Youth employment remains high on the international development agenda with governments and international development actors willing to invest heavily in skills-building interventions for youth. Yet, as many of these interventions are similar in design, what happens if these interventions get implemented across very different political contexts? A collaborative research project between IDS and the Chr. Michelsen Institute will investigate how youth-focused interventions pan out in countries where they are at risk of becoming entangled in patronage politics.
Building skills and then what?
There are multiple challenges in relation to youth employment interventions (pdf), the most important being that while they might build skills they could still fail to create large numbers of new jobs. Leaving many young people skilled up, with nowhere to work. Considering this, many donors are now aware of the high costs and limited effectiveness of skills-building and entrepreneurship interventions. However, they are still searching for alternative approaches.
Yet, if you take into account this challenge, and include a highly sensitive political context, it can become even harder to design interventions that do not (albeit unintentionally) create precarious and vulnerable situations. The project ‘Youth employment and representation in Africa’ funded by NorGlobal (Norway) is investigating another challenge for youth interventions in Africa: the risk they can be used as a political tool to bind youth in patronage relationships, e.g. when the ruling party channels funding to supporters and/or demand youth to participate in party activities in exchange for receiving funds. This comes with the related risk of exposure to violence mobilisation by party and/or regime actors, while excluding others from access to resources and power.
This research programme focuses on urban youth in four countries: Uganda, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. In each of these countries, governments have their roots in liberation struggles, which is also their claim to holding on to power. Only in Ethiopia, recent developments might suggest a regime is rejuvenating, but the other three regimes remain firmly gerontocratic, while worried about large and disgruntled youth populations, especially in cities.
The politics of youth-focused interventions in Zimbabwe
Faced with large youth populations, regimes appear to adopt both carrots and sticks: repression of urban protests and youth interventions to appease the youth. The paper on youth-centred interventions in Zimbabwe analyses the politics of these interventions over time. It clearly shows how youth employment funds are used as a political tool for tying the young generation to the ruling party. Government funds have systematically been channelled to party-affiliated youth and youth organisations. In addition, the ruling party’s youth league functions as the learning school for the next generation to access power and patronage, and public discourses of party leaders clearly signal who is a good and patriotic citizen and who is not.
The analysis for Ethiopia, Uganda and Mozambique shows similar trends (papers coming soon). Knowing that especially urban youth might be an oppositional force, the manipulation of youth interventions is part of the strategies through which regimes like these can stay in power, in combination with other, better-known strategies like election rigging and repression.
The question for international donors
However, despite the good intentions, when many multilateral and bilateral donor agencies provide funding to such government-led interventions they can be used to reproduce undemocratic practices and – at worst – maintain and consolidate rather undemocratic regimes. Current donor-funded interventions show limited attention to understanding the politics of youth interventions, or to come up with strategies that mitigate the risk that precious funds get channelled the wrong way. Preoccupied with the more economic side of the story, questions like which sector or value chain is likely to promote job creation, which technology can promote youth entrepreneurship etc., the political economy of the youth employment issue gets overlooked. Yet this is ever so important in all fragile settings.
At a recent inception workshop of the project in London, representatives from civil society and policy engaged with the questions and policy objectives of the project. The input we received was hugely valuable and will inform the next phase of the project: qualitative research in all four countries.
Participants stressed the need to understand the politics of youth interventions from a gender perspective: do governments target male and female youth in the same way, and how do they respond to opportunities offered by regime actors? We will also find ways to involve young people themselves in the in-country workshops, inviting them to present their perspectives. Participants and research teams agreed that a focus on youth agency is highly important as many young people are likely to negotiate such interventions and do not just buy into patronage.