3 ways African cities can bring hope to young people

Over the next half-century, more than 90% of global population growth will occur in the cities and urban slums of developing countries. As the importance of cities in human development continues to grow, there are shared challenges that create an urgency for collective action by local and national governments, the private sector, civil society and individual citizens.

Cityscape of Johannesburg in South Africa REUTERS/
Cityscape of Johannesburg in South Africa REUTERS/

While cities in Africa represent engines of economic growth, few are attuned to the rapidly changing demographics: the majority of people in cities are under age 35 and cities are not prepared for the rapid influx of migrating young people. According to UNICEF, the “youth bulge” in Africa may reach 1 billion by 2050.

Rather than igniting hope, these cities risk fueling hopelessness. Young people find barriers to equitable social and economic advancement, and a lack of adequate governance and security. The little they have is often stolen, and there are few legitimate means of recourse. Living in marginalized settlements, or as migrants without their family and communities, these young people end up feeling frustrated, angry and lost. Criminal activity, gang membership, and in some rare cases attraction to violent extremist groups, provide an alternate vehicle for family, protection, justice and purpose. The result is a city landscape that is increasingly fragile and where private sector investment remains tentative due to insecurity. Fragile cities with disenfranchised young people drag the region down a path away from prosperity.

For decades, Mercy Corps has led efforts to prevent violence and conflict around the world and across Africa, including Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, and Uganda. Our work has strongly demonstrated that young people will either help cities thrive or contribute to their further decline. In many cities where fragility is already an issue due to violence and conflict, the key question is how to build resilience through engagement with young people.

What is the path forward?

Sound information, data and analysis should be at the heart of action: We must develop strategies for strengthening governance, reducing crime and countering violent extremism informed by rigorous analyses of the political, social and economic factors that drive young people to support or engage in violence.

Mercy Corps’ research has found that young people’s feelings of justice, security and fairness can play a more influential role than employment opportunities in reducing their vulnerability to recruitment or exploitation by gangs or extremist groups. In two of our most recent investigations, Youth and Consequences: Unemployment, Injustice and Violence and Why Youth Fight: Making Sense of Youth Political Violence in Sub-Saharan Africa, we found that there is a “jobs-stability myth.” Young people turn to violence not because they are unemployed, but because they are angry.

Go beyond jobs: Jobs do matter. People need an income to survive. Jobs also give people a sense of purpose and status. So yes, we should absolutely continue to help promote opportunities for employment and employment readiness. However, a good job is not a sufficient deterrent to violence. The leading edge of a decision to turn to violence consists of injustice, corruption and discrimination. For example, in Nairobi, young people travel to the city to look for opportunities, but due to corruption, discrimination and unfair hiring practices, among other grievances, some youth join gangs or in the Somali communities, may join Al Shabaab.

The other tipping point toward violent actions, often combined with being a victim of discrimination or corruption, is exposure to violence. For example, young people in Liberia are five times more likely to engage in violence if someone in their household has been a victim of violence. A recent study funded by Innovations for Poverty Action found that behavioural therapy helped young people in Monrovia who were exposed to violence during the civil war change the direction of their lives — to reduce their participation in crime, violence and other antisocial behavior.

For this integrated challenge, we need an integrated solution, particularly with the private sector: The foundation of Mercy Corps’ approach to strengthen urban resilience is to make young people an integral part of community organising efforts to strengthen social cohesion. Combined with good local governance and private sector development, we need interventions for young people that provide psychosocial support, access to local government, physical and social connections that reduce exclusion, and linkages to job markets and job skills training.

We also need integrated partnerships between the public, private and civic sectors to support youth and promote resilient cities. Our YES! partnership with the Coca-Cola Africa Foundation, launched at the World Economic Forum on Africa 2015, will match youth in Kenya, Uganda, Liberia, Tunisia and Nigeria with mentors and positive role models, promote policies that create a more supportive environment for young people to access and succeed in jobs and businesses, improve their technical and business skills based on local market demand, and connect them to real economic opportunities.

This and other partnerships merge people, markets and places. Unlike the traditional approach to job training focused on supply, the way forward is an investment model that capitalizes on existing markets and generates new ones. We need to match experiences, capacities and diversity to actual jobs, and at the same time create new businesses from the talents they bring by helping young people launch businesses of their own. Vital to this business dynamic is recognizing that young people are shaped by their environment and that young people shape their environment. Investments and interventions must also follow that logic. We must continue to drive innovative solutions to create urban environments where young people thrive and contribute to prosperity and resilience.

Author: Neal Keny-Guyer, CEO of Mercy Corps and Member of the Global Agenda Council on Fragility, Violence and Conflict

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