Youth Local Councils for Civic Engagement and Social Change in Palestine

By Griffin Asnis Post date: Aug 31, 2020


 In the context of an economy stymied by Israel’s blockade and a dearth of economic opportunity, Palestinians are afflicted with an acute sense of helplessness. Furthermore, young people have become increasingly disengaged with their communities, in large part due to disillusionment with the conflicts and factionalism which define Palestinian politics. Thus, these conditions make youth involvement a primary concern in Palestinian development.

Funded by UNDEF, Palestinian NGO Almawrid Teacher Development Center attempted to tackle this dilemma of disengagement through the implementation of its project: “Youth Local Councils for Civic Engagement and Social Change in Palestine.” Executed across six villages in Palestine’s West Bank, from 2011 to 2013, the project oversaw the creation and work of non-partisan youth local councils (YLCs). Composed of students 16 to 22 years of age, these councils emulated local municipalities in their duties and responsibilities. With a particular emphasis on increasing civic engagement among the West Bank’s disillusioned youth, Almawrid intended to foster confidence in good governance and democracy. Grounded in the linkage between theory and practice, YLC participants applied their knowledge to tangible issues in their respective villages, spearheading various community initiatives with input from myriad stakeholders. Ultimately, this project found great success, functioning to empower youth to enact change in their communities. Nevertheless, various challenges posed a potential threat to the sustainability of the YLCs, as will be later outlined in this paper.

Lessons learned from this case study include:

  • By linking knowledge of good governance, democracy, and leadership to pragmatic applications via service to the community, young people can gain an enhanced understanding of local governance.
  • Granting young people the space to participate in developing their own local communities functions to promote empowerment and beliefs of self-efficacy.
  • Gender-sensitive methodological approaches are crucial for accounting for the diversity of experiences in both understanding and practicing democracy.  
  • It is vital to expand the scope of community members involved in the project’s governance structures, in order to ensure the long-term viability of YLCs.


Occupied by Israel since 1967, the Palestinian territories are home to roughly 4.88 million people,[1] with the youth population constituting a significant majority; 65 percent of residents are between the ages of 13-38 years old.[2] Though formally one territory, the West Bank and Gaza Strip are separated by a 60-kilometer land bridge, in addition to myriad checkpoints, separation barriers, and restrictions upon movement, which are tightly policed by Israeli army and civilian officials.[3] In 1993, the Oslo process effectively relegated Palestinians to a subordinate status for five years, without a neutralizing mechanism with which to thwart Israel from enacting unilateral measures, including the expansion of its West Bank settlements.[4] In 1999, Oslo II attempted to clarify the vague premises of Oslo I, leading to Israel’s withdrawal from major Palestinian cities, though it ultimately created a paralyzed Palestinian Authority forced to rule over “disconnected enclaves surrounded by Israeli military forces” and settlements.[5] Currently, HAMAS retains control of the Gaza Strip while the Fatah-dominated PA governs the West Bank.

Provided the grim reality of Israeli occupation, coupled with a segmented government, Palestinian society inexorably grapples with democratic governance. Moreover, political divides are manifested in social mistrust, as there exists inadequate dialogue between Palestinians and their leaders. As a result, public confidence in established governance structures continues to wane, while an enduring crisis of legitimacy has emerged in its place. In the absence of sovereignty, Palestinian youth—along with their parents—have been unable to fully assert their democratic rights, as demonstrated by a scarcity of national elections, the most recent of which occurred in 2006. The situation is further exacerbated by a dearth of economic opportunity. Though access to education is every high, with almost 100 percent youth literacy, a staggering 55 percent of young graduates are unemployed.[6] It is in this context that Palestinian youth are found to be disconnected from their communities, plagued by an acute sense of isolation and feelings of helplessness. In the early 2000s, various surveys found that approximately one-third of all Palestinians, and over 40 percent of Palestinian youth, would emigrate, if provided the opportunity.[7] Thus, the problem writ large arguably lies with young people’s disengagement with their local communities and with democracy more generally.

