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Abstract

It is widely assumed that most Africans reside in rural areas, that African cities make little economic sense and are unusually violent because so many unemployed young men live there, and that urban migrant youth can be drawn back to their former rural homes. This paper challenges all of these assumptions. In the process, it reviews dominant trends in Africa's rapid urban expansion and examines what life is like for urban youth. I will argue that African cities are underserved and fiercely competitive economic environments that are negatively impacted by neoliberal development policies. Urban youth life tends to take place in worlds that are largely separate from the rest of society. The pressures and dangers facing male and female youth can be extreme, yet at the same time African cities are exceptionally stimulating places that provide opportunities for re-invention for many urban youth. The paper ends with recommendations for addressing the needs of the marginalized majority of Africa's urban youth more effectively. Its primary focus is urban areas in the region of sub-Saharan Africa.
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Environment & Urbanization Copyright © 2010 International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).
Vol 22(2): 317–332. DOI: 10.1177/0956247810377964 www.sagepublications.com
Urban youth in Africa
MARC SOMMERS
ABSTRACT It is widely assumed that most Africans reside in rural areas, that
African cities make little economic sense and are unusually violent because so
many unemployed young men live there, and that urban migrant youth can
be drawn back to their former rural homes. This paper challenges all of these
assumptions. In the process, it reviews dominant trends in Africa’s rapid urban
expansion and examines what life is like for urban youth. I will argue that
African cities are underserved and fiercely competitive economic environments
that are negatively impacted by neoliberal development policies. Urban youth
life tends to take place in worlds that are largely separate from the rest of society.
The pressures and dangers facing male and female youth can be extreme, yet at
the same time African cities are exceptionally stimulating places that provide
opportunities for re-invention for many urban youth. The paper ends with
recommendations for addressing the needs of the marginalized majority of
Africa’s urban youth more effectively. Its primary focus is urban areas in the
region of sub-Saharan Africa.
KEYWORDS Africa / conflict / employment / exclusion / gender / neoliberal /
urban / youth
I. INTRODUCTION
African cities have perplexed and dismayed many visitors and scholars.
Simone claims that African cities “…don’t work” and that for many urban
residents “…life is reduced to a state of emergency.”(1) Ritner, writing at the
dawn of the independence era, stated that African cities “…work, but they
work for decay instead of growth.”(2) Hope contends that African cities make
no sense in economic terms, as they are more urbanized than their level
of economic development would justify.(3) El-Kenz sees these cities as “…
cruel” and offering a “…disconcerting anonymity.(4) Kaplan describes West
African cities as “…high density concentrations of human beings who have
been divested of certain stabilizing cultural models, with no strong governmental
institutions or communities to compensate for the loss.”(5)
Many observers comment in particular on urban youth. Kaplan
describes the large numbers of out of school unemployed male youth
as “…loose molecules in an unstable social fluid that threatened to ignite.”(6)
Shoumatoff writes of “…detribalized young men, lost souls wandering in the
vast space between the traditional and the modern worlds howling in the
streets of downtown Nairobi in the middle of the night.”(7) El-Kenz notes their
Dr Marc Sommers is a
Jennings Randolph Senior
Fellow at the United States
Institute of Peace; he is
also a Research Fellow at
Boston University’s African
Studies Centre and a
consultant who regularly
works on youth concerns.
Address: African Studies
Centre, Boston University,
232 Bay State Road, Boston,
MA 02215, USA; e-mail:
msommers@bu.edu
Acknowledgement: This
paper is a significantly
revised and updated version
of a longer document
produced for the United
Nations Children’s Fund
(UNICEF) entitled Africa’s
Young Urbanites: Challenging
Realities in a Changing
Region. It has been edited for
inclusion here with UNICEF’s
permission. I would like to
thank UNICEF, particularly
Mima Perisic, Victor P
Karunan, Naseem Awl and
Kimberly Gamble-Payne,
and acknowledge at the
same time that the views
expressed in this paper
are solely mine and do not
reflect UNICEF’s positions.
I also owe thanks and
appreciation to Regina T
Wilson for contributing
significantly to the document
research for this publication.
Ms Wilson received her
Master of Arts in Law and
Diplomacy from The Fletcher
School, Tufts University, and
is currently a consultant at
the World Bank, working
on conflict and governance
issues in the Africa region.
E N VI R O N ME N T & U R B AN I Z A T I ON Vol 22 No 2 October 2010
318
“…anger, a sense of hurt, and revolt…” and surmises that: “It is a small step
from the culture of violence to its actual practice.”(8)
Given these collective views, it is small wonder that many
international agencies focus their attention on Africa’s villages instead of
its cities. Yet there is an irony in this broad institutional tendency: while
investments flow largely into rural Africa, ever more of its residents are
heading to the cities. Most of these urban migrants are youth, and they
are the active agents of sub-Saharan Africa’s radical transformation from
a mainly rural to a predominantly urban region. African youth stand far
ahead of nearly all government and non-government institutions in their
urban orientation, and not just those living in cities and towns; in their
clothes, their interests, their slang, many if not most village youth are
leaning towards cities as well.
The authors cited above are linked by their limited interaction with the
very urban youth about whom they are so concerned. Field research with
African urban youth reveals that, while most urban youth in Africa are
certainly poor and many are struggling, their lives are not characterized by
enveloping disaster. Life in town is tough and sometimes threatening. But
cities are hardly “black holes”; they also provide youth with opportunities,
attractions and possible trajectories that are simply not available in rural
areas. Through youth’s eyes, the anonymity of city life is not a threat but
a resource: cities are places where they can throw off (or at least delay)
adulthood expectations and reinvent themselves. Surviving in cities is hardly
easy, but if you “make it” there’s a chance to assume a glow of success that
may be forever out of reach in home villages.
Understanding why youth are in cities and how they strive to
survive and hopefully succeed there is essential to engaging successfully
with them and providing them with effective support. It is also critical
to successful development in the region. Yet documentation on many
vital dimensions of sub-Saharan African urban life is thin,(9) and the
lack of data on urban youth in sub-Saharan Africa, and adolescents in
particular, is still more serious despite the fact that approximately one
in four Africans is between 10 and 19 years old.(10) The absence of data is
compounded by some prevailing assumptions that hinder the ability to
accurately grasp and appropriately respond to the rapid urbanization and
youthful demographics of Africa. These assumptions are that:
Africa is a rural-based continent;
African cities make little economic sense;
the dense concentrations of unemployed young men make African
cities unusually violent places; and
young urban migrants can be drawn back to their rural homes of
origin.
This paper challenges these assumptions, at the same time describing
some of the dominant trends and contours of Africa’s urbanization and
exploring what it’s like to be a young person between the ages of 10 and
24 in a big African city.
II. URBANIZATION AND URBAN TRENDS IN AFRICA
The urbanization of the world has been astoundingly rapid. In 1900, 13
per cent of all people lived in cities; by 1950, the proportion had increased
1. Simone, Abdou Maliq (2004a),
For the City Yet to Come:
Changing African Life in Four
Cities, Duke University Press,
Durham and London, pages 1
and 4.
