The Violent Politics of Informal Work and How Young People Navigate Them: A Conceptual Framework
A report by the Institute of Development Studies in conjunction with the Research And Advocacy Unit titled: The Violent Politics of Informal Work and How Young People Navigate Them: A Conceptual Framework explores the linkages between young people’s economic engagement and their social and political engagement in contexts of violence in Africa.
The enquiry started from the assumption that, in the everyday lives of young people in Africa, engagement in formal or informal livelihood activities is rarely separated from their social lives and politics, especially the politics that operate in the local economy.
As young people are embedded in social and, possibly, also in political relationships, the ways in which they pursue opportunities for work will depend not only on their skills and demand for labour, but on their navigation of the political actors that shape the nature of the local labour market and economy.
These issues become all the more complex in settings that are in the middle of, or recovering from, violent conflict; or are otherwise affected by high levels of violence. In these settings, the politics of the local economy might be entangled with the dynamics that sustain the violence.
Why is this important, and why now?
The year 2015 saw an historical peak in youth unemployment, with 74 million young people in the 15 to 24 year age group unemployed worldwide (UNDP 2015). The highest youth unemployment rate was in the Arab states with 29 per cent; the youth unemployment rates in East Asia and Pacific and in sub-Saharan Africa are respectively 18.6 per cent and 13.5 per cent, while the world’s average is 15 per cent (ibid.: 64).
In policy circles and in the field of international development, high levels of youth unemployment are considered problematic for a number of reasons. First of all, it will have a negative impact on young people as they seek to sustain their livelihoods and further the development and wellbeing of their families, and it will negatively affect economic development of the country at large.
Second, the presence of demographic youth bulges (where youth form the majority of the population) and youth unemployment are regularly associated with increased levels of instability in a country and, in the age of the so-called ‘war on terrorism’, with the increased risk of radicalisation that encourages young people to join extremist groups (UNDP 2015), despite the fact that there are major evidence gaps to support these claims (Cramer 2010).
The association of large numbers of unemployed youth with instability has urged international development actors to develop and support youth employment and entrepreneurship programmes, many of which aim to not just improve young people’s employability and material conditions, but also to foster peace and conflict transformation (Boudreaux 2007; Williams 2008).
Given the importance of informal work for young people, there are also calls to focus interventions on the informal economy (Fox, Senbet and Simbanegavi 2016). However, others argue that the informal economy cannot provide definite and sustainable solutions because it cannot absorb all unemployed youth (Hansen 2010).
More critical voices, such as Munive (2010), point out that too often ideas about the ‘crisis of youth’ means that the issue of youth (un)employment is securitised by state actors. and international agencies, and that young people are objectified. Moreover, there are many ‘unknowns’ about the linkages between forms of youth engagement in the economic, social and political sphere, particularly for contexts of violence.
Concerning entrepreneurship, Tobias, Mair and Barbosa-Leiker (2013) argue that little is known about the mechanisms that might lead to entrepreneurship playing a role in promoting peace, and in general there is only fragmented knowledge about how entrepreneurship can produce social change. There is, therefore, a need for critical research into how young people deal with unemployment and navigate opportunities in the informal sector, and how this might relate to other forms of social and political action.
The objective of this Evidence Report is to develop a conceptual framework for studying the links between young people’s economic activities in the informal economy and forms of social and political engagement, in contexts affected by violent conflict. The report puts the agency of young people at the centre of the enquiry, and relates this to the question of youth identity: young people’s awareness about what ‘youth’ means in a particular context, how this has implications for their agency, and their perspectives on how work relates to the process of ‘becoming’ adults. This requires attention to be paid to social differentiation among the highly diverse social category of ‘youth’ and the multiple identities that young people ascribe to, which affect their experiences and possibilities in the informal economy as well as their agency.
The conceptual framework will enable research on the politics of youth employment and youth entrepreneurship, and the meaning of work for youth identities, to address the following questions that are relevant for policy and programmes: How can programmes that support economic activities among youth be implemented with due attention for local and
national politics? Might these programmes be improved in a way that they may also strengthen social and political engagement among youth?