Project Background

Coordinated by the Almawrid Teacher Development Center from 1 March 2011 to 28 February 2013, the project--entitled “Youth Local Councils for Civic Engagement and Social Change in Palestine” --emphasized the formation and work of youth local councils (YLC) in six villages dispersed across the West Bank. Such councils were made to imitate local municipalities, both in size and formation. With USD 325,000 in monetary support from the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF), the project maintained an overarching goal of establishing mechanisms of civic engagement in local governance, specifically for Palestinian youth. An educational NGO located in the West Bank, Almawrid emphasizes the significance of education and training in democracy, governance, and leadership. Given the lack of practical experience in “doing” democracy within this region, the project aimed to empower youth, as opposed to mobilizing them as passive beneficiaries of project activities. As such, Almawrid “invested young people with a practical sense of their rights and responsibilities as citizens.”[8] This project in democracy promotion was largely conceived out of three major concerns, as observed by Almawrid: 1) the high risk of depression among young people, 2) an increasing disconnect between young Palestinians and their communities, and 3) a model of civics education which lacked practical application.[9]


In terms of its aims, the project’s core objective was to educate young people about concepts like government and democracy while catalyzing their participation within their own local communities, thereby bridging the gap between knowledge and practice. As noted by Ismail Njoum, director of Almawrid, democracy is not “something that we study as a formula. It’s not a theory. It's a way of life that we experience day to day.”[10] Indeed, democracy is not learned; rather, it is practiced.

Among the auxiliary objectives of the project were to:

  • Improve the knowledge of the youth participants in the six target towns in relation to citizenship and democratic governance;
  • Enhance the participants’ familiarity with the electoral process;
  • Augment citizens’ understanding of democratic processes, the roles of municipal councils, as well as their own rights and responsibilities;
  • Develop the relationship between the public and the youth local councils.

Actors and Stakeholders

1. The United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF)

The United Nations Democracy Fund provides grants which support initiatives in the domains of: electoral processes, rule of law, and youth engagement, among other areas. This organization complements the work of the UN with government entities in focusing on civil society. Established in 2005 as a United Nations General Trust Fund to bolster global democratization efforts, UNDEF served as the principal donor for this project. The UNDEF’s support of Almawrid’s work was predicated on maintaining a focus on education and training in strengthening democratic governance. Additionally, the donor oversaw a comprehensive post-project evaluation in four of the six target villages, from 22 to 27 September 2013. Evaluators conducted interviews with Almawrid staff and project officers, various mayors and municipal councillors, young people who had participated in the project, and elected YLC members.

2. Almawrid Teacher Development Centre


Founded in 1991 and based in Ramallah, the grantee—Almawrid—is an educational NGO which plans and orchestrates youth projects throughout the West Bank. At its core, Almawrid aims to maintain its focus on connecting education in democracy and leadership with service to the community, via youth local councils. Since 1992, this organization has trained Palestinian teachers for teaching democracy, with a special focus on service learning. Under the direction of its founder and director, Ismail Njoum, Almawrid was responsible for implementing this project across the six target communities.

3. Youth Councillors

Democratically elected by fellow youth (following international standards), young Palestinian students underwent training in leadership and democratic practices during the span of two years. With the help of Almawrid as well as the municipal councils in their own communities, council youth held a substantial role in shaping the public agenda—gauging the needs and aspirations of their constituencies through dialogue and collaboration. Some participants even went on to become mayors and municipal council members.

4. Local Governmental Actors  

Crucial to this project were the governmental actors which lent their support to the YLCs, including town mayors, municipal councils, as well as other bodies like the Ministries of Local Government. These entities gained invaluable input from the creation of YLCs, in regards to their local communities’ needs and desires.

5. Youth Constituents

Young Palestinians who registered to vote in the mock elections played a significant role in equipping the council with legitimacy. Further, the project provided a platform for Palestinian youth to contribute to their respective communities, an opportunity to support local government, as well as a channel through which to voice their opinions. In electing YLC members, Palestinian youth gained firsthand knowledge of the electoral process.

7. Community Members

Consisting of families, friends, local schools, and the like, community members were the beneficiaries of rich knowledge from YLC participants who provided new information regarding good governance and civic engagement. Chief among the project’s aims was to establish a connection between the public and youth council participants. Members of each community helped to oversee and facilitate elections, gaining insight into electoral processes, while also taking part in public campaign meetings. Throughout the process, community members worked in tandem with the youth local council participants, thereby helping to shape each village’s development agenda. 

