By Amir Makar
CAIRO: Young students and fresh graduates willing to work on development projects and with civil society are able to find the necessary skills and training at the Youth Leadership Program, provided by the Amerian University in Cairo’s Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement.
Quoting the Gerhart Center’s website, the YLP offers young entrepreneurs “guided opportunities to expand their skills in leadership, strategic philanthropy and civic engagement by bridging theory and practice in a structured but dynamic environment.”
Formally titled as the “Lazord Youth Leadership Academy,” the program was originally scheduled for inauguration in November 2011, however the launch was postponed after the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes that plagued the area surrounding AUC’s downtown campus.
The program’s originator, civic-engagement manager Nelly Corbel, explains the reason behind the name ‘Lazord,’ which may sound foreign to local ears.
“It may sound French, but in Arabic ‘Lazord’ is the name of a blue gemstone,” Corbel said, “which is commonly found in local areas.” She elaborates that the meaning is intended to reflect how valuable objects can exist below people’s feet without them being discovered.
Lazord, or alternatively spelled Lazurd, is the etymology behind the English word ‘azure,’ which describes the same blue-cyan color.
The premise behind the academy was that it was found that local youth (from freshmen and undergraduates up to young professionals), generally lack the necessary skills required when it came to civil society.
“They graduate from university full of facts, but without skills,” she said. Lazord revolves around providing that necessary training, offering all its students the same curriculum in 12 sessions of 4-hours, spread across the year.
Although the formal launch was postponed, the academy nevertheless functions, beginning its activities in mid-November 2011.
According to Corbel, the curriculum covers basic issues such as “personal leadership, vision, and thinking out of the box,” all the way to focusing on development and civic-engagement related topics such as “impact assessment, strategic planning, and financial sustainability, among others.”
Recruitment is drawn from AUC students and candidates graduating from universities other than AUC and nominated by civil society organizations. Internal AUC applicants go through a rigorous two-round selection process in which they are required to pitch ideas, as well as “Lead-on” students.
“Lead-on” is a continuation of AUC’s LEAD (“Leadership for Education and Development”) scholarship, “matching select graduates with well-established non-profits for a yearlong paid internship in Egypt.”
Ahmed Shaheen, one of the program’s participants, says he found out about it through a recruitment campaign made by the Gerhart Center on campus. It carried such slogans as “improve the leader in you” and “be a student leader,” he said.
Giving an insight into the curriculum, Shaheen said that they discussed financial topics such as fundraising and out-of-the-box thinking. “We [also] studied the legal framework for NGOs in Egypt. Last semester there was something about leadership personality and attitude: How to have a good attitude in life.”
Shaheen particularly reminisced about a training he received under the title of “research methodology for programmatic purposes,” which revolved about carefully approaching communities, especially in terms of culture and socio-economic aspects.
“The idea was that sometimes people have amazing ideas but they fail for small details that were missed out, even by professionals,” he said, “such as having the wrong chairs or using the wrong materials.” He said it taught him to have a clear methodology for background research.
His fellowship concentrates on coming up with a project, performing necessary background research, and writing a proposal summary. “Now we’re in the phase of contacting the people to work on the pilot, which will be in summer.”
Shaheen hopes to incorporate the leadership skills he is learning with his future work in civil society. In his own words, “I’m hoping to get connected to this world, what NGOs are working in this field, who will be able to help me when I carry out my project.”
Regarding the challenges the program faces, Corbel admits that “working in civil society now is not easy,” and that there is a lot of misunderstanding and confusion especially between civic work and politics.
“I am apolitical,” Corbel stated, “working in development, you often find yourself being dragged into [other] issues,” whereas development is not politics.
She further compares between civic education and political education, giving an example where the former teaches “the mechanisms of elections, how they are done, how individuals vote,” while the latter teaches “who to vote for and how to campaign.”
Particularly of concern is the lack of trust due to the latest developments in the cases of Egyptian and foreign NGOs. “And even before,” Corbel said, “People don’t understand why someone would spend a career trying to help others, so they attribute it to certain agendas.”
Corbel believes that a massive awareness campaign is required to tell the people that civil society workers are qualified, yet modestly paid individuals who work hard not only to help people, but to serve a cause they believe in.
However, Corbel warns that until the stigma surrounding NGOs has been broken, civil society will not be able to operate.
Once that has been done, she believes civil society in Egypt will flourish. “The Egyptian people are among the most resourceful, innovative and creative I’ve seen.” If given the opportunity, that is the proper environment and empowerment, she believes there will be a boom.