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Western Balkans Regional Hub: City-led Approaches to Empower Youth to Address Hate, Extremism and Polarisation

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On 3-4 June 2023, the Strong Cities Western Balkans Regional Hub and the Municipality of Elbasan, Albania, co-hosted a workshop on “City-led Approaches to Empower Youth to Address Extremism, Hate, and Polarisation”. Over 30 mayors, elected council members, local government civil servants, youth activists and representatives from national government and multilateral organisations across the Western Balkans convened to discuss the role of young people in local prevention efforts. Supported by the U.S. Department of State, the workshop allowed cities to exchange perspectives on key challenges to and opportunities for meaningful youth engagement on hate and extremism prevention and models for youth involvement in local decision-making and programmes.

Discussions also centered on the need to create a platform for trust building between local governments and young people and different models for doing so. A particular focus was placed on how locally-led, multi-actor prevention networks can be leveraged to enable and support city-led approaches to empower youth to address hate, extremism and polarisation. City officials and youth participants shared that this was their first opportunity to collectively assess youth-city engagement in a regional context.

Participants discussed how the wars that engulfed the Western Balkans and the challenging democratic transition that ensued have left people in the region divided, distrustful of their governments and fearful for their future. As a result, irredentism continues to feed inter-ethnic tensions, while religiously motivated extremist groups are penetrating communities susceptible to recruitment and radicalisation to violence. These issues, combined with deficits in democratic governance, high rates of corruption and violence have had a negative impact on young people’s resilience to hate and extremism. For example, a significant portion of the 1000+ citizens from the Western Balkans who left to support ISIS and other terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq were aged between 20-35. Young people who participate in the political system are exposed to high levels of political polarisation and, as a result, far-right ideologies make them less willing to interact with members of other cultural communities. Countless more have lost trust in government institutions and emigrated, resulting in high rates of brain drain.

The workshop sought to build upon Strong Cities’ youth-focused work in the region – under its Young Cities programme – and relevant discussions from the Regional Hub’s Inaugural Regional Workshop in February 2023 held in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In line with the so-far identified needs of cities, the main objective of the Elbasan event was to enhance cities’ youth engagement efforts and provide youth activists with direct insights into the work carried out by cities through multi-actor prevention frameworks. A particular focus in this regard was put on leveraging these existing local mechanisms across the Western Balkans to involve young people in decision-making bodies, policies, and programmes, as well as overcome common challenges such as youth trust deficit in engaging local governments and indifference to contribute to social impact efforts.