Africa’s structural challenges can’t be solved by “youth innovation”

17 June 2016

Discussions around young people in Africa often hold them to be particularly innovative. The hope is that the next generation, if supported properly, will solve the continent’s problems through innovation and entrepreneurship. Ideally, such claims, which play an important part in policy, should be supported by solid evidence.

Maker Faire Africa

Within the increasingly frenetic discourse around the youth employment challenge in sub-Saharan Africa, it is commonly stated that young people are innovative, and in some respects, more innovative than older people. These claims are critically important because they set the stage for, and justify, a strong focus on youth entrepreneurship and associated visions of young people “driving” economic transformation in vital sectors like smallholder agriculture.

For instance, a 2014 United Nations Economic Commission for Africa report states that: "To successfully realize the African transformation agenda, governments will have to capitalize on the potential of Africa’s youth. Growing up in an increasingly free and fair continent, the young people of Africa are dynamic, forward-looking and best positioned to find innovative solutions to local challenges through the use of science and technology" (p1).

Similarly, AGRA’s Africa Agriculture Status Report 2015 states that Africa’s young people "are dynamic, enthusiastic, resourceful, creative, innovative and adventurous" (p.16) and that “More so than older farmers, young producers and agripreneurs use ICTs in innovative ways to connect to markets directly, cut out exploitative middlemen, erase the barriers of distance, make transactions and logistics easier, obtain the best market prices, and increase their profitability” (p.128).

One would hope that claims that appear to play such an important part in policy and programming would be supported by research-derived evidence. Perhaps you can already see where this is going.

How do we know if young people are more innovative than older people? 

But before we get to the evidence question it is useful to pause and reflect. How might we understand the claim that young people are more innovative than older people (without getting drawn into long-running debates about how best to define youth)? 

The suggestion could be broken down into the following assumptions: 

  • All young people, by virtue of being young, are more innovative than all older people 
  • Young people are, on average, more innovative than older people (or than a specific group of older people)
  • Everything else being equal, a younger person can be expected to be more innovative than an older person.

Each of these assumptions poses particular conceptual and methodological challenges, such as: How are the age categories defined? How is innovation defined? How can the social differences like gender, class, education, etc., be accounted for? How is intra-group variation in innovativeness dealt with? What are the implications of differential access to the resources that allow or enable innovation?

Let’s now turn to the evidence that might be cited to support the claims (we emphasise “might” because we know of no cases in the sub-Saharan African youth and employment literature in which strong evidence is actually cited). 

There are indeed several well established, and largely northern literatures that address age-related differences in behaviours that might plausibly be linked to innovation. These literatures cover innovative behaviour in a range of academic and formal employment settings; they also address age-related differences in, for example, patterns of engagement with new computer and communications technology. 

However, a recent review (pdf) of meta-analyses and studies on the subject found no strong or consistent relationships between age and innovation. The review concluded that the idea that younger people are more innovative than older people is based on particularly prevalent stereotypes, and that these “seem to be remarkably resilient despite empirical data to the contrary” (p.119).

Further, we know of no research from sub-Saharan Africa that directly or indirectly supports the claim that young people are more innovative than older people. Why is this important? The essentialisation of young Africans as innovators may reflect a desperate hope among policymakers that Africa’s economic problems, including that of integrating young people into the economy, can be solved by liberating the innate innovator and entrepreneur in every young person. This is of course completely unrealistic as it looks to young people to solve structural problems – from unfair terms of trade to corrupt governments – that are neither of their own making nor within the reach of even the most astonishing innovations.

We suggest that the centrality of the claim that youth and innovation are tightly linked reflects how dominant ways of thinking have painted development policy into a very tight corner. For example, these ways of thinking have framed investment in gender equality as “smart economics” because it can enhance economic productivity. Similarly, it is not enough that young people are young, or citizens, or facing an array of new challenges in building their livelihoods – no, they must also be good for economic growth (via the links with innovation and entrepreneurship).

This logic is embedded in much youth policy in the way that it first incorporates essentialist thinking, such as “young people are more innovative than older people”, and then uses this to support instrumentalist action, for example  “provide training and access to finance so that young people create jobs and make the economy more dynamic”. However, countless examples can be found in the literature of programmes in Africa which have assumed certain entrepreneurial traits about young people and tried to instrumentally fit young people into policy priorities. These have neglected to build up young people's capabilities, have led to the failure of many entrepreneurial ventures, and have even led to social clashes, such as in Lusaka's informal markets.

Essentialisms are never a basis for good policy and programming, and instrumentalist approaches to young people are little more than a recipe for policy failure. Young people deserve better. Why? Because they are young, and because they are people.

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