2. Ritner, Peter (1960), The
Death of Africa, Macmillan,
New York, page 18.
3. Hope Sr, Kempe Ronald
(1998), “Urbanization and urban
growth in Africa”, Journal of
Asian and African Studies
Vol 33, No 4, pages 345–358,
page 356.
4. El-Kenz, Ali (1996), “Youth
and violence”, in Stephen Ellis
(editor), Africa Now: People,
Policies and Institutions,
James Currey, London, and
Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH,
page 16.
5. Kaplan, Robert D (1996), The
Ends of the Earth: A Journey at
the Dawn of the 21st Century,
Random House, New York,
page 29.
6. See reference 5, page 16.
7. Shoumatoff, Alex (1988),
African Madness, Alfred A
Knopf, New York, page xiv.
8. See reference 4, pages 54
and 55.
9. Myers, Garth Andrew (2005),
Disposable Cities: Garbage,
Governance and Sustainable
Development in Urban Africa,
Ashgate, Burlington, VT, and
Hampshire, UK, page 4.
10. Montgomery, Mark R,
Richard Stren, Barney Cohen
and Holly E Reed (editors)
(2003), Cities Transformed:
Demographic Change and its
Implications in the Developing
World, National Academies
Press, Washington DC,
page 247.
URBAN YOUTH IN AFRICA
319
to 29 per cent; in 2005, nearly half of all humans lived in urban areas
(49 per cent); and by 2030, it is estimated that 60 per cent of the world’s
population will reside in cities.(11) Sub-Saharan Africa, currently one of the least
urbanized regions in the world, is urbanizing faster than any other.(12) Caraël
and Glynn point out that “… urban populations of sub-Saharan Africa have
increased by 600 per cent in the last 35 years: a growth rate which has no
precedent in human history.”(13) By 2030, 51 per cent of Africans will live
in urban areas, and urbanization rates in East and Southern Africa have
led the world for almost 50 years.(14) Conflict-affected countries have
particularly strong urban growth rates(15) and increasing numbers of
refugees are shifting from camps and settlements to cities – even though
such movements are illegal.(16)
Most of the residents of Africa’s burgeoning cities live in slums,
lacking even rudimentary services. According to UNFPA:
“In sub-Saharan Africa, urbanization has become virtually synony-
mous with slum growth; 72 per cent of the region’s urban population
lives under slum conditions, compared to 56 per cent in South Asia.
The slum population of sub-Saharan Africa almost doubled in 15
years, reaching nearly 200 million in 2005.”(17)
Conditions can be dire. Packer, describing Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city,
communicates a strong sense of revulsion: “It’s hard to decide…” he
observes, “…if the extravagant ugliness of the cityscape is a sign of vigour or of
disease – a life force or an impending apocalypse.”(18) He concludes that “…
the human misery of Lagos not only overwhelms one’s senses and sympathy but
also seems irreversible.”(19)
Garth Myers takes a less visceral approach, arguing that African
governments, encouraged by multilateral institutions and donor
governments, have adopted neoliberal policies that have left a path of
ruin for most Africans. In his survey of Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar in
Tanzania, and Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, he finds that poverty has become
more widespread and that local governments have lost the capacity to
meet their responsibilities.
Whether one views the difficulties at an on the ground, sensory
level (like Packer, a journalist) or from the level of structure, policy and
process (like Myers, an academic), the result for Africa’s urban poor is
pretty much the same. Municipal governments may be weak, overrun and
even hapless for any number of reasons, and generally depend heavily
on some combination of donor and NGO ideas, monies and private
sector partnerships. Their coordination of such efforts ranges between
loose and non-existent. Public sector provision for basic necessities is, in
general, minimal and likely favour the wealthy. As Lubuva (a Tanzanian
government official) notes: “Urban local authorities have very little revenue
of their own, far less than what they would require to keep pace with the rate
of urbanization.”(20) Private sector economies are too often tiny, wracked
by corruption and nepotism, and provide economic opportunities merely
for the fortunate few. As a result, informality “…has become a vital facet
of African urban life in the sense that it is predominantly driven by informal
practices in such areas as work, housing, land use, transportation and a variety
of social services.”(21)
The situation, at least for some cities, is becoming significantly
worse. One study of domestic water use in East African cities, for
example, indicates a decline of as much as 72 per cent in the per capita
11. United Nations (2006), World
Urbanization Prospects: The
2005 Revision, United Nations
Department of Economic
and Social Affairs, Population
Division, New York, page 1.
12. Tostensen, Arne, Inge
Tvedten and Mariken Vaa
(2001), “The urban crisis,
governance and associational
life”, in Arne Tostensen, Inge
Tvedten and Mariken Vaa
(editors), Associational Life
in African Cities: Popular
Responses to the Urban Crisis,
Nordiska Afrikainstitutet (Nordic
Africa Institute), Uppsala,
page 8.
13. Caraël, Michel and Judith R
Glynn (2008), “HIV infection in
young adults in Africa: context,
risks and opportunities for
prevention”, in Michel Caraël
and Judith R Glynn (editors),
HIV, Resurgent Infections
and Population Change in
Africa, International Studies in
Population Vol 6, Springer, New
York, page 124.
14. See reference 9, page 4.
15. Peters, Krijn, Paul Richards
and Koen Vlassenroot (2003),
What Happens to Youth During
and After Wars? A Preliminary
Review of Literature on Africa
and Assessment on the Debate,
ROWOO, The Hague, October,
accessible at http://www.
rawoo.nl/pdf/youthreport.pdf;
also Sommers, Marc (2003),
War, Urbanization and Africa’s
Youth at Risk: Understanding
and Addressing Future
Challenges, Basic Education
and Policy Support (BEPS)
Activity and Creative Associates
International, Washington DC,
accessible at http://www.
beps.net/publications/BEPS-
UrbanizationWarYouthatRisk-.pdf.
16. Human Rights Watch (2002),
Hidden in Plain View: Refugees
Living Without Protection in
Nairobi and Kampala, Human
Rights Watch, New York; also
Sommers, Marc (2001a),
“Young, male and Pentecostal:
urban refugees in Dar es
Salaam, Tanzania”, Journal of
Refugee Studies Vol 14, No 4,
pages 347–370.
17. United Nations Population
Fund (UNFPA) (2007), State of
the World Population 2007:
Unleashing the Potential of
Urban Growth, UNFPA, New
York, page 16.
