of the bigger challenges youth have to overcome.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) estimates that there are currently 1.3 billion people worldwide between the ages of 12 and 24, which is roughly equivalent to 18% of the global population (Linda Lavender, Civil-Military Fusion Centre). In addition, USAID anticipates that this number will increase to 1.5 billion by 2035. World leaders have recently put youth and youth challenges in their agendas. The importance of youth's engagement in decision-making has been more emphasized after Arab Spring. The Arab Spring has been described as a youth rebellion driven by grievances about unemployment and dissatisfaction with existing regimes. An IRIN article, entitled "Coming of age in the 21st century", (Linda Lavender, Civil-Military Fusion Centre) reported that for the first time in world history, urban populations exceed rural populations. In addition, the article noted that youth comprised a disproportionally large portion of migrants moving from rural to urban populations. This invasion can be destructive too. Governments need to carefully plan and implement programs related to youth. Very unfortunately, under-developed countries and post-conflict societies are very far from taking these in to consideration.

Waheed Ahmad Jalalzzada, journalist on Conflict Reporting, writes: "youth play the key role in the trend of structuring and development of a country; conversely, they can have a powerful hand in the destruction of a nation as well." How effectively the governments address the needs of their burgeoning population may determine the level of peace and stability their countries will experience. What is increasingly clear, however, is that a purposeful approach to turning youth bulges into demographic dividends must be instituted over the course of decades if not generations.