Youth in Africa: Resistance and Transformation

By Laura Mann

On 15 May, Pritish Behuria and I hosted a workshop on one of the key developmental issues facing African countries: growing youth populations. Although some view this on-going growth as a boon for African business in a global context of shrinking labour forces and consumer markets, others have been more cautious, pointing out that many African countries do not have productive ‘youth bulges’ (in which the working age population is larger than dependents) but rather growing dependency ratios (in which children out-number working adults). These more cautious observers claim demographic transitions have stalled in many African countries and even in countries where the birth-rate has fallen and a youth bulge is emerging, there are simply not enough formal jobs for the youth.

A ‘demographic dividend’ depends both on a youth bulge and on productive economic activities that make developmental use of that bulge. Much of the recent economic boom within African countries has been resource-intensive and “jobless”. So if African societies are going to turn their growing youth populations into assets rather than liabilities, what then is to be done? To answer this question, we welcomed over 60 academics, students, business people and developmental practitioners to discuss the challenge that Africans societies face in reimagining their economies and social policies in light of this demographic pressure. I will set out what I think were the two most important insights of the day:

First, one of the recurring themes of the day was the idea that development itself is destabilising, a theme that is really brought to the foreground when we start talking about changing population structures.

As Tim Dyson and Kate Meagher reminded us in the opening panel, changes in the population structure can fundamentally disrupt social order. Growing or slowing populations dislocates society and forces it to reimagine and restructure its economies and social policies. This attention to demography reveals the dynamism of development for rich and poor countries alike. ‘Development’ is not something a society passes through; it never ends. Development creates social change, social change creates social dislocation, and in turn social dislocation warrants social response and political recalibration. In other words, both lack of development and development itself can put pressure on society.

For example, Portia Roelofs talked about ‘development as demolition’ in Oyo State, Nigeria. To upgrade markets and make way for development infrastructure and real estate, traders are being forced to relocate to the city’s margins where new formal stalls and marketplaces have been built. Business is slow in these new markets and traders struggle to make profits yet they are still being convinced to move. A moral economy of expropriation has emerged in which the government labels those that accept this demolition-led development as ‘enlightened citizens’ who understand the ‘sacrifice’ necessary in the here and now while those that resist are deemed deviant or disruptive, as ‘bad youth’ holding back the country’s future. The youth themselves try to subvert this discourse by insisting that they are part of the rising tide of formality, carefully sweeping the pathways in front of their stalls and keeping a safe distance from the road. Eyob Gebremariam similarly discussed how the Ethiopian government has claimed that recent protests are being driven by the country’s growth; patience is required while the government adjusts itself and tries to find solutions. His work focuses on the evolution of the government’s youth policies over time. Across African countries, the ‘youth’ have been identified as a threatening social group although as Eyob and others point out, the youth is not a single coherent category. I was really struck by his claim that the Ethiopian government has admitted the slow pace and limitations of growth and that growth itself, rather than lack of growth is responsible for frustrations among the youth.

While this kind of political rhetoric indicates a sensitivity to what development really involves, it also opens the door to anti-developmental political mobilisations as people feel they do not benefit from the cherished growth promised and promoted by their political leaders. This possibility forces us to think about the temporality and unevenness of development. If development only exists in a distant future or for other groups, populism and political violence can emerge in the here and now. Development therefore does not only entail growth but the articulation of social responses to manage the unevenness and pace of that growth. This social response may take the form of innovations in social policy and/or corporatist social contracts, but as Karl Polanyi warns such ‘social protection’ may also take deadly form. ‘Development’ is a rocky sea upon which societies struggle to keep afloat.

Adam Branch provided a fascinating lens to examine this rocky sea, focusing on recent Uganda protest movements such as the 2011 Walk to Work protest. Due to the difficulties that opposition parties face in uniting disparate constituencies of urban poor, urban middle classes and rural poor, the democratic system has struggled to translate frustrations about development into more inclusive policies. In such a political context, a developmental model has emerged that is not based on a stable working class and productive relations between capitalists and workers but rather on a form of securitized urbanism in which elites are physically separated from the poor. Both security services and NGOs help discipline and regulate their behaviour so as to maintain the status quo. Instead of seeing violence as outside of development and as politics as something ‘issue-less’ or merely ‘patrimonial’, Branch suggests that we should see these frustrations and the repressions they provoke as part of development, as particularly messy attempts by opposition groups to upset that status quo and as attempts by the state elites to ‘protect’ their growth from the destabilisation wreaked in its path (for more details, see his new book).  

