In looking at IRI’s recent Tunisia poll, one figure stands out to me: 70 percent of Tunisians do not think their politicians pay attention to the needs and ideas of young people. This number is disconcerting for many reasons.

For one thing, it is clear that Tunisian youth are worth listening to because they are already doing so much for their country. Young activists in Ain Draham held 12 clean-up campaigns, resulting in their municipality signing a Memorandum Of Understanding (MOU) to cooperate with them. AGIM Tataouine helps disabled people by conducting awareness campaigns about people with disabilities and raising awareness of their challenges in the community and Positive Planet helps integrate Libyan refugees into Tunisian society. These young people did not wait for the government to provide a solution for their communities; they did something to address their communities’ issues themselves.

But in Tunisia, youth optimism and hope stand on a precipice between despair and the new opportunity offered by extremists.

Taha Yousfi, IRI Tunisia Program Officer who has worked with IRI for more than four years, explained to me that young people “overcame the challenges, the obstacles; they try to change [things]. Even the engaged youth who are doing a lot to overcome the challenges in Tunisia are frustrated because they’re trying really hard to change [things], but there’s no concrete, tangible results that can be seen.”

“[A group] in Kasserine said, ‘Everybody knows what our problems are. If the government takes the initiative and engages us, but we don’t see anything but words for the last five years. There are no real opportunities or outcomes that we can see. That’s when we lose hope. That’s when people illegally emigrate and drown in the sea.’”

To address this dangerous disconnect between Tunisia’s decision-makers and youth, IRI is partnering with the Tunisian Ministry of Youth and Sports and youth-led civil society organizations (CSO) to help the government and young adults talk to one another other through a program called the National Congress on Youth. In regional congresses all over Tunisia and a national congress in Tunis, youth will tell their representatives in government directly what issues are most important for their peers in each region. Concurrently, young people and youth-led CSOs will conduct community engagement activities to demonstrate their ability to be part of their own solutions. The program will culminate in the government’s announcement of their plan to address youth issues holistically; IRI will assist the government in policy development, communications and planning of the national youth strategy that follows the congresses.

This is a matter of preserving Tunisia’s democratic future, bettering the lives of its future generations and preventing fuel from being added to the fire of conflicts like that in Syria. How can a democracy grow roots if young people, 29 percent of its total population, do not feel listened to by the people in power? How can young people maintain their faith in a system whose representatives do not make a credible effort to address their problems? Where will they turn if they feel democracy failed them?

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