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Q&A With Hisham Jabi, MSI’s Senior Expert in Community and Youth Programming in MENA

Hisham Jabi is a Technical Director at MSI, A Tetra Tech Company (Tetra Tech). He specializes in positive youth and community development and has over two decades of experience in donors’ program design, management, and monitoring and evaluation of youth and community interventions with an emphasis on workforce development, countering violent extremism, entrepreneurship, and leadership and civic engagement. 

Hisham has extensive experience in conflict and post-conflict international development contexts, and has designed and implemented programs in Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen. 

He received a master’s in business administration and a master’s in information systems from Drucker School of Management and Claremont Graduate University in California, and was a distinguished President Clinton Scholar.

What do you see as a fundamental challenge facing development efforts in the Middle East?

Lack of positive youth empowerment is a major obstacle to pulling the MENA region out of its current turmoil. Until adults see empowered youth as the solution and not the problem, there will be little change in the Middle East. There is simply too much intergenerational conflict and tension. A culture of seniority is valuable if it is not misused by adults. Sometimes adults in the MENA region see youth as needing to be obedient, follow the adult example, and as not having the right to express opinions and navigate their own path. This is standing in the way of societal progress. There needs to be a paradigm shift where adults, including people in power such as mayors, school principals, managers and teachers, and youth committee board members, look at youth as the asset they are.

This is not a fringe issue. There’s a youth bulge—45%  of the population is below the age of 25. I call them the “trapped majority.” They are warehoused by embedded culture where only adults may speak. I myself am a product of this culture and it took me until I was 29 to understand the chilling effect it had on my behavior. It was in grad school that my professor asked me why I never raised any questions. I had to reflect on that as I didn’t immediately have an answer. In parts of the Middle East, if you ask a professor a question, you are unconsciously questioning his knowledge, and that’s taken as an insult sometimes. 

Seniority culture is neither “right” nor “wrong.” But the opportunity cost of keeping youth silent is tremendous. With nearly half of a population’s ideas, creativity, and innovation being untapped, development and prosperity is kept locked up in the MENA region. Releasing that potential and seeing it become progress is the upside I envision.

So, how do you shift this deeply-ingrained culture?

You challenge the social norms and put young people in the driver's seat, including young women. Let me give you an example.

In West Bank Gaza, where I directly oversaw a youth empowerment program, we recruited youth from extremely marginalized communities and had them participate in a 30-day intensive leadership program. They came up with “youth initiatives” that could improve their communities. A jury of their youth peers selected the best ideas which ranged from a social entrepreneurship program to public health campaigns, planting trees to cleaning up public spaces. I remember one girl who came up with an idea to raise awareness around breast cancer screening. She targeted older women who have limited reading skills, and provided them visual instructions they could use while taking a shower, so they could test themselves. The goal was to combat the high mortality rates among women who are frequently diagnosed late in the disease’s progression. The young girl who created and distributed the brochure literally saved three lives in just a few months after the start of the program. 

Did these youth initiatives change the adult-youth narrative?
Yes, absolutely, once youth started to see themselves positively. Part of our approach was having youth celebrate their success. That is critical and just as important as the success itself. Young people went on TV and the radio, talking about themselves and their initiatives. They developed self-confidence and generated a lot of energy in the community.

In another example, media production centers were established where young people created communications products for private sector companies, with service revenues going to the youth centers. The youth are brilliant! They just need some orientation and mentoring. The creativity and innovation that comes from young people this age is incredible! This is how we started to embed the concept of sustainability...taking the knowledge and services of young people and making them appreciated by the adult community. 

How can an approach like this be scaled up? Become a virtuous cycle?

Peer to peer communication is the biggest driver to scaling up, and this can be accomplished through “cascade leadership.” But sustainability after a project ends requires not just youth inspiring youth but strengthening and building local systems. The right enabling environment is critical for youth to thrive and create positive impact in their societies. This is where youth need to work with adults. Doing this is hard; it’s delicate. You can’t just tell a minister of labor to work with youth because they have value to add. 

What I found effective in previous experience is bringing board members from youth centers and representatives from ministries on study tours to see what youth can do in different contexts and other countries. I led one such trip to Minnesota, where we had a local partner, National Youth Leadership Council . It was fascinating for the participants to see young people engaged with their communities at the policy and decision-making levels in different local youth organizations and clubs. They thought if they are doing it, we can do it too. 

This is the most important factor, because you won’t get anywhere if you don’t work with the local system. There won’t ever be sustainability or scale. But if you have youth engaged and connected with local systems, the whole community will change. In my opinion, positive youth development is positive community development. Because empowered youth impact children and influence adults too. They go home and have discussions with their parents, and this changes the seniority culture. Those parents can then influence other adults, and the virtuous cycle continues. This is the way to move development forward in the Middle East.