E N VI R O N ME N T & U R B AN I Z A T I ON Vol 22 No 2 October 2010
320
rate of daily water use over a recent three-decade period (1967–1997).(22)
Sanitation in urban slums in East and Southern Africa is “deplorable”
and water-related diseases such as scabies, dysentery and cholera are
commonplace.(23)
Bryceson asserts that: “The common assumption that urban dwellers
enjoy better health than rural dwellers does not apply to the urban poor.”(24)
Even direr than the water-related public health threats is the scourge of
the HIV/AIDS pandemic. East and Southern Africa stand at the centre of
the pandemic, with urban prevalence rates about double those in rural
areas and higher than anywhere else in the world. The threat applies not
only to urban youth, who are the primary victims of AIDS, but also to
those who depend on them, such as elder relatives in cities.(25)
As with just about every service in urban Africa, access to urban
education is unequal and often exclusive. When compared to their
counterparts in rural areas, youth in cities are generally more successful
in this regard (although not in Kenya).(26) But in this area, as in others, the
differences between the rich and the poor in African cities are growing,
and acquiring an education in cities tends to be much more available to
the minority of families with sufficient funds to obtain it.(27)
The difficulties in Africa’s cities are compounded by the high degree
of competition that is fuelled by on-going urban population growth:
setting up shop on a busy street corner to sell cold water or sunglasses
may be hotly contested, and what looks like a concrete slab to one person
may be a bed to another.
Bryceson is among a sizeable group of urban Africa scholars who find
that neoliberal economic policies and the expansion of direct foreign
investment have exacerbated economic inequalities in cities. They take a
dark view of the prospects for urban Africa, predicting a threatening future.
As Katumanga notes: “What is striking is the assumption that a shrunken state
can play midwife to the birth of a productive African entrepreneurial class.”(28)
Katumanga doubts that it can.
Other observers take a more positive view, highlighting the excep-
tional creativity that urban residents use to survive (all too frequently,
to be sure, out of necessity) as an inspiring indication of a “new” kind
of Africa emerging in urban neighbourhoods. While African cities may
be in decline, they nonetheless assert that “…the majority of residents of
disadvantaged African neighbourhoods have not passively watched conditions
deteriorate.”(29)
III. AFRICA’S URBAN YOUTH
a. Demographics
As noted above, youth (and male youth in particular) are at the forefront
of Africa’s advance towards cities. This should hardly be surprising, as
today’s global population is the youngest in history. In rough terms, half
the people in the world (about 3.3 billion) are under 25, with 1.5 billion
aged between 12 and 24. Fertility rates are now declining across most of
the globe, and a youth cohort this large is unlikely to be seen again.(30)
Of this extraordinary number of young people, 86 per cent live in low-
and middle-income countries,(31) an unprecedented situation for those
addressing development issues.
18. Packer, George (2006),
“The megacity: decoding the
chaos of Lagos”, The New
Yorker Vol 82, No 37, November
13, page 5, accessible at
http://www.newyorker.com/
archive/2006/11/13/061113fa_
fact_packer?printable=true.
19. See reference 18, page 11.
20. Lubuva, John M (2004),
Community Approach to
Security, Social Inclusion and
Development in Tanzania,
Paper presented at the
Dialogue on Promoting Co-
existence and Security in the
Information Society, Barcelona,
9–11 September 2004
(unpublished paper), page 4.
21. Konings, Piet, Rijk van Dijk
and Dick Foeken (2006), “The
African neighbourhood: an
introduction”, in Piet Konings
and Dick Foeken (editors),
Crisis and Creativity: Exploring
the Wealth of the African
Neighbourhood, Brill, Leiden
and Boston, page 3.
22. Thompson, John, Ina T
Porras, Elisabeth Wood, James
K Tumwine, Mark R Mujwahuzi,
Munguti Katui-Katua and Nick
Johnstone (2000), “Waiting
at the tap: changes in urban
water use in East Africa over
three decades”, Environment
and Urbanization Vol 12, No 2,
October, pages 37–52,
pages 40 and 42.
23. Bryceson, Deborah
Fahy (2006), “Fragile cities:
fundamentals of urban life in
East and Southern Africa”, in
Deborah Fahy Bryceson and
Deborah Potts (editors), African
Urban Economies: Viability,
Vitality or Vitiation?, Palgrave
MacMillan, Hampshire, UK, and
New York, page 24.
24. See reference 23, page 25.
25. Kamwengo, Martin M
(2007), “Gendered generational
support systems among
elderly urbanites in Zambia”,
in Matšeliso, M Mapetla, Ann
Schlyter and Basia D Bless
(editors), Urban Experiences of
Gender, Generations and
Social Justice, Institute of
Southern African Studies,
National University of Lesotho,
page 112.
26. Department of Economic
and Social Affairs (2007),
World Youth Report 2007:
Young People’s Transition
to Adulthood: Progress and
URBAN YOUTH IN AFRICA
321
Sub-Saharan Africa’s youth population has attracted particular
attention from demographers because the absolute number of young
people is growing faster there than anywhere else. Sub-Saharan Africa’s
population has quadrupled since 1950 and, unlike all other world regions,
the expansion of sub-Saharan Africa’s youth population will not peak for
another 20 years. Out of 46 countries and territories where at least 70 per
cent of the population is under the age of 30, only seven are not in sub-
Saharan Africa.(32)
Young Africans emptying villages and funnelling into cities have
never paid much attention to the contention that African cities are built
on an economic house of cards. To cities they go, and once there, few will
ever return to live in their former rural homes, as has been demonstrated
repeatedly in Africa’s urban history.(33) Governments have periodically
engineered returns of (mostly male) urban youth to the countryside, and
they have proven fruitless. Perhaps the most famous of these was the
“Nguvu Kazi” (“Hard Work”) campaign in 1983 in Tanzania, which aimed
to “repatriate” apparently jobless urbanites (many of whom actually
worked in the informal economy) to their rural homes. It proved to be
an expensive, embarrassing flop. Once dropped in a rural area, youth
simply hopped on a bus or train and returned straight to the capital.(34)
Probably the most dramatic evidence of the determination of African
urban youth to remain in cities is the case of Internally Displaced Persons
(IDPs) in Khartoum, Sudan. Despite intimidation, including the extensive
bulldozing of IDP homes by the Sudanese government, a survey of IDPs
found that young people saw themselves as urban and had no desire to
leave Khartoum.(35)
While working for the US government’s Central Intelligence Agency
in 1985, a demographer named Gary Fuller coined the term “youth
bulge”,(36) which has had a lengthy shelf life. The term describes a particular
demographic phenomenon, namely the large number of youth relative to
the adult population, but it also conjures up a sense of instability and has
come to be associated with threat and danger. A “bulge”, after all, may burst.
b. Youth and conflict
The high presence of youth in the urban population has created
considerable agitation among some analysts. The concern is reflected in
the development community, including the US Agency for International
Development (USAID), which noted a few years ago that: “Urbanization
concentrates precisely that demographic group most inclined to violence:
unattached young males who have left their families behind and have come to
the city seeking economic opportunities.”(37)
A number of publications have highlighted the statistical correlation
between nations with youth bulge demographics and the incidence of
political instability or civil conflict.(38) In statistical terms, this correlation
certainly exists. Urdal notes that it is “…extremely robust.”(39) But it also
invites serious distortions. Most nations with youth bulge populations
have not in fact had recent civil conflicts; and when civil conflicts do
occur in countries with youth bulges, the great majority of young men
never get involved in violence.(40)
There is no question that large concentrations of unemployed or
underemployed people may contribute to instability at some point.
Challenges, United Nations,
New York, page 91.