Simply put, while we tend to think of social conflict as responses to lack of growth or economic activity, what we might actually be witnessing are reactions to forms of growth deemed morally reprehensible or corrupt. This moral ambiguity was addressed by other speakers as well. Eschewing simple narratives about youth unemployment and violence, both Luisa Enria and Akin Iwilade described the context in which violence can emerge from youth employment/unemployment. Luisa Enria repeated the words of one of her respondent’s: “As long as we face embarrassment, it is not a job.” Rather than the labour market being a clearinghouse for the supply and demand of labour, Enria frames the labour market as a social site imbued with meaning, identity and social networks. Young people come into contact with politics not as members of a ‘youth category’ but as members of particular occupational categories and social groups with different ideas about what constitutes dignified and undignified work. Similarly Akin Iwilade describes contexts in which labouring can become both subversive and complicit: when legal work is unimaginable, crime can become employment and ‘legal’ employment, crime. At their best, the youth involved in oil patronage in Niger Delta see themselves as businesspeople and entrepreneurs, and at worst, they are freedom fights subverting an oppressive social order. Development is therefore not understood as the mere presence or absence of growth (or even its distributions across social categories) but as reflecting power struggles over who gets to determine what is legitimate and what is crime. 

In all three cases of Uganda, Sierra Leona and Nigeria, developmental frustrations did not find voice in formal political structures or parties but rather in forms of political violence and subversion. Such research reveals one of the key weaknesses of the liberal imagination that emerged in the 1990s. While proponents of political and economic liberalisation believed that elections would naturally translate into better economic policies as parties would have to compete for votes, what African countries have instead inherited are societies struggling to voice their political frustrations through formal structures and states struggling to contain those frustrations in liberal ways.  

The popular response to youth unemployment has often been job creation programmes, particularly in post-conflict environments such as Sierra Leone or Niger Delta. Yet panellists discussed the lack of imagination surrounding these programs as well as the disjuncture between self-employment strategies, youth aspirations and national growth strategies. After all how many hair-dressers or taxi drivers can one economy absorb and does such work take people ‘off the streets’ and out of social contexts in which they experience ‘embarrassment’?

This brings us to the second key insight of the day: that we need to connect youth employment programmes into broader strategies of economic transformation.

Emma Murphy discussed some of the results of her project, POWER2YOUTH, which sought to explore the dynamics of youth exclusion and inclusion in North Africa and the Middle East. Moses Oketch similarly discussed his research into TVET programmes in African countries. They spoke of how a ‘supply side myth’ had emanated from within the European Union and spread into other regions of the world through ‘active labour market programmes’. These initiatives imagine that the problem is one of skills mismatch or lack of skills and that if young people simply acquire the ‘right skills,’ then they will become developmental assets for their countries, helping to drive innovation and economic upgrading. Yet this myth is premised on a ‘free market’ vision of development in which private firms willingly absorb those skills and upgrade into (riskier) higher value activities. In this view, there is no need to examine the ‘demand for labour’ because the private sector will sort it out on its own.

However, we have pretty conclusive evidence that the highest unemployment rates are among graduates of university and training colleges. From my own doctoral work on higher education expansion in Sudan, expanding educational opportunities in the 1990s (in which Sudan went from having three public universities to twenty seven) did not result in a more dynamic and more highly skilled economic activities but rather in higher levels of graduate unemployment and intense frustrations among the youth. We really can’t keep believing that training young people is automatically going to result in economic upgrading and innovation. Rather we have to confront the unwillingness of private firms to engage in the kinds of (risky) economic activities that would require and use those skills. If we fail to do so, we are in effect asking the youth to live in a surreal ‘as if’ world in which their new skills are in demand when they are not.

While both business school practitioners and heterodox development economists believe the private sector plays an extremely key role in development, these two groups conceptualise the private sector very differently. While one speaks of entrepreneurs and their dispositions for risk-taking and hard-work, the other speaks of capitalists and their strategies of accumulation and political influence. As Thandika Mkandawire highlighted in his keynote speech, over the past three decades or so, the word ‘entrepreneurship’ has come to be universally favoured while the word ‘capitalism’ is seldom spoken out loud. Is it mere semantics or does the ascendency of ‘entrepreneurship’ over ‘capitalism’ reveal something more profound about the imaginative space in which development debates exist?

