Africa invests in Youth: But where are the African Youth?

Marc Sommers – The Outcast Majority: War, Development, and Youth in Africa (2015) 

The African Union has designated 2017 its Year for Exploiting the Demographic Dividend through Investment in Youth. As UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres noted in his remarks to the AU, implicit in this emphasis on youth and development is the fear that failure to invest in this segment of the population will result in disillusionment and a vulnerability to radicalization.

Between optimism over “demographic dividends” and worries about the “youth bulge”, opinions of the African youth seem to swing between objectification and securitization. To be sure, there is statistical basis for this focus on youth; while the range of ages covered by that term can vary widely between sources, Africa is demographically the youngest continent in the world, and in some countries that have recently emerged from conflict, as much as 50% of the population is under the age of 30. These youth can be a resource for development, but failing that, they become a growing threat to peace and order – or so the narrative goes.

In The Outcast Majority, Marc Sommers emphasizes the sociological dimensions of “youth” over its demographic definition. Sommers notes that the “asset or threat” narrative is a creation of governments and international development agencies. Conspicuously absent from it are the ideas and perceptions of youth themselves – an omission that he considers emblematic of the central problem of youth: a lack of recognition as legitimate political actors.

It is to this oversight that Sommers applies himself, exploring its causes and consequences, and proposing how it might be corrected. His ability to build a convincing case for revisiting the prevailing narrative rests in no small part on a remarkable measure of self-discipline: the book is an object lesson in recognising the agency of youth. In presenting the experiences and self-protection strategies of his young interlocutors, Sommers repeatedly establishes that they are actors making strategic choices in difficult and constrained contexts. Understanding and respecting their priorities and incentive structures, he suggests, might enable a more effective and enlightened set of policies and development programming.

The two concepts that define “youth”, for Sommers, are liminality and exclusion. Sociologically, youth is a temporary and “in-between” space, occupied by children in the process of transitioning to adulthood. It is thus a time of striving – a period of seeking to be recognized as an adult per the norms of one’s society, which typically involve economic productivity, marriage, and the bearing of children. Yet the reality of post-conflict states in sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, is that these norms have become progressively unattainable. Youth are increasingly less likely to successfully transition to adulthood. Instead, they find themselves trapped in a situation Sommers, following Singerman and Honwana, describes as “waithood“: increasingly past the traditional age of “youth”, but with no prospects of becoming an “adult”.

Waithood comes with significant political consequences. Only adults have voice or agency in the community’s political life; the views of youth lack any comparable credence. From this stems the second characteristic of youth – the perception of exclusion. Sommers notes that being an “outsider” is a central element of youth identities, even for youth participating in youth-dominated spaces, such as militias. It is unsurprising if the displaced consider themselves “homeless”, but youth will describe themselves as such even after ostensibly having returned to their communities. The paradox (from which the title of the book is derived) is that “…while youth are demographically dominant, most see themselves as members of an outcast minority.”

A particular contribution of Sommers’ work is to draw attention to urban migration as a response to conflict by youth – one with significant but as-yet poorly studied consequences for government policies and international development or peacebuilding interventions intended to reach youth populations. As he documents, urban youth display considerable adaptability, developing new forms of social capital in and around their new communities. The urban space represents a potential rejection of traditional norms of adulthood, masculinity, and femininity. In every case Sommers studies, with the sole exception of Burundi, those are precisely the norms that made “waithood” indefinite. The liminal spaces – the slums, the militias, the scavenger communities – for all that they are illegal and often a site for violence of their own, still offer a chance for youth to shrug off those unattainable and arguably obsolete norms, and to establish a personality on terms of their own choosing or design.

Sommers’ work reviews and builds upon an extensive survey of social science research on patterns of violence and agency in conflict and post-conflict states: studies on shifting gender norms by Uvin in Burundi and Jok in South Sudan; Cohen, Green and Wood’s seminal work on variations in war-time sexual violence; Nordstrom on expectations of the future among survivors of violence; Hayner and Betancourt on different approaches to trauma among survivors and witnesses of violence; Mazurana and Wessels on patterns of domestic violence and women’s experiences in displaced, post-conflict, and poverty-affected communities; Barker and Ricardo’s studies demonstrating that the vast majority of youth do not participate in violence.

These are complex subjects, and Sommers navigates them with a self-aware and intersectional lens, conscientiously refusing to replicate the denial of agency he critiques in contemporary government and international development policy. He is particularly sharp in questioning the rationale for current training / capacity-building interventions. Development economists distinguish between the effect of such interventions on participants, and their effect on the broad social group writ large. Given the broader social context for the problems of youth is real and perceived exclusion, Sommers asks, “…are programs for finite numbers of youth even appropriate, since only a tiny fraction of people in need benefit, and many more may feel – yet again – left out?”

Nicholas van de Walle once wrote of the state of African politics: “the longevity in power by so many corrupt and incompetent regimes despite an absolutely disastrous economic record must stand out as the truly most remarkable characteristic of Africa’s recent political history.” In providing rich insights into the barriers to youth political participation, Sommers provides a partial explanation for this phenomenon: the demographic majority remain – most of all in their own minds – an outcast minority. This book suggests that template-driven policies lack nuance, replicate this exclusion, and will be “ineffective and inefficient” – likely failing to bring about either economic or democratic development. Only by systematically identifying, including, listening and responding to youth voices themselves will investments in youth yield the anticipated dividend.

Ameya Naik

Ameya Naik

Contributing Editor at InPRA
Ameya Naik is a researcher on peace operations team at the International Peace Institute in New York. Ameya has extensive experience as an analyst, writer, and editor, including as a Harvard Program on Negotiation Fellow, a Tufts Institute for Global Leadership Martel Scholar, and a Takshashila Research Scholar. His research examines the intersection of conflict, governance, and development, with a particular focus on UN peacekeeping and rule of law in fragile states. He also writes on conflict sensitivity, systems analysis, and education for conflict-affected and displaced children. Ameya is a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, where he received a dual MA/LLM, with a Certificate in Diplomatic Studies; he also holds degrees in psychology and law from Mumbai University.
Ameya Naik