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Africa’s youth: Getting beyond the stories of boom or gloom

Stephen Hunt
By Stephen Hunt

Research Manager at The Challenges Group. His work focuses on labour market inclusion, youth employment, entrepreneurship and enterprise development.

Posted on Thursday, 22 August 2019 10:45

A member of The National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) stamps ballot papers during Nigeria's governorship and state assembly election in Karu, Nigeria March 9, 2019. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

New ways of seeing young people in public and policy are urgently required.

Africa’s current youth employment challenge is dominated by axioms and narratives that frame it as either a problem or an opportunity. They are not helping.

Hopefully, by shedding light on the evidence underpinning common youth narratives in the employment debate, donors and practitioners will avoid narratives that prop-up generalisations and false assumptions about young people.

Africa has the youngest population in the world; those under the age of 35 make up two-thirds of the continent’s population.

Alongside this, Africa also has some of the highest youth unemployment and underemployment rates in the world. Frequently, this is referred to as the “African youth employment challenge” (hereafter referred to simply as the “Challenge”).

The Challenge has become a key development agenda for donors and governments. However, an important but less considered issue is how young people are framed (or narrated) within policy.

In public policy, the way a problem is talked about publicly or framed politically, influences the responses designed to address it. Presented with addressing Africa’s youth unemployment, it is essential to seek a better understanding of youth narratives and then to question if they are either appropriate or if, in fact, are true of young people.

Youth policy narratives

In public policy, young people are defined frequently only by age, with definitions varying from 15-24, up to 35 years old. While this is a simple and useful categorisation, its generalisation means young people often remain undefined, and their group specifications are then defined by certain axioms of the times and geographies into which they fall.

The youth population bomb: gloom or goom?

The Challenge is predicated on the concerns of what governments and donors will do about Africa’s growing youth population and inherits the assumptions and claims of this discourse.

The most frequent policy portrayals of the youth can be considered as the crisis-opportunity conundrum. Here, the growing youth population (the youth bulge) is positioned on a time-sensitive pendulum that swings between either the prevention of a crisis  and/or the utilisation of an opportunity.

While there is reasoning behind each of these arguments, let’s make it clear, not all young people are a “crisis”, nor are all young people an “opportunity”. Many of the claims and narratives around the youth are frequently challenged, but a number of nuanced views are perpetuated that need dispelling.

Narrative one: Youth unemployment and violent conflict

This narrative is: if the youth do not have stability, this may lead to an increase of civil unrest, which increases risk of insecurity, economic instability, and even conflict.

Recently, large youth populations have been linked to the rise in civil unrest, such as in the Arab Spring or Uganda. Importantly, this narrative has sometimes linked youth unemployment with armed conflict and violence in Africa.

This may sound logical, but let’s be clear on the distinction between unrest and violent conflict. There is no direct empirical link between unemployment and violence.

Nonetheless, the securitisation of the youth remains a key trend in global policy, but policymakers and practitioners would do well to ensure youth employment interventions are planned within the proper contextualisation.

Narrative two: youth as an economic bounty

Viewing young people as an economic asset is easily the more altruistic narrative of the two. Much of the rise in the global youth employment debate comes down to the possibilities of harnessing the economic bounty of the youth demographic dividend.

However, narratives that the young population can produce a demographic dividend are frequently miss-sold in policy and do not fully account for the nature and speed of a country’s demographic transition.

As Louise Fox highlights here, to capitalise on a demographic dividend depends on the rate of demographic transition, and Africa’s transition is happening very slowly.

Many of the countries in Africa with high youth populations have not yet begun this transition. Rather than an economic bounty, the slow rate of transition is more likely to be a drag on economic growth.

Narrative three: youth as natural innovators and entrepreneurs

A recent narrative that has made its way into youth employment discourse is the youth innovation argument. Here, the youth employment challenge can be addressed through their innovativeness and entrepreneurialism, and that Africa’s youth have natural in-built innovativeness to unlock economic growth and development.

Undoubtedly, the continent is home to millions of bright and able young people. Many probably do have outstanding potential to foster future growth-oriented innovation. The truth of such narratives and arguments matter because it influences the way funding is allocated and informs the choices of development interventions.

A recent paper exploring this claim in donor policy, however, found very little evidence to substantiate this narrative and called for a drastic need for alternative framings and justifications for such investment. The paper suggests a rights-based approach might open up areas for innovation in addressing the youth employment challenge.

Narrative four: there is a youth employment challenge

Governments and donors dedicate resources focusing explicitly on addressing Africa’s youth employment challenge. Yet, while it might sound confusing, the idea that there is a youth employment challenge should not be accepted in policy as blindly as it currently is.

This narrative assumes youth experience a “specific” employment challenge separate or distinct from other “non-youths” (adults).

  • While the youth make up the largest share of the continents unemployed population, this does not mean the challenges to improving labour employment opportunities are different from the ones that can benefit adults.

For many African countries, unemployment is a structural issue and piling millions of dollars into youth-targeted entrepreneurship programmes probably isn’t the answer to the continent’s employment challenge.

A recent review of the youth employment challenge asked the specific question: “What is youth-specific about Africa’s employment challenge?” It concluded very little was, in fact, youth-specific. The youth employment challenge might not be youth-specific; rather it might simply be an employment challenge inherently dominated by young people.

  • Interventions to support youth employment, therefore, should focus on addressing structural barriers to employment, with targeted support for young people.

Bottom line: While getting young people on the the agenda of national governments, donors, and development practitioners is important, let us drop these quick fit narratives for more nuanced understandings of young people in policy and programmes.

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