Youth Local Councils

Over the course of this project, the YLCs functioned as the primary catalysts for democratic engagement among young Palestinians across six target villages. In particular, these bodies were composed of democratically elected students, aged 16-22, paralleling the structure of local municipal councils with similar key positions, such as Mayor, Deputy Mayor, Treasurer, and Secretary. To encourage the participation of girls and young women, each council of nine to 13 youth councillors would also implement a quota of 30 percent female membership. Elected by their peers for two-year terms, the council members were charged with considerable responsibility and autonomy in carrying out their roles, while they consulted with their fellow student constituents, community members, and municipal councils. In the process, the YLCs were tasked with identifying developmental issues in their respective communities and collaborating with various stakeholders to brainstorm feasible solutions. Some of the many issues tackled include environmental awareness and neighborhood clean-up campaigns, as well as initiatives and campaigns surrounding literacy, road safety, and local tourism.[11] Through extensive training, council youth cultivated their skills in leadership, negotiation, community action, and strategic planning, in order to more effectively govern their constituencies. Subsequently, the youth councils coordinated a range of cultural activities within their communities, spanning from computer classes for young students to the painting of school buildings.[12]

Implementation: Strategy and Methodology

The project’s strategy was predicated on Almawrid’s methodological approach to education, regarded as service-oriented learning. Director Ismail Njoum believes in fostering a case-based problem-solving approach to teaching democracy, in which students encounter real societal issues that hold educational potential.[13] In implementing the project, Almawrid undertook a programmatic approach, formulating a plan of structured activities and desired outcomes, broadly characterized by three spheres of action: “basic civic education for citizens in general and young people in particular; appeals to public entities for inclusive governance; and stimulating the concrete involvement of young people in community action.”[14] For the purpose of this case study, I refer to these areas in terms of education, community relations, and civic engagement. In regard to civic education, the project ordered the administration of a pre-test (and later post-test) to gauge people’s level of awareness on concepts like democracy and governance, while also disseminating 6,000 informational brochures. In addition, the project called for 40 hours of training on governance and democracy, which was to be provided to registered young people in each town. In conjunction, these activities were expected to increase awareness among young citizens about the fundamentals of good governance and the obligations of local municipal councils, with hopes of encouraging interaction between citizens and local government entities.[15]

As for community relations, the project identified six local councils willing to lend support to the YLCs and established supervising committees in each municipality. Subsequently, the project designated office space for each YLC in the local council headquarters, instituted regular exchange visits among the youth councils, and convened meetings, both public and private, with local municipal councillors. Ultimately, the purpose of such activities was to promote the long-term inclusion of young Palestinians in community affairs, as well as to convey the resourcefulness of young people in assisting local governance structures.[16]

Finally, in addressing civic engagement, elected youth councillors were trained in skills like project design, leadership, and project implementation; each municipality was expected to implement at least two projects. Additionally, an annual summer camp in Bethlehem was organized for all the YLC members and a comprehensive newsletter was distributed in each village, detailing the youth council’s various activities and lessons learned.[17] Through these forms of engagement, it was expected that participants would be held accountable via their appointment and subsequent oversight of community projects.[18]

It should also be noted that, while they were granted significant autonomy, participants also received crucial institutional support during various stages of the project by way of two levels of assistance. The first level was provided by six appointed facilitators, one in each town, to accompany the project from start to completion. Initially, the facilitators assisted the project by circulating information throughout the communities and advising Almawrid on key players. The facilitators then assisted the candidates in organizing their respective campaigns and arranging the elections. Throughout the overall process, these people were available to support the various meetings and activities of the YLCs.[19] Almawrid itself provided an additional layer of support throughout the process, as the project manager frequently visited the target villages to provide advice and analyze progress, while building a positive relationship with the young people.


In sum, the project encountered significant success as measured across multiple dimensions, namely effectiveness, efficiency, and impact. The recent growth of the YLC model of civic engagement is a testament to the relevance of this project. In fact, as of 2017, over 40,000 Palestinian youth had participated across the West Bank, and 45 YLCs had been established.[20] What’s more, YLCs have been replicated around the world--in countries like Honduras and Ukraine--in order to build faith in democracy among young populations. In terms of effectiveness, the project succeeded in empowering young Palestinians, through education and mentorship, to actively participate in their own communities. The project either met or exceeded its goal of registering at least 100 participants per village[21]:


Registered Youth Voters

YLC Candidates

Elected YLC Members





Dir Jreir
















Tura al-Gharbiyyeh





In five of the six villages, the quota for 30 percent female membership was surpassed as well. Thus, the youth councils functioned to uplift the voices of traditionally marginalized groups in Palestinian society. Not only did the project serve to empower young people, but it also garnered the necessary support of a broad range of actors, crucial to the project’s effectiveness. Such stakeholders included local schools, NGOs, and media institutions like newspapers and radio stations, which collectively promoted a supportive environment. While the project was effective in meeting its core objectives, it was also highly efficient. The budget proved appropriately designed, as funding was apportioned to actions that had a strong impact on the project’s success, notably the training and implementation of the YLCs. Also vital to the project’s efficiency was the consistent monitoring of YLC activities on the behalf of Almawrid and UNDEF.

