Guided by the assumption that young people are more peaceful when employed, the increased investment by the international development community in programmes supporting youth employment and livelihoods is no surprise. Interventions have themselves become instruments aimed to uphold political stability: keeping the youth in place by keeping them busy. It is surprising, however, that most of these interventions pay little, if any, attention to the political dimensions of their work. As I show in a new report, ‘Navigating the politics of informal work’, the world of work is a complicated political microcosm which young people must navigate in order to pursue livelihood opportunities.
Crisis of jobs or crisis of politics?
Unemployment among young people (primarily young men) was linked to insecurity in the 2011 World Development Report on Conflict, Violence and Development. Prior to this, others had suggested a positive correlation between “youth bulges” and instability. This purported relationship was used to support the argument that high numbers of unemployed, disaffected youth join insurgent movements or descend into crime.
However, there is actually still far too little evidence to support such claims (pdf) – and there are also countries with large young populations which are politically stable – it still underpins many of today’s youth livelihoods interventions. The UN Peacebuilding Fund, for instance, has funded various youth livelihood programmes in (post)conflict and volatile settings, partly to address economic grievances and partly based on the assumption that employed young people are more likely to be peaceful citizens.
These interventions rarely consider the politics of the contexts within which they are implemented, which is especially problematic in places where political actors like politicians and political parties dominate (some sectors of) the economy, sometimes using violence and coercion to keep control of business interests and trade routes. Here, saving and loan products, and financial skills are simply not enough to support young people to find work that is decent, properly-paid, and safe.
Youth navigating the politics of work in Zimbabwe
In Zimbabwe, for example, politicians and party leaders effectively act as gate keepers to job opportunities, including those in the informal economy. When the local branch of the ruling party holds party meetings, local shop keepers need to close for the day to avoid being singled out as ‘opposition’. One prominent politician who owns various shops in the town centre allegedly had a strong hand in inciting the 2008 election violence, while a politician from a different party owns a large farm where young people can find seasonal work. Tensions between political parties and their various factions are played out in the local economy. For example, a shop keeper found a note saying ‘Gamatox’ pinned on his shop door: the nickname for a faction in the ruling party that competes with a split-off faction that recently formed a party of its own. This all goes to highlight how politicised a local economy can be.
How do young people in need of work respond? The majority has few options, and must navigate a landscape of shifting gatekeepers, channels and obstructions. They may hope to get (temporary) work without being drawn into politics, for instance by either acting as neutral as possible, or feigning loyalty to the same party as a potential employer or administrator responsible for issuing a business licence. Some youth ‘go with the wind’ (a shona proverb) and swing party membership whenever they see opportunities.
What becomes strikingly clear after a while in Zimbabwe is that most young men and women do not actually want to be so involved in political parties. They know very well that the party leadership takes care of themselves and their own but many are not prepared to go into the inner circle of local party structures. And interestingly, the more vibrant businesses who were not linked to a party, were often headed by entrepreneurs who maintained wide social networks. These networks – including church groups and other ‘independent’ businesses – allowed them to reduce their need for party patronage.
Livelihood interventions strengthening political savyness?
Young people living in violent places may well have serious economic grievances. But in their everyday pursuit of better livelihoods, the majority is trying to stay out of trouble and navigate the challenges of politics created by the political leaders. Knowing more about these politics, and the political skills young people have acquired to navigate them – what does this mean for youth livelihood interventions? As the recent blog on youth innovation suggested, these generally do not tackle the deep-rooted, structural issues that cause economic deprivation, and the politics governing the allocation of work opportunities and capital.
Can those programmes that work directly with youth possibly incorporate ‘political savvyness’ in their skills training? Can they strengthen social networking skills for mutual support, rather than profit? Can they adopt ‘citizen life skill training’ like leadership and democratic decision-making? And, as young people cannot be expected to solve deep-rooted political issues on their own, surely interventions that directly target democratic processes remain equally important? This may all be too far removed from the approaches that see young people as individual, economic agents – but the reality may be that we need strategies that recognise young people as political agents as well.
At the IDS50 anniversary conference, the panel on youth and employment brings together speakers that will highlight the social and political dimensions of youth employment. In the run-up to the conference, the IDS youth research group is publishing a number of related think-pieces and reports.