27. See reference 23.
28. Katumanga, Musambayi
(2005), “A city under siege:
banditry and modes of
accumulation in Nairobi,
1991–2004”, Review of African
Political Economy Vol 32, No
106, pages 505–520, page 507.
29. See reference 21, page 3.
30. Barker, Gary (2005), Dying to
Be Men: Youth, Masculinity and
Social Exclusion, Routledge,
London, 186 pages.
31. World Bank (2006), World
Development Report 2007:
Development and the Next
Generation, World Bank,
Washington DC, page 4.
32. Leahy, Elizabeth, Robert
Engelman, Carloyn Gibb
Vogel, Sarah Haddock and
Todd Preston (2007), The
Shape of Things to Come: Why
Age Structure Matters to a
Safer, More Equitable World,
Population Action International,
Washington DC.
33. Ogbu, Ostia and Gerrishon
Ikiara (1995), “The crisis of
urbanization in sub-Saharan
Africa”, Courier Jan–Feb, pages
52–59; also see reference 15,
Sommers (2003).
34. Sawers, Larry (1989), “Urban
primacy in Tanzania”, Economic
Development and Cultural
Change Vol 37, No 4, pages
841–859, pages 854–855.
35. Jacobsen, Karen, Sue
Lautze and Abdal Monim
Kheider Osman (2001), “The
Sudan: unique challenges of
displacement in Khartoum”,
in Marc Vincent and Birgitte
Refslund Sorensen (editors),
Caught Between Borders:
Response Strategies of the
Internally Displaced, Pluto
Press, London, and Norwegian
Refugee Council.
36. Hendrixson, Anne (2004),
Angry Young Men, Veiled Young
Women: Constructing a New
Population Threat, Corner
House Briefing 34, December,
accessible at http://www.
thecornerhouse.org.uk/pdf/
briefing/34veiled.pdf, page 2.
37. USAID (2005), Youth
and Conflict: A Toolkit for
Intervention, Office of Conflict
Management and Mitigation,
United States Agency for
E N VI R O N ME N T & U R B AN I Z A T I ON Vol 22 No 2 October 2010
322
Yet what is so striking about most African cities is that they are not far
more difficult, threatening and unstable. Nor does the “youth bulge and
instability thesis” take into account other factors related to instability.
Some scholars, for instance, argue for a connection between city size and
crime rates;(41) others for a relationship between a gradual process toward
democracy and the risk of conflict.(42) The fact that virtually all recent civil
wars in Africa have their origins in rural areas also calls into question the
alleged connection between large numbers of unemployed urban youth
in Africa and conflict.(43)
The concept of the youth bulge is useful when it attracts attention to
nations with unusually large numbers of youth who require support. But
highlighting the youth bulge and instability thesis is counter-productive
when it incorrectly colours most youth as dangerous and inspires
unproven assertions about how young people think and act. It is also
important to remember that the youth bulge literature contains little data
featuring the views of youth themselves.(44)
c. Youth employment
The lives of many urban youth are dominated either by work or the
need to find work. Accurate youth unemployment rates in Africa are
remarkably difficult to establish and the reported range is phenomenal.
For instance, Liberia’s reported rate is 88 per cent,(45) while Burundi’s has
been estimated at one per cent.(46) That two of the world’s poorest and
youngest nations, each with significant urban growth rates, could have
such divergent rates for youth unemployment is difficult to believe.
There are several related reasons for these reported differences.
Accurate, reliable data on employment can be extraordinarily difficult to
gather, particularly in impoverished post-war nations such as Burundi and
Liberia. There is also little agreement among countries as to what constitutes
“workor “no work”. The employment–unemployment dichotomy also fails
to include a far more significant marker of economic activity for youth and
most other urban dwellers, namely underemployment, the kind of work
that is commonplace in big African cities but that is difficult to quantify
because it may be short-lived and irregular. And finally, the livelihoods of
many urban dwellers are, in many if not most cases, technically illegal.
Accordingly, economic life is frequently shielded from official view; what
residents of Dar es Salaam might call mambo ya kujificha (the affairs of
hiding oneself).
The overwhelming majority of economic activity in urban Africa
is in the informal sector – also called the black market, the hidden
sector, the underground, fraudulent, peripheral, shadow and creeping
economy,(47) terms suggesting that it is not the context for honourable
economic activity. Yet in Africa, two in three urban residents obtain
their livelihoods from the informal economic sector, which is thought
to be growing at an annual rate of 7 per cent. In the near future, it is
estimated that more than 90 per cent of jobs will be part of informal
economies.(48) A failure to recognize the vitality and necessity of
informal markets constitutes a denial of fundamental economic
realities. Formal sector growth rates in developing countries (perhaps
2–3 per cent) cannot keep up with urban growth rates (which are often
around 4–5 per cent).(49)
International Development
(USAID), Washington DC, page 7.
38. See reference 32, page 22.
39. Urdal, Henrik (2004), The
Devil in the Demographics:
The Effect of Youth Bulges
on Domestic Armed Conflict,
1950–2000, World Bank Social
Development Papers: Conflict
Prevention and Reconstruction
Paper No 14, Washington DC,
page 16.
40. Barker, Gary and Christine
Ricardo (2006), “Young men
and the construction of
masculinity in sub-Saharan
Africa: implications for HIV/
AIDS, conflict and violence”,
in Ian Bannon and Maria C
Correia (editors), The Other
Half of Gender: Men’s Issues
in Development, World Bank,
Washington DC, page 181.
41. See reference 10.
42. See reference 39.
43. Sommers, Marc (2007a),
“Embracing the margins:
working with youth amid war
and insecurity”, in Lael Brainard
and Derek Chollet (editors), Too
Poor for Peace? Global Poverty,
Conflict and Security in the 21st
Century, Brookings Institution
Press, Washington DC, 175
pages.
44. Among the most
documented and cited
recent studies promoting the
youth bulge and instability
thesis is Cincotta, Richard P,
Robert Engelman and Daniele
Anastasion (2003), The Security
Demographic: Population
and Civil Conflict after the
Cold War, Population Action
International, Washington
DC. Critical assessments
of the thesis are available
elsewhere, see reference 36;
also Sommers, Marc (2006a),
Fearing Africa’s Young Men:
The Case of Rwanda, Conflict
Prevention and Reconstruction
Unit Working Paper No 32,
World Bank, Washington DC,
accessible at http://www.
eldis.org/static/DOC21389.
htm; and Sommers, Marc
(2007c), West Africa’s Youth
Employment Challenge: The
Case of Guinea, Liberia, Sierra
Leone and Côte d’Ivoire, United
Nations Industrial Development
Organization (UNIDO), Vienna,
accessible at http://fletcher.
tufts.edu/faculty/sommers/
Sommers-2007.pdf.
URBAN YOUTH IN AFRICA
323
A striking characteristic of African urban life on the streets, in shops,
markets and neighbourhoods, is how often the subject of moneymaking
comes up. How a certain person or enterprise is getting ahead, where
prices for commodities are high or low, when new shipments of materials
are arriving at the docks, where and why police are sweeping through
particular neighbourhoods or markets – these are examples of the subjects
that youth and others in African cities discuss. This is not idle chat – it is
crucial information in a changing and extremely competitive economic
environment.
