Youth as the newest development target group

Published on 3 November 2016

James Sumberg

Emeritus Fellow

Over recent years, youth (or young people) has emerged as a new, high priority target group. Particularly in Africa, there is near consensus among policymakers and development professionals that the combination of agriculture and entrepreneurship is the key to addressing the youth employment challenge.

The notion of targeting is central to development policy and practice, as is the proposition that good (or better) targeting is essential if development interventions are to be both impactful and cost effective. Target groups are commonly identified by a combination of spatial (i.e. rural or urban) and social (i.e. poor women, youth or the disabled) identifiers. Thus, “the objective of this policy (or project) is empower poor rural women by providing them with access to microcredit…”

An important assumption that underpins this approach to targeting is that the grouping “poor rural women” is meaningful; that society can be sliced and diced into multiple potential target groups, and the challenges facing any one group can be addressed with little if any reference to the other groups.

Youth as a distinct target group

The identification of a new target group is quickly followed by proposals for specific interventions and there are now proposals and projects for youth-specific interventions in agriculture, including, for example, increasing young people’s access to land, financial services, agricultural technology and information, and improving their technical, market and entrepreneurial skills.

Is the emergence of youth as a distinct target group, and the proliferation of youth-specific agricultural interventions in Africa, to be lauded? A new report published by IDS for Alliance2015 examines the logic upon which these initiatives are based and the degree to which this logic is supported by evidence.

“Four chains of explanation”

The report’s analysis is organised around four “chains of explanation”, with each chain addressing the question: Why are rural young people in Africa turning away from agriculture? Broadly, two of these chains focus on structural issues within the agricultural sector and agrarian economy (i.e. farm productivity and access to land); another focuses on the interplay between education and aspirations; and the last on young people’s awareness (or otherwise) of the opportunities offered to them through agriculture.

An initial finding is that the available evidence provides no clear answer to the question of whether an increasing proportion of African young people are turning away from agriculture. While some studies point in this direction, with continued growth of Africa’s rural populations, even a real decline in the percentage of young people working in agriculture could still mean an increase in the absolute number of young people who are living in rural areas and are dependent to some degree on farming or livestock production.

In relation to the chains of explanation, we find that for a number of countries and contexts, some important elements of the first three chains are reasonably well supported by the available research evidence. These include: low investment in agricultural research, limited use of modern agricultural technology, low farm productivity, constrained access to land, increasing primary education and a limited interest in agriculture on the part of young people. Little evidence was found in relation to the last chain – i.e. that young people are not sufficiently aware of the economic opportunities offered through agriculture. These findings have critically important implications for governments and development organisations who seek to address the youth employment challenge through agriculture.

Appropriateness of youth as a target group

Perhaps more importantly, there are questions about the appropriateness both of youth as a target group and of youth-specific interventions in agriculture and rural development.

  1. It makes little sense to conceive of young people simply as independent economic actors when they are, for the most part, deeply embedded in networks of family and social relations. These networks both enable and constrain, but targeting and intervention strategies that ignore them fly in the face of the central tenets of modern sociology and youth studies.
  2. The report prompts further consideration of the extent to which agrarian structural issues have effects on youth that are different from their effects on other social groups. So, in a specific rural area, ‘is there a general problem with credit (or land or technology) availability, a problem that is experienced across many social groups including young people?’, or ‘is there a youth-specific problem?’ If it is the former, then youth-specific interventions, which by their nature do not address underlying structural issues, cannot be justified.

The take home message from this report is simple enough: if there is an appetite to address the youth and employment challenge in Africa, and agriculture is to be part of the solution, then it is crucial that young people are approached as fully embedded social actors, and that the degree of youth-specificity of the problems being addressed is determined at the outset.


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