Finally, the project was impactful, as it positively influenced a wide spectrum of stakeholders. Young participants not only learned about democratic processes and good governance, but they were able to effectively translate knowledge into practice. In doing so, they bolstered their sense of self-esteem as well as their commitment to their local communities. Testimony through conducted interviews provides compelling evidence of the project’s impact upon young participants and other stakeholders. Bashar, the Finance Officer at Almawrid, noted, “I heard all about the huge impact on the young people, their families, the community…it was not just about teaching in the class, but about action and energy.”[22] A young man by the name of Murad Sami Zaael Jibriyn, a resident of Tqu’a, shared his own story—one of helplessness, at least initially. His family’s land had been seized by settlers, forcing his family to relocate. By the age of 24, Murad had been arrested four times for entering contested land without authorization. Despite his feelings of hopelessness, Murad gained a certain degree of control over his own life as an elected youth councillor in his village, working to clean up the town while fostering a safe space for children. Regarding his experience in this project, he asserted: “It’s about being part of something – to serve the youth, and to serve the country.”[23] Many of the project participants went on to achieve great success, some even becoming acting chiefs of police, acting ministers, and acting mayors. Furthermore, the project also managed to gain the attention of local bodies which gained an understanding of community needs through the work of the YLCs. Hatim Sabah, Mayor of Tqu’a, one of the six municipalities involved in the project, remarked that “they [the young people] did great things. They came to me and said they wanted to do a big job…They mobilized the whole community and received support from many volunteers. It took them one month to paint and fix the schools.”[24]

            Despite its successes, the project still faced numerous challenges. For one, the extent of the impact that youth participation had on municipal policy remains unclear. Thus, this issue calls into question the project’s long-term sustainability. Especially given the region’s political tumult, the independence of the YLCs and their work is at potential risk, as youth councils may be interpreted as a threat to government authorities at any level. The same could be said in the context of frequent shifts in municipal council leadership, too, and their varying enthusiasm in supporting the YLCs. Furthermore, while the project consistently took gender into account, as in gender-sensitive materials or the quotas established for the council bodies, more nuanced attention could have been allocated, however, to the questions included in the pre- and post-tests, which were not disaggregated by sex.

Lessons Learned

The project’s ability to marshal a broad array of stakeholders--including community members, families, schools, municipal councils, and relevant governmental bodies--to engage with the youth local councils was vital to the success of the project. Moreover, this success largely derived from Almawrid’s case-based approach to learning, which linked knowledge of governance, democracy, and leadership to pragmatic applications via service to the community, through the creation of YLCs.

By carving out a niche for young Palestinians to effect change in their own communities, the project fostered an environment conducive to creativity, in which youth could develop a sense of self-efficacy. Be it through participating in YLC elections, representing their constituents, or developing community initiatives, the young people involved not only enhanced their knowledge. but they also asserted their own agency in enacting change, however small, in their communities. 

Gender-sensitive methodological approaches are crucial. The project witnessed success in meeting, and exceeding, its 30 percent female participation quota for each municipality’s YLC, resultingly altering the lives of the young women who participated. Nevertheless, it would be more helpful to abstain from thinking in binary conceptions of gender and sexuality. This beckons an emphasis upon intersectionality in project methodology, both in implementation and in evaluation. Project implementers can broaden the scope of their work to account for the identities of LGBTQ Palestinian people. These factors necessarily shape, and differentiate, each participant’s understanding and practice of democracy.

Given the age limit of participants, to promote sustainability, it is vital to expand the scope of community members involved in the project’s governance structures, in order to ensure the long-term viability of YLCs. In this case, the project ought to draw on former project participants for their expertise, thereby reducing dependence upon the grantee organization. As seasoned participants, veterans of the project can establish a formal mentorship network in order to guide current youth councillors throughout the course of the project’s duration. It is also imperative that YLCs across different municipalities continue to forge alliances and partnerships in coordinating efforts to develop their communities.