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Vernon Ringland is a youth development specialist living and working in Northern Ireland. For twenty years, he has been developing a project to help youth that now covers 24 countries, including developing countries. Ringland often travels to these countries to help introduce his Youth Bank concept, to meet and teach youth, to visit conflict regions, and to create the ground for youth volunteering in places that lack prospects and experience in this area.

The idea of a Youth Bank was first initiated in Northern Ireland and has since evolved into an international model of youth support. The concept is simple – empower youth so that they shape into decision makers. Simplicity, and the contagious nature of the Youth Bank, is that it helps youth become leaders in their communities and make changes not only in their life but also in their community's life.

The Youth Bank in Georgia is implemented by Europe Foundation. Ringland visited Georgia under the auspices of the cooperation agreement between  Europe Foundation and USAID. The aim of this cooperation is to offer a common platform for a relationship between Georgian and Abkhaz youth. This platform is the Youth Bank.

Europe Foundation launched the Youth Bank in 2008, and, since then, has covered almost the entirety of Georgia, including Abkhazia. Over this period, more than 10,000 young people tackled various local problems. “We spread our experience of involving youth in civic activity and volunteering to Abkhazia, too, and began restoring relations and trust between Georgian and Abkhaz youth both in Abkhazia proper and along the occupation line,” said Mariam Kobalia, the Youth Integration Program Manager at Europe Foundation.

Youth committees currently operate in 25 municipalities of Georgia and are manned by active young people. Europe Foundation provides them with trainings, transference of all skills, and the competences necessary for spearheading and developing initiatives as well as small funds to enable them to implement necessary community projects.

In cooperation with USAID,  Europe Foundation supports the Youth Bank in Abkhazia by organizing meetings between Abkhaz and Georgian youngsters several times a year, supports them in implementing needed community projects, and unites them around a civic action goal.

As Vernon Ringland says, opportunities emerge when youth are given the possibility to try themselves in realization of their own ideas. “Youth Bank is not a game; it is a real action, real money, real problem, and real instances of seeing and solving this problem,” said Ringland.

As he recounts it, this initiative assists youth who encounter obstacles in their communities and do not live in an environment that promotes youth leadership. “Youth Bank rests on three key values – youth development, social entrepreneurship, and youth philanthropy,” Ringland said. He believes that Youth Bank is equally important for the development of an individual and a community and is especially important in regions and societies that face a greater amount of political, economic, or social challenges.

While visiting Tbilisi, Ringland conducted leadership training to committees participating in the peace project of Europe Foundation and USAID. Then he left Tbilisi for Turkey, where he will work with future Abkhaz trainers who will work with committees operating in Abkhazia.

Ringland visited Abkhazia several times to conduct trainings. In each visit, he experienced tensions, sometimes even opposition and aggression from representatives of de facto Abkhaz authorities. In his words, “This situation reminds me of the Northern Ireland conflict. People seem to have antennas on their heads. They think more than it is needed. They hunt for words, think what to say and not to say.”

According to Ringland, the restoration of trust between Abkhazian and Georgian youth through one project seems a rather romantic goal, but it is very important to continue in Abkhazia. “Youth Bank is a very small undertaking for achieving such a great goal, but it must necessarily be continued because it opens up the minds and hearts of people,” Ringland said. “Can this project change something on a political level? It cannot, of course! But as we have managed to penetrate Abkhazia, the restoration of trust is already a puzzle,” he continued.

Giorgi Khechinashvili, a USAID representative, believes that the existence of communication between Georgian and Abkhaz young people is already significant progress. “This project coincides with the USAID approach and philosophy that is focused on a positive development of youth. The Youth Bank, on the one hand, implies the development of comprehensive social skills and, on the other hand, plays an important role in starting and developing a stereotype-free relationship between Georgian and Abkhaz youth,” Khechinashvili said.

As Mariam Kobalia recalls, in 2012, when the Youth Bank was first launched in Abkhazia, the situation was almost hopeless. “At first, when we started to work with youth, the situation was so tense that they were not able to do even warm-up exercises during introductory trainings,” Kobalia said. According to her, the existence of Youth Bank in Abkhazia is promising from several standpoints. “On the one hand, young people living in Abkhazia break free from school education frames, learn how to be active citizens, how to volunteer and take responsibility for a community that, hopefully, will shape a common interest among them; on the other hand, they start to interact in a cordial and equal environment, with the involvement of the third party, which showed a possibility of positive communication between them,” Kobalia said.

One of Ringland’s training exercises envisages the identification and prioritization of problems existing in one’s community. “It is important for youth to understand the political and social context in which they live and to see the reality and needs existing in a community in the light of this context,” Ringland said.

Ana Mushkudiani, an attendee of Ringland’s training, said that she found those exercises most interesting, which helped her discover leadership qualities in herself.  She explains, “I understood that I may not succeed at the very first attempt, but I will necessarily take a step towards achieving my goals at the next attempt.”

Ana is one of 49 young persons who came together under Europe Foundation and USAID project and one of those 2500 young persons who create an international network of Youth Banks globally. Ringland expressed his view of Youth Banks and their role with these words: “Of course, social and cultural or political situations vary in every country where the Youth Bank exists, but the principle of Youth Bank remains unchanged. This is honesty, integrity, knowing oneself, and making a change in your community. We have already accomplished the most difficult task — created the concept. It would be a welcome move if all countries spend more resources on the project; however, the scale is not too small – 24 countries and 2500 participants already means that the Youth Bank is a sustainable and universal model in all countries,” says Ringland.


Author:  Ketevan Magalashvili

Photos by:  Irakli Shalamberidze 

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