Youth Arts and Sports: Underutilized Tools in International Stability Efforts
Scholars have long named the “resource curse” as a major contributor to global conflict. Countries rich in resources like oil, minerals, or even water often see a fractionalization of power as different groups compete and violently fight over these resources. Countries such as Mozambique, Benin, and Guinea face their own form of the resource curse: with some of the youngest and fastest-growing populations in the world, youth in these countries are increasingly targeted for recruitment by various violent terrorist and insurgent groups.
As the United States embarks on an effort to reshape how it engages with conflict and stabilization abroad through the U.S. Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability (SPCPS) and the corresponding Global Fragility Act (GFA), research demonstrates that the prioritization of arts and sports diplomacy within broader conflict prevention and stabilization programming can offer young people concrete alternatives to involvement in insurgent activities and also provide refuge from the impact of violence on their communities. Drawing on field research conducted by the authors in Mozambique, this commentary explores opportunities to uplift local civil society organizations engaged in youth arts and sports programming.
Youth and Fragility
In most conflict-affected countries, young people make up the majority of the population. Despite being disproportionately affected by conflict, they are also regularly excluded from decisionmaking institutions. In one out of three countries, people younger than 25 are not eligible to hold roles in national government, and are thus pushed out of decisionmaking spaces and made to feel powerless.
These dynamics are replicated within U.S. foreign policy toward conflict-affected states. While youth make up the majority of all nine GFA partner countries, youth are only mentioned four times in the corresponding SPCPS. Within the recently released summary country plans, youth are absent from Mozambique’s plan and are mentioned only once in the plan for Coastal West Africa (Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, and Togo).
Youth in Cabo Delgado—the northernmost region of Mozambique—form a majority of both the region’s population and of the extremist groups that have plagued it with violence. Ongoing conflict in the region began with the civil war that followed Mozambique’s independence in 1975. Today, youth in the region have to try to build a life while facing high levels of political exclusion, corruption, and lacking economic opportunity—factors that are exacerbated by more frequent and extreme climate emergencies, the resource strains that come with growing displacement, and violent extremism.
Groups like ISIS-Mozambique are recruiting children as young as 13, capitalizing on their frustration with high unemployment rates, cyclical poverty, and the absence of public service provision in cities like Pemba, by promising a better future. As these youth form the bulk of these extremist groups, they go on to further aggravate many of the factors of fragility at the source of their discontent.
However, if presented with alternative opportunities, youth can be the factor that tips the scale toward stability. In Colombia, for instance, the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) collaborated with local communities to design arts-based programming that have worked to prevent the recruitment and re-recruitment of youth into violent organizations, as well as the reintegration of child soldiers. In other contexts, such as Lebanon, art serves as a venue for stability and social cohesion in refugee camps by addressing the root causes of conflict and giving an outlet of expression to conflict affected youth.
Arts and Sports as a Stabilization Factor for Youth
Arts and sports programming have proven effective for youth in various contexts. The United States itself is home to a variety of programming focused on improving the life outcomes of at-risk youth. Art programs have been shown to help young people find alternative sources of recognition, achievement, and self-expression beyond gang membership. A National Endowment for the Arts study found, moreover, that at risk youth who participated in arts programs had improved social outcomes. They were more likely to vote, participate in government and social activities, and volunteer. While these programs are effective both as part of a school curriculum and after-school programs, non-school community-based programs show the most effective results.
Similarly, studies have found that regular physical activity, and organized sports in particular, can positively affect youth self-esteem, goal setting, and leadership. Being a member of a sports team can teach young people discipline, teamwork, and resiliency. Significant research also shows that youth sports programs improve social skills and social responsibility, as well as increase feelings of empowerment, personal responsibility, and self-control. As a result of these proven benefits, sports programs are perhaps one of the most common non-school methods used throughout the United States, and multiple grant organizations fund them.