Finding formal sector work can be particularly difficult for urban
youth, as there are few jobs and many youth lack the qualifications that
formal sector work often requires. A Sierra Leone study, for example, found
that a mere nine per cent of the working population had formal sector jobs
and that opportunities were significantly lower for youth.(50) Many youth
in urban Africa, male and female, are engaged in work that often provides
only some “small-small” money, or perhaps a bartered item, in return.
This sort of work is frequently irregular and is usually entrepreneurial.
A study in Luanda, Angola, found the average age of those working in
the city’s outdoor market areas was 21, and that both male and female
youth averaged just over five years of education. The young women had
significantly fewer options than male youth and earned less.(51) African
formal sector economies, in short, are generally far too small to absorb
large numbers of out-of-school urban youth. What work they find is likely
to be temporary and holding onto it may be impossible.
Dar es Salaam is a good case in point. Known to rural youth as a
place of extravagant wealth, its lure is confirmed by returnees, who come
with money in their pockets and gifts for their relatives.(52) A young man
who has “made it” in Dar es Salaam can return home to marry a village
girl – before returning to Tanzania’s largest city. But from work to housing
to marketing, most people’s lives take place within the unregulated (and
technically illegal) informal sector of the city’s mushrooming economy.(53)
Dar es Salaam is known to youth across Tanzania as “Bongoland”, an
illuminating nickname, since “bongo” is slang for “brains”. It requires
cunning and smarts to make it in Dar es Salaam. Many don’t because
competition is so fierce.
d. Modernity and tradition
However young people arrive on a city street corner or neighbourhood,
it is likely that both insecurity and stimulation mark their lives to a
significant degree. The swirl of “new” and “modern” trends, fashions,
ideas and technologies that hit cities first have a magnetic attraction. As
soon as stylish new t-shirts, slang phrases, shoes, songs, arm movements,
gadgets and the like hit the streets, many if not most urban youth are
eager to master and/or own them. Rural youth, not wanting to be viewed
as “backward” or “bushy”, greedily grasp at incoming trends as well.
The African dichotomy between the urban and the rural, the cutting
edge and the all-too-familiar, is described by Utas, speaking about Liberian
culture:
“To most Liberians, modernity is what comes from overseas and
predominantly takes the form of commodities (technology, clothes,
45. Government of
Liberia (2004), Millennium
Development Goals Report
2004, Government of Liberia,
Monrovia, page 7.
46. Leibbrandt, Murray and
Cecil Mlatsheni (2004), Youth in
sub-Saharan Labour Markets,
Macro-Micro Linkage Forum
Paper, African Development
and Poverty Reduction,
Somerset West, South Africa,
page 38, accessible at http://
www.commerce.uct.ac.za/
Research_Units/DPRU/DPRU-
Conference2004/Papers/Youth_
in_SSA_CecilMlatshni.pdf.
47. Tripp, Aili Mari (1997),
Changing the Rules: The Politics
of Liberalization and the Urban
Informal Economy in Tanzania,
University of California Press,
Los Angeles and London, page
18; also Karl, Kenneth (2000),
“The informal sector”, The
Courier Vol 178, pages 53–54.
Karl’s remarkable list totals
30 terms for the informal
economy.
48. See reference 47, Karl
(2000), page 53.
49. See reference 47, Karl
(2000).
50. World Bank (2007),
Improving Opportunities for
Sustainable Youth Employment
in Sierra Leone, Report No
XXX-SL, Environmentally
and Socially Sustainable
Development Unit, West Africa,
World Bank, Washington DC,
page xiv.
51. de Barros, Manual Correira
(2005), “Profiling youth involved
in the informal markets of
Luanda”, in Keith Muloongo,
Roger Kibasomba and Jemima
Njeri Kariri (editors), The Many
Faces of Human Security: Case
Studies of Seven Countries
in Southern Africa, Institute
of Security Studies, Pretoria,
page 212.
52. Sommers, Marc (2001b),
Fear in Bongoland: Burundi
Refugees in Urban Tanzania,
Studies in Forced Migration
Series Vol 8, Berghahn Books,
New York and Oxford, page 78.
53. See reference 9, pages
42–43.
E N VI R O N ME N T & U R B AN I Z A T I ON Vol 22 No 2 October 2010
324
etc.), communications, the western form of education and world
religions such as Christianity and, to some extent, Islam. Modernity
comes in the guise of consumption... Tradition on the other hand is
what is locally produced, whether it comes in the form of commodities
or of ideas. Traditions also occupy a space largely dominated by
elders, thus youth, contesting the powers of elders are prone to seek
status in the modernities.”(54)
This is no small distinction. The heartland of modernity in Africa is the
urban world. When young people leave rural Africa, to a significant degree
they leave African traditions behind as well. Yet they are still tied to the
traditions of their upbringing. The traditional gender roles, for example,
are frequently dominant and can create trajectories and dangers for both
male and female youth.
Mugisha et al. describe these gender archetypes: “Boys are conditioned
for the outside world, while girls are conditioned for the domestic world.”(55)
There is immediate evidence of this separation on most African city streets:
while women and female youth can certainly be seen, men and male
youth tend to dominate the public world. Their under-representation in
public spheres of city life may help explain why female youth are so often
overlooked. But beyond “out of sight, out of mind” tendencies, there are
other influential gender roles that significantly affect male and female
urban youth. Mugisha et al. note that: Women are taught from childhood
how to be submissive, while men are taught how to exercise authority.”(56) Yet in
urban settlement life, they point out, “…no systems have been developed to
help boys and girls fulfill the constructs that society has placed upon them.”(57)
This sets the stage for significant difficulties.
e. Exclusion and belonging
Some urban youth become deeply involved with religious institutions, a
reality too frequently overlooked by those seeking to engage with them.
Religion may be a pathway towards success in the city. Belonging to a
community of believers can provide structure, support and a wealth of
resources and activities, possibly even help in finding housing or a job.
Pentecostal churches are often unusually effective in attracting urban
youth to their communities.(58)
The moral world of Pentecostalism and other religious institutions,
Islamic and Christian, can accentuate one of the distinctions that
separate those urban youth who belong, in some way, to mainstream
society and those who do not. The division is sometimes seen as between
the “good” and the “bad”. Urban youth who reject mainstream tradition
and religion are common targets of castigation. The situation is informed
by a powerful irony: urban youth are a demographic majority that sees
itself as an excluded minority. Being out of school and unemployed or in
and out of work invites perceptions of young people as derelicts, thieves
and prostitutes. Such titles are markers of exclusion and generators of
profound social distance.(59)
The sheer numbers of urban youth living on the margins of society
can mean that the urban “mainstream” is strikingly small in terms of the
overall population of cities. The civil society dominated by educated elites
may have, at best, tenuous connections to the out of school, marginalized
and under-represented urban youth majority, with devastating results for
54. Utas, Mats (2003), “Sweet
battlefields: youth and the
Liberian civil war”, Dissertations
in Cultural Anthropology,
Uppsala University, Sweden,
page 44.
