Wednesday, May 03, 2006


Some thoughts on what we are trying to do

The point has been made that for The Children’s Project to succeed its effect must take place not just within the confines of the project’s own activities, but in the real world. Young people must be able to see their new knowledge and capabilities as relevant and useful, to themselves and society, if the experience of The Children’s Project is to be more than a theoretical exercise. The example commonly cited is of young people made keen to contribute but without an outlet for volunteering their services. Another (actual) example is of two illiterate teenage boys who visited the touring programme, and left determined to learn to read – the means must exist outside the project for them to pursue this aim.

From the inception of The Children’s Project, it has had the aim of providing the young people of Syria with the means to envisage and build their own future and the future of their country. The intention is to unlock skills and attitudes which enable young people not just to survive in a changing and challenging world, but to thrive in it and shape it for a shared good. We hope that the experiences they undergo will enable them to see their future as an opportunity rather than a threat.

The changing world facing young people, and the intellectual territory of the project, embraces the social, the economic, the technological – and the political. In all four of these areas the project has the capacity to foster the knowledge, values and behaviour that Syria needs for its long-term goals.

Based on the content and tenor of the Five-Year Plan, Syria is looking to significantly alter the social contract between the State and the people. The intention is to reduce the role of the State in everyday life. The current extent of state employment is to be reduced, and the expectation that such employment is a lifetime sinecure will cease. This implies a growing and successful private sector able to offer employment opportunities. It also implies a workforce able to meet the different demands of the private sector, and comfortable with the ideas of changing career paths and learning new skills. The opening up of a market economy and the encouragement of an entrepreneur sector represent the systems and structure approach to making this happen.

A general reduction in State role can only succeed if there is a equivalent growing readiness amongst people to assume active responsibility for their lives, their environment, their society. Such behaviour is not instinctive on a societal scale; indeed, studies show the reverse, that large numbers inhibit the adoption of individual responsibility. When the status quo has institutionalised decision-making and responsibility as concerns of the State rather than the individual, the shift to personal responsibility has to be an actively managed process. Given the aim, it is obviously counter-productive for the State to take a major role in this.

Syria’s future economic growth will come from growing its capability in knowledge and service industries – building, for example, a strong creative industries sector, and a high-quality tourism and hospitality industry. Both of these “soft” industries offer relative ease of entry but for that reason are highly competitive internationally. To compete and succeed, Syria will need to excel at developing a new sets of talents – in lateral thinking, problem-solving, team-working, leadership, quality awareness, customer focus, logic and project management. To these must be added an international focus, and a commitment to shed a “good enough” acceptance of the mediocre.

If Syria is to be more than a ”sweatshop” participant in the technological revolution, it will wish to see its people confident using new technology, able to develop software applications as well as hardware, and in a position to create new intellectual property rather than using others’ resources.

Politically, Syria’s stated goal is to move towards greater democracy, building on progress already made. Whatever such a definition may comprise, or the route and timetable chosen to achieve it, it requires a change in the relationship between government and people, for which both have to adapt. As a process of national development, it is likely to be slow, expensive and sometimes erratic. If the end point is envisaged as successful representative government, then the conventional requirements of a secure middle class, rule of law and freedom of speech must exist. A further precondition for success is a shift in public attitude towards active, informed citizenship. In other words, the creation of a responsible electorate. Without it, a more democratic structure may well (as recent examples elsewhere show) open a door to instability, extremism and irrationality.

Syria’s current asset base is not sufficient to future-proof it in a global environment. If its options are between well-planned progressive change and gradual hapless decline, the assumption is that Syria is looking to the former. The subject of the Five-Year Plan is human development. It recognises that the asset in which Syria must invest most heavily is its human capital. A further assumption is that the best investment will be self-sustaining, i.e. not requiring continual re-investment. It is a premise of this paper that The Children’s Project is such an investment.

The Children’s Project makes no claim that it can bring about societal transformation, particularly in isolation. Nevertheless, its objectives and characteristics are explicitly transformative. The vision for the project speaks of empowering the young people of Syria to contribute in building the future. This it aims to do by: developing self-awareness and confidence; encouraging lifelong learning skills, rather than simply providing knowledge; fostering creativity and participation; building critical thinking and analytical capabilities; promoting team-working; creating understanding of choices and implications; and building empathy with and respect for other people’s situations and views.

The project is explicitly about aspirations, discovering and unlocking potential. It assumes that other programmes are alleviating social and infrastructural problems. In Herzberg’s terms, it is Motivational, accentuating the positive, rather than Hygienic, eliminating the negative.

Socially, the project will create in young people a sense of understanding and active responsibility for the world they live in and share, a readiness to contribute to community, to care about social conditions. Young people should feel ready to “plant a tree for others to enjoy the shade”.

Economically, the project will help develop skills essential for a productive knowledge economy. It will encourage judgement-based decision-making, responsibility, creativity, research, team-working and leadership. Young people will be encouraged to explore their potential in directions that should make them more ready to consider different career paths.

Technologically, the project will be using hi-tech information systems as well as lo-tech interactive techniques. Young people will be familiar and confident with many of the tools that IT offers to help them access knowledge and new capabilities throughout their lives.

While many aspects of developing new political systems fall outside the scope of The Children’s Project, a public shift towards informed decision making, towards taking charge of their lives - is within its scope. What has been described as “the careful accumulation of the habits of citizenship” is very much what the project aims to encourage in young people and their families.

In a process of democratisation in any organisation, the people concerned have to be ready to take on some degree of autonomy. Their capacity for participation has to be built at a rate to match the speed at which empowerment is passed over. Assuming that

The journeys of discovery young people make within the programme will build understanding not just of facts, but of issues, choices and implications. Young people will be encouraged to take on problem-solving roles, to understand that few situations exist in simple black-and-white terms. They will appreciate the language, imagery and communication techniques of the high-speed information age which they must navigate daily. They will ask critical questions, and many will wish to be actively involved in their areas of interest outside the boundaries of the project itself. They will be encouraged to take on responsibility for themselves and others. Their journey will often involve voting, and understanding the consequences of their vote.

At a practical level, activities such as the teenage debate currently on tour will offer the opportunity for young people to air their views and concerns, and to hear and appreciate dissenting views, as well as emphasising that their rights come with equivalent responsibilities.

The Children’s Project is non-political and its content will not be commenting on the political situation in Syria or elsewhere. Nevertheless it will create young generations curious about the world they live in and how it works, and confident that they can play a part in it. If the project’s activities are successful, Syria will see the emergence of young people with an informed and discriminating point of view, a lively civic sensibility, and a desire to contribute for the public good.

This offers the prospect of an informed, diligent electorate, young people more capable of appreciating a range of issues on which they are asked to vote, and ready and able to hold the executive to account. It also offers the prospect of young people from all walks of life better able to understand the complexities of the nation’s political process, and keen to be part of it for all the right reasons.

The process of national change in Syria can benefit from the work of The Children’s Project, and the young people of Syria can benefit from a sense of involvement in the change process. The project aims to produce exactly the sort of challenging, questioning, knowledgeable young society that the emerging political structure requires. An active, informed, engaged citizenry may be more demanding and harder to please, but is less likely to be diverted along emotional, single-issue lines. If the aim of any political change is long-term stability, the process must form deep roots. Syria’s young people can provide that confidence in change, in their country and in due process.


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