Catherine Dolan’s presentation helpfully described the history of Kenyan developmental discourse, recounting the continuities and change over time. The colonial state saw Kenyans primarily as labourers that needed to be trained and dislocated from their social networks. Policies sought to create stable ‘civilised’ working classes with new ‘dispositions’ and new habits. Education was vocational, rather than academic or professional for colonial officers felt Kenyans lacked ‘the flexibility of mind’ to become businesspeople. Upon independence, the discourse changed dramatically as the context was not one of labour shortage but of labour surplus. Kenya now needed businessmen to grow the economy, redress the racist colonial policies and help create jobs for its labour. This was the era of state-led growth with Kenyan capitalists positioned as the midwives of development. Over time, due to liberalisation in the 1980s and the more recent inclusive market paradigm, the figure of the capitalist has slowly faded and the entrepreneurial petty trader has emerged in its place. Entrepreneurship is no longer seen as a class category or as a group that acts in concert with larger economic plans but rather as striving individuals possessing talents and special dispositions.

Yet in Marco Di Nunzio’s presentation, Why don’t hustlers become businesspeople? he made it clear that being an entrepreneur is anything but an individual endeavour. Hustlers often fail to become businesspeople because they lack the resources and social connections to turn their ‘street trust’ into ‘shop trust’. Becoming an entrepreneur requires hanging out with other entrepreneurs and moving in such circles requires money and connections. These are important insights when we think about contemporary processes of formalisation, be it the cannabis sector in rich countries or informal transport systems in poor countries. Formalisation changes the parameters of who can take part in business. The myth of the self-made man (or woman) minimises stories about useful connections while the language of entrepreneurship disguises the need for broader strategies of economic development.

We invited an entrepreneur/capitalist to speak at the workshop. Perez Ochieng shared her experiences of running a successful business, SACOMA. Her firm aims to capture more value from basic crops like sweet potato by working with universities on innovation into storage, production/recipes and branding. She is frustrated that so many of her fellow Kenyans spend time chasing development funds rather than building successful businesses. To her, entrepreneurship  should be placed at the forefront of developmental efforts. Yet her firm is currently working with UK based universities on upgrading. This arrangement means that much of the upgrading strategy is being captured by UK actors and workers, not Kenyans. In future, she wants to work more with Kenyan universities yet this requires broader strategies and support networks.

One of the striking aspects of her talk was her discussion about the importance of these helpful networks and institutions within British universities and the British government in helping to propel her business forward. Her experience demonstrates the importance of situating discussions of entrepreneurial-led growth within broader economic plans that coordinate efforts between private firms, universities and government departments. Thandika’s comments about capitalism moved her to wonder if she herself was a capitalist or entrepreneur and what that meant for Kenyan development.

Our last panel of the day addresses some of these bigger issues by looking at youth employment in different sectors of the economy: Cathy Boone discussing the position of youth in agriculture, Tom Goodfellow and Pritish Behuria discussing the Rwandan government’s strategy to boost employment in services and Roy Macconachie discussing the slow (and somewhat unintentional) diversification of the Sierra Leonean economy. In all three presentations, there was a sense that we have to shift our attention away from thinking about ‘supply side’ programs towards an approach that examines the interplay between skills and broader economic strategies to absorb those skills.

Thinking about capitalism (as opposed to entrepreneurship) focuses our attention back on relationships between capitalists, states and labour and on strategies to diversify and structurally transform economies. Job creation programs that focus merely on training or on self-employment among the youth close down this imaginative space and individualise the structural failure of neo-liberalism on the African continent. And until we see economic development as a holistic process in which development itself can create social dislocations, and we are honest about the distribution of those benefits and harms across society, we will not be able to manage the demographic and economic pressures facing African societies.   

Laura Mann is a member of ROAPE’s Editorial Working Group and a sociologist whose research focuses on the political economy of markets and new information and communication technologies in Africa. She is Assistant Professor in the Department of International Development at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Featured Photograph: South African students celebrating after examinations, 2016.


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