Many young people are disillusioned with politics and have a distrust of public institutions. As a young leader herself, Hadeel Ibrahim, executive director of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, will hear from them this question: “Why should I enter a system that is systematically weighted against me?”
African countries offer a poignant example of the current situation. The average age of politicians is 65, while the average age of the populations they govern is 19.
“It’s very difficult for a 70-year-old to see the world through the eyes of a 17-year-old,” Ibrahim said July 22 at the Wilson Center in Washington.
But she has a provocative response to disillusioned young people, particularly in Africa where about half the population is under 18.
“My argument was and always remains, ‘Why burn down the presidential palace when you can live in it? In the next decade you will be able to win an election without anyone over the age of 30 voting for you,” she tells them.
Many political systems are in need of reform, including in countries where change has been urged for many years but has yet to happen.
But “you don’t need to wait,” Ibrahim said. “Take [on] the system legitimately.”
She said change will occur as young people create movements for themselves and their peers that are designed to challenge the system. It “sounds subversive,” she said, but it is “a legitimate democratic exercise.”
Along with heading the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which measures the quality of governance in each African country, Ibrahim is setting up The Africa Center, based in New York, to promote partnership, collaboration, dialogue and understanding between African artists, business leaders and civil society and their counterparts in the United States and beyond.
“We’re a platform to showcase what’s happening on the continent. I think we’re holding a mirror up to what’s happening, and some of it is fantastic and some of it is not great. But maybe for the first time that mirror is being held by Africans, and we have some kind of control over what’s being shown and not shown for a change. And that in and of itself is pretty revolutionary,” she said.
Through her organizations, Ibrahim’s role in empowering young people is limited to support. “It’s difficult to go in and solve for people. In the end, sustainable change is when people do things for themselves,” she said.
One of the biggest challenges faced in countries around the world is managing the diversity among the sexes, ethnic groups, languages and religions, and steering away from leadership that is focused specifically on one group.
“I think the more diverse voices [there are] around the table formulating public policy, the more likely those policies are to be successful,” she said, and the inclusion of more women in public life will help with “the sophistication of policy.”
Politicians themselves are largely to blame for youth disillusionment. She noted that “McDonald’s and Burger King have competed for 50 years, but they never destroyed the brand of fast food,” while politicians “compete and they destroy the brand of politics” by constantly attacking each other as liars or corrupt politicians, or making other accusations.
“We all just go ‘My God, they’re all crazy. I don’t want anything to do with any of this,’” she said.
So how do we restore faith in politics? “It takes inspirational leaders,” she said. And often leadership “is self-selecting.”
“I mean, who at the age of 19 would have gone, ‘Oh, Barack Obama, he’s going to be president,’ right?” Ibrahim said.