55. Mugisha, Frederick,
Jacqueline Arinaitwe-Mugisha
and Bilhah O N Hagembe
(2003), “Alcohol, substance and
drug use among urban slum
adolescents in Nairobi, Kenya”,
Cities Vol 20, No 4, pages
231–240, page 238.
56. Mugisha and colleagues
point out, however, that times
of crisis can reveal a different
picture, as women pull together
to find solutions while men,
faced with situations that
undermine their authority,
are more likely to fall apart or
withdraw into the escapism of
alcohol or drugs; see reference
55, page 238.
57. See reference 55, page 238.
58. Hansen, Karen Tranberg
(2008), “Localities and sites of
youth agency in Lusaka”, in
Karen Tranberg Hansen (editor),
Youth and the City in the Global
South, Indiana University Press,
Bloomington and Indianapolis;
also see reference 52.
59. Tensions between views of
African youth as threats and
underlying youth realities have
been elaborated by the author
elsewhere; see reference 44,
Sommers (2006a); also see
reference 43.
URBAN YOUTH IN AFRICA
325
youth access to services, jobs and acceptance. But youth can also claim
new turf and identities for themselves in the emerging context of city life.
When they enter the city, the anonymity provides the opportunity for
many to reinvent themselves, sometimes repeatedly.
Male youth in particular partake of the possibilities. One way is to
join a football club, which can be serious business, providing members,
as Baller found in peri-urban Dakar, with a chance to “…see themselves not
at the end of the world’… but at its centre, re-imaging the urban landscape and
taking possession of symbols of power and success.”(60)
Nicknames are an important part of identity re-invention. In Dar es
Salaam in the 1990s, popular youth nicknames included “Eddy Muffy”
(after the American comedian and actor, Eddie Murphy) and “Maiko”
(after the American pop star, Michael Jackson).(61) Nicknames can change
as namesakes lose popularity or when a youth chooses a different identity.
Another important vehicle of belonging is contemporary music,
which speaks to the frustration of urban youth and to their sense of being
misunderstood and viewed as deviant, when they are merely struggling to
find a way to succeed. This is frequently tied to a sense of the hypocrisy that
exists among the powers that be. Moyer finds that Dar es Salaam youth,
for instance, quote the lyrics of Bob Marley, the late reggae musician, “…
as a means of commenting on local social and economic injustices, which they
attribute to poor governance and hypocrisy.”(62) Youth all over the world,
including in Africa, have been powerfully drawn to hip-hop culture/
rap music, which expresses what it’s like to be young and searching for
respect and acceptance on new terms. Most African rappers seek a broader
audience by avoiding the use of curse words, which are commonplace in
American rap songs. Speaking of rappers in Dakar, Niang concludes that
they “…do not represent a minority voice but belong to the category of local
youth whose major unifying features are urban poverty and the daily inequalities
they endure.”(63) Commenting on rappers in Tanzania, Perrullo observes that
they seek to alter “…popular conceptions of [youth] as hooligans and [allow]
youth to become knowledge holders and educators within urban contexts.”(64)
One of the most common – and most commonly overlooked – forms
of civil society in African cities are male youth social groups. It is not
unusual in city neighbourhoods to see small signs scrawled on a wall,
words such as “Action Boys” or “Sunglass Boys”. A wooden bench on the
sidewalk beneath the sign may be the meeting place for members of a
local youth group. At the end of a difficult day of searching for work or
some action, joining peers to discuss economic, social and political events
at dusk is an important way for male youth to create community and
belonging in huge African cities. Ya’u, describing this sort of gathering
in Kano, Nigeria, asserts that such typical adolescent “gangs” or yandaba
provide male youth with an identity. They can be involved in such
social services as neighbourhood protection, or may start sport clubs.
Membership tends to be inclusive, peer oriented and non-hierarchical,
a “…means of socialization and a sort of a passing rite into adulthood.” Not
least, they are “…a strictly male affair.”(65)
f. Neoliberal policies and the moral worlds of cities
Ya’u argues that a profound shift took place in the organization and
function of the adolescence banding, or gangs, following the introduction
60. Baller, Susann (2002),
Playing Football in a Post-
colonial City: The Nawetaan
Campionship in Pikine
(Senegal), Humboldt University,
Berlin, www.vad-ev.de/2004/
download/01tagung/018papers
2002/baller.pdf, page 8.
61. See reference 52.
62. Moyer, Eileen (2005), “Street
corner justice in the name
of Jah: imperatives for peace
among Dar es Salaam street
youth”, Africa Today Vol 51,
No 3, pages 31–58, page 36.
63. Niang, Abdoulaye (2006),
“Bboys: hip-hop culture in
Dakar, Senegal”, in Pam Nilan
and Carles Feixa (editors),
Global Youth? Hybrid Identities,
Plural Worlds, Routledge,
London and New York,
page182.
64. Perullo, Alex (2005),
“Hooligans and heroes: youth
identity and hip-hop in Dar es
Salaam, Tanzania”, Africa Today
Vol 51, No 4, pages 75–101,
page 77.
65. Ya’u, Yunusa Zakari (2000),
“The youth, economic crisis
and identity transformation: the
case of the yandaba in Kano”,
in Attahiru Jega (editor), Identity
Transformation and Identity
Politics under Structural
Adjustment in Nigeria, Nordiska
Afrikainstitutet, Uppsala, and
E N VI R O N ME N T & U R B AN I Z A T I ON Vol 22 No 2 October 2010
326
of a Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) in Nigeria in 1986. The
pressure on governments to shift from public to private service provision
led, among other things, to a dramatic decline in government subsidies
for crucial food items on which the urban poor depended. The impacts
were immediate and immense, as food scarcities increased and public
sector jobs decreased. Myers argues that the economic emphasis on
privatization spilled over into culture and consciousness, resulting in “…a
more individuated and fractured sense of self and a commodification of many
aspects of everyday life”; a moral justification “…to be selfish, if only just to
get by.”(66)
The fallout from fairly drastic SAP policies (together with other
causes, such as government corruption) on urban residents and their
communities in many African countries has invited new interpretations
of morality. Ya’u describes what happened in Kano, Nigeria: With the
collapse of social services and [the] inability of young people to secure any other
legitimate means of livelihood…” he notes, “…they are left in the street to fend
for themselves by whatever means.”(67) The impact on adolescent groups was
profound. Rather than serving as a means for male adolescents and youth
to gather socially, contribute to community life and help them pass into
adulthood, the yandaba became “…organizational platform[s] through which
they could secure their livelihood, even if criminally.”(68) In times of severe
economic stress, some youth joined because of the promise of regular
meals, others (girls and boys) to secure a place to sleep. What supported
yandaba members in the aftermath of SAP was crime, and sometimes,
violent crime.