Studies suggest that these positive effects are likely even greater when youth arts and sports programming is implemented in conflict-affected communities. Sports programs are also used extensively by international organizations to improve outcomes of youth, as well as overall stability, in violence-prone regions. According to the United Nations, “sport can stimulate positive mental health and cognitive development, it also contributes to the promotion of tolerance, respect, perseverance, resilience, equity, and solidarity.” Inculcating these values in youth are valuable tools for establishing peace and stability. The United Nations, through the United Nations Development Program, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, has conducted successful youth sports programs for conflict prevention and stability in Tanzania, Columbia, Mexico, Lebanon, Lesotho, and Uzbekistan, among others. Along the same lines, research shows that the UNICEF Art for Development program has proven effective at reinforcing commonalities rather than differences among displaced youth and built a sense of social cohesion.
An Opportunity for SPCPS Efforts
During the authors’ field research on challenges and opportunities for implementation of the GFA in Mozambique, almost every interview with local stakeholders featured the same refrain: “You have to talk to MASC.” Regarded as one of the local organizations with the greatest impact, Fundação MASC (Mechanismo de Apoio à Sociedade Civil) is a Mozambiquan civil society organization whose programs aimed at reducing poverty in Cabo Delgado are recognized by the people as carrying a current of change in northern Mozambique. Critical to their success has been a focus on improving the ties of young people to their communities through programs such as Art Para a Paz (Art for Peace), a community cinema project funded by the European Union, funding for local dance groups’ clothing and equipment, and a football program. While their arts programs have been critical to revitalizing buildings after conflict, creating discussion around issues such as democracy and human rights and creating a sense of normalcy during conflict, the football program—MASC’s first intervention in Pemba—has proved to be the local programming most effective at breaking through layers of distrust between different groups of youth in the city, according to MASC’s leadership.
Yet despite the growing amount of research supporting the correlation between youth participation in arts and sports programming and improved life outcomes, as well as the prevalence of such programs domestically, the United States has failed to employ these youth-focused arts and sports programming at a large scale within its international stability and development policy. For example, while the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) 2022 Youth in Development Policy Update reaffirms youth as a key factor in stabilization and development, it only mentions arts once in reference to a previously conducted program; it does not mention sports programs at all. Instead, the policy focuses on youth participation and engagement in civil society. While critical to civil society development, these goals rely on the development of intracommunity trust and significant youth buy-in to institutional decisionmaking structures—both which must be earned before meaningful participation can take place. Not surprisingly, the majority of existing USAID youth development programs worldwide are focused on education and civic involvement. Only two examples focus on sports, and one of those is actually a Major League Baseball program. None focus on the arts.
Still, there is evidence that the United States might be moving in the right direction, recognizing that youth arts and sports programs can play an important role in establishing that foundational intracommunity trust and helping youth buy in to civil society structures. In April 2023, the U.S. embassy in Mozambique and the U.S. Department of State announced plans to fund a locally-led youth basketball program in Cabo Delgado. Such programs, having proved highly effective for a relatively low-cost should be near the top of many country teams’ lists of proposals. Moreover, they provide an opportunity to make use of USAID’s localization mandate to uplift local organization—especially those that are youth-led.
With the outlining of the initial plans for each SPCPS partner country now complete, SPCPS and GFA country teams should look to arts and sports programming as an impactful tool to reach youth at risk of joining violent extremist movements and offer them better alternatives. The objectives of USAID’s Youth Development Policy are most certainly important; youth education and involvement in civil society are proven drivers of change. Young people, however, also need the opportunities to be young. Arts and sports programs provide them with important outlets for teambuilding and social skill development that will create resilience and serve as a buffer against recruitment into violence. These skills are also important for successful civic engagement and will consequently improve the outcomes of all other youth development programs. SPCPS is meant to drive a revolutionary change in how the United States conducts prevention and development programs. Country teams should take advantage of that momentum and look to arts and sports programming as tools to reimagine how youth are engaged worldwide.
Abigail Edwards is a research assistant with the International Security Program and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. John Christianson is a military fellow with the International Security Program at CSIS.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect official opinions of the United States Air Force or the Department of Defense.