A more general outcome has been a grey area between what may be
seen as morally correct and what is required to survive in town. Selling
drugs to policemen, for example, may become a “good job” because it is
a regular business and protects the seller from arrests or confiscations by
the police in the future.(69) The moral ambiguity extends to government
officials; a Pentecostal church pastor in Dar es Salaam explains that:
People must take bribes here, since the salaries are too low to live on. In such
circumstances, “…in no sense is it bad to take a bribe.”(70)
Katumanga describes the involvement of some government and
political elements in Nairobi, through political patronage, in the promotion
of deviance and crime in the aftermath of structural adjustment. In
contrast to pervasive views that a rise in crime is the result of a deviant
sub-culture inhabited largely by unemployed male youth, Katumanga
argues that in 1990s Kenya, deviance “…was state encouraged for politico–
economic ends.”(71) While Katumanga doesn’t deny the presence of angry
unemployed youth, he notes that many were goaded by a government
with devious aspirations. One is again forced to consider whether the
strong majority of poor urban (male) youth are dangerous, as so often
assumed, or whether there is a tendency to scapegoat them for urban ills.
g. Manhood pressures on male youth
Traditional understandings of manhood in Africa are associated with
having a house, being married and having children. Cities can be places
where male youth escape manhood pressures, but they also serve as a
proving ground. In Tanzania, a male youth might be accepted as a man
in his home village if he can return with sufficient money to marry and
Centre for Research and
Documentation, Kano, page 164.
66. See reference 9, pages
6–7. Interestingly, while the
invented Kiswahili word for
privatization is ubinafsishaji, the
literal translation of the term is
“the causing of individualism or
selfishness”.
67. See reference 65, page 172.
68. See reference 65, page 172.
69. Private interview in
Freetown, Sierra Leone.
70. See reference 52, page 176.
71. See reference 28, page 510.
URBAN YOUTH IN AFRICA
327
build a house.(72) Achieving this can be exceedingly difficult, as noted
above, and some may never achieve it. Utas describes the pressures and
difficulties that male youth faced in town in the aftermath of economic
crisis in the 1980s:
“…many young men lost even the possibility to establish themselves
as adults, by building a house or getting married – though they
continued to become fathers, of children for whom they could not
provide.”(73)
Chronologically, the men “…outgrew youth but socially they became
‘youthmen’.”(74) Being unable to gain the urban foothold sufficient
to becoming socially accepted as a man is a much deeper form of
marginalization than arises merely from being unable to complete one’s
schooling or become a wage earner in town. Becoming a “youthman” is a
permanent social punishment.
h. Pressures on female youth
The situation facing urban female youth is no less serious, and on a
day to day basis can be far worse. They tend to have significantly fewer
economic options than their male youth counterparts, and when other
options fail, prostitution may be the only means of survival – a perilous,
if seemingly unavoidable, path.(75) The path does not necessarily include
regular work as a prostitute. As Moyer describes the situation in Dar
es Salaam, transactional sex may be an occasional necessity. Some of
these young women may also have boyfriends, although the boys may
be unusually poor themselves: “Young men with minimal resources were
considered more likely to accept that their girlfriends also slept with other men
for money because they knew they could not afford to support a woman on their
own.”(76) Significantly, many of the young women that Moyer interviewed
wanted to:
“…become pregnant by their boyfriends in the hope that this would
cement the bonds between them. They saw pregnancy as one of the
only ways to escape the stigma that marked their lives... many men
reported they were more likely to marry a woman after she had a
child by him and proved that she was fertile....”(77)
The desire to get married (even unofficially) results not only in “boyfriends”,
transactional sex and prostitution. It also means a dramatically heightened
vulnerability to infection from sexually transmitted disease, including
HIV/AIDS. HIV prevalence rates among young urban Africans are now
higher for females than for males.
i. Adolescent experiences: the case of Kibera, Nairobi
One study of urban life in Africa provides a lens for understanding the
lives of adolescents, who are overlooked in most youth studies. In this
case, the target group was between the ages of 10 and 19 and all lived
in the slums of Kibera, Nairobi. Half of this sample of adolescents had
migrated to Kibera from other parts of the country, suggesting that urban
migrants in African cities include a great many young children. Many
72. See reference 52.
73. Utas, Mats (2005), “Building
a future? The reintegration
and remarginalization of youth
in Liberia”, in Paul Richards
(editor), No Peace No War: An
Anthropology of Contemporary
Armed Conflicts, Ohio
University Press, Athens, and
James Currey, Oxford, page 150.
74. Momoh, Abubakar (1999),
The Youth Crisis in Nigeria:
Understanding the Phenomenon
of the Area Boys and Girls,
unpublished paper presented at
the Conference on Children and
Youth as Emerging Categories in
Africa, Leuven, 4–6 November,
cited by Utas (2005), see
reference 73, page 150.
75. See reference 13, page 128.
76. Moyer, Eileen (2006), “Not
quite comforts of home:
searching for locality among
street youth in Dar es Salaam”,
in Piet Konings and Dick Foeken
(editors), Crisis and Creativity:
Exploring the Wealth of the
African Neighbourhood, Brill,
Leiden and Boston, page 185.
77. See reference 76, page 186.
E N VI R O N ME N T & U R B AN I Z A T I ON Vol 22 No 2 October 2010
328
leave school early, migrants in particular. The girls in the sample were
significantly less likely to be attending school: 43 per cent, as compared
to 29 per cent of boys, were not in school. One-quarter of the boys and
14 per cent of girls were working for pay. The threat of sexual violence for
female adolescent youth was high and the fear of being raped appeared
to be alarmingly high among girls in the same sample. Boys were twice as
likely as girls to have a public place for meeting friends of the same sex.
Sixteen per cent of the surveyed girls were married and 16 per cent were
mothers.(78) The trends that apply to urban youth lives in Africa, in short,
appear to apply equally to their younger counterparts.
IV. CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS: ENGAGING WITH
AFRICA’S URBAN YOUTH
It is hardly a broadside to state that most international assistance has
proven ineffective. Easterly, for example, notes that the estimated US$ 2.3
trillion that Western nations have invested in foreign aid over the last half
century has failed to significantly reduce, much less end, poverty in the
developing world.(79) Referring to the generally disappointing performance
of Western government aid agencies, Collier states that: No aspect of
domestic policy is run this badly.”(80) A study on post-war reconstruction
in Burundi found that international assistance was unintentionally
reconstructing inequalities that were a cause of civil war.(81) Uvin not only
found the Mutara project in pre-civil war and pre-genocide Rwanda to be,
for the most part, “…a complete failure”, the project also supported forces of
exclusion that helped lead, ultimately and unintentionally, to genocide.(82)
Perhaps one reason why foreign assistance so frequently comes up
short is that the primary foreign aid agency constituencies are not poor
people overseas but politicians and other citizens in the home country.
Collier, for example, contends that: The key obstacle to reforming aid is
[domestic] public opinion.”(83) This is illustrated by the following explanation
from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) about its
foreign aid expenditures: “Close to 80 per cent of USAID’s grants and contracts
go directly to American firms and non-governmental organizations.”(84)
If international assistance generally creates underwhelming results,
then the challenges of developing effective policies and programmes for
urban youth in impoverished sub-Saharan Africa are especially daunting.
But it can be done, and doing it is imperative given the region’s rate of
urban growth and the continuing expansion of its burgeoning youth
population.
Before turning to recommendations for next steps, some brief con-
cluding remarks are required. Africa will remain a rural-based continent
only until 2030. African cities, which are already underserved and
fiercely competitive economic environments, are negatively impacted by
neoliberal approaches to African development. Despite such challenges,
rural investments by international agencies are unlikely to persuade most
urban migrant youth to return to their original homes. African youth
migrate to cities and then stay there, because cities are stimulating, full
of bounty and possibility, and provide opportunities for personal re-
invention and a shift towards modernity. Yet urban areas are also sites of a
new and alarming form of youth marginalization and exclusion, namely
78. Erulkar, Annabel S and
James K Matheka (2007),
Adolescence in the Kibera
Slums of Nairobi, Kenya,
Population Council, Nairobi and
New York, page v.
79. Easterly, William (2006), The
White Man’s Burden: Why the
West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest
Have Done so Much Ill and so
Little Good, Penguin Books,
New York, 448 pages.
80. Collier, Paul (2007), The
Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest
Countries are Failing and What
Can Be Done About It, Oxford
University Press, Oxford and
New York, 224 pages, page 184.
81. Sommers, Marc (2005), “It
always rains in the same place
first. Geographic favouritism in
rural Burundi”, Issue Briefing
No 1, African Programme,
Woodrow Wilson International
Centre for Scholars,
Washington DC, accessible at
http://www.wilsoncenter.org/
topics/pubs/IB001.pdf.
82. Uvin, Peter (1998), Aiding
Violence: The Development
Enterprise in Rwanda,
Kumarian Press, West Hartford,
CT, pages 119 and 121.
83. See reference 80, page 183.
84. United States Agency for
International Development
(USAID) (2007), “Why foreign
aid?”, accessible at http://
www.chapman.edu/wilkinson/
socsci/sociology/Faculty/
Babbie/e211/BiblioFiles/
USAID_1998.htm.
URBAN YOUTH IN AFRICA
329
the inability of many to gain social acceptance as adults. Youth frustration,
alienation and defiance and sometimes despair and fatalism appear to
be commonplace. Overlooking, misinterpreting or underestimating key
urban youth trends is a mistake.
Working with civil society in African cities also requires a new
approach. Marginalized urban male youth are part of a civil society that is
distinctly separate from the mainstream, and marginalized female youth
are alarmingly under-represented in nearly all forms of civil society.
Accessing youth views and needs through mainstream civil society invites
serious distortions, because elite youth leaders are unlikely to represent
the views and needs of the non-elite, under-educated youth majority.
The following are broad, framing recommendations for engaging
with and effectively supporting members of the marginalized majority of
sub-Saharan Africa’s urban youth.(85)
There is a need for vigorous policy reform. Programmes alone
cannot possibly address the needs of most urban youth due to
their huge demographic numbers. It is thus critical that urban
policies focus on stated youth concerns. National and international
agencies should advocate for reforming government policies that are
particularly dysfunctional, such as strict limits on informal economies
and restrictions on access to land and housing that, collectively, can
stymie youth efforts to become adults and stabilize their lives.
Develop programming strategies for addressing youth marginali-
zation and exclusion by gender, class and location. Develop
strategies for including those male and female youth who are most in
need of programming (members of the excluded, poor youth majority)
and ensuring that better educated and more advantaged youth do
not dominate programmes. Make programmes flexible enough to
accommodate the time and childcare requirements of youth, female
youth in particular. Rather than apportioning limited programme
funds to different locations, consider emphasizing inclusion in
youth programmes through geographic means. Youth who live in a
particular neighbourhood, for example, can automatically participate
in a programme: if you live there, you’re in.(86)
Design programmes according to stated poor youth priorities,
including what they need to achieve adulthood. Ask youth what
they need to become socially accepted men and women. Determine
whether access to formal education is what they seek or whether
they prefer assistance to meet immediate livelihood and adulthood
requirements. Dramatically increasing youth access to land and
housing and to vocational training (e.g., apprenticeships, mentoring,
entrepreneurial business skills training, learning how to access
microcredit, etc.) will probably be necessary. Health and protection
needs to be integrated into programming, to address threats such
as HIV/AIDS and widespread sexual and domestic violence against
women and female youth by men and male youth.
Advocate for realistic approaches to urban youth programming.
Agencies (implementers and donors) must appreciate the daunting
challenges of working with excluded, alienated and frustrated young
urbanites. Anticipate that programmes will most probably not work
well at first. Pilot programmes that incorporate youth views, together
with assessments and evaluations, are strongly recommended.
85. Additional
recommendations are found
at the end of several of
the author’s publications,
including Sommers (2007a), see
reference 43; also Sommers,
Marc (2007b), “Creating
programmes for Africa’s
urban youth: the challenge of
marginalization”, Journal of
International Cooperation in
Education Vol 10, No 1, pages
19–31, accessible at http://
home.hiroshima-u.ac.jp/
cice/10–1MarcSommers.pdf;
see reference 44, Sommers
(2007c); Sommers, Marc
(2006b), Youth and Conflict:
A Brief Review of Available
Literature, USAID and Equip3/
Education Development Centre,
Washington DC, accessible
at http://www.eldis.org/cf/
search/disp/DocDisplay.
cfm?Doc=DOC22167; and see
reference 15, Sommers (2003).
86. Such an approach, however
appropriate in principle, runs
the risk of creating chaotic
and ultimately underfunded
programming. The idea
here is not to swell demand
beyond the means of any
one programme but, rather,
to attempt to demonstrate
inclusion for young people
who generally feel excluded.
Piloting such an approach looks
useful; so is carefully assessing,
monitoring and evaluating
such a programme – and then
broadly sharing the results.
E N VI R O N ME N T & U R B AN I Z A T I ON Vol 22 No 2 October 2010
330
Invest sufficient time and funding for quality, unbiased and
independent assessments, monitoring reports and evaluations. A
recent survey of youth and conflict programming literature revealed
a shockingly small proportion of programmes that have carried out
quality evaluation work.(87) This is unacceptable and avoidable. In
all assessment, monitoring and evaluation work, incorporate regular
study of marginalized urban youth in the general area who are not
receiving programming. Doing so is critical because “successful”
programmes may intensify feelings of exclusion, alienation, fatalism
and despair in youth who are not included. Programmes must work
hard to avoid this potentially dangerous outcome.
Coordinate, network and support local youth programmes,
religious groups, youth groups and sport/cultural initiatives
operating in neighbourhoods as the structures through which
youth can be reached. Such work rarely takes place. Work hard to
ensure that different programmes do not include the same youth
participants. Consider hiring youth leaders as programme employees.
Youth leaders in mainstream civil society tend to be well-educated
youth (usually males) with limited experience and understanding
of marginalized urban youth needs. Hiring them to work with
marginalized youth promises to provide them with important
capacity-building experience.
87. See reference 85, Sommers
(2006b).
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