Beyond the paradox: African youth research and the policy debate, by Joschka Philipps

During the past decade, African youth have become a hot topic in academic, public, and policy debates. The plethora of discussions, papers, policy notes, media reports, and conference panels is diverse, and yet often united by an intriguing concern with African youth’s paradoxical nature. Titles of prominent Africanist works read “Makers and Breakers” (Honwana and de Boeck 2005), “Vanguards or Vandals” (Abbink and van Kessel 2005), “Promise or Peril” (Muhula 2007), and “Hooligans and Heroes” (Perullo 2005). Development agencies, too, have repeatedly contrasted youth opportunities with youth risks, emphasizing that “young people can be a source of growth and development for their countries, but [also] a source of inequality, poverty, exclusion, […] crime and violence” (Cunningham et al. 2008:9).


In a way, such framing in dichotomies is all but surprising. Anywhere in the world, societies project onto the young generation their hopes and nightmares to make sense of an uncertain future. This is particularly the case in societies where fundamental social transformations are taking place, including what one might term the transnational society-in-the-making. On the one hand, then, the global policy debate on youth bulges and political instability indicates the deep-seated anxiety about an increasing proximity to Africa’s urban young men, those who are demographically on the rise, yet uncontained by porous borders, uncontrolled by states, and unemployed by the market (despite impressive growth rates in many African countries). On the other hand, development institutions have increasingly branded young Africans as the fresh, agile, and resilient social category that is about to transform Africa into another development success story. In short, debates on Africa’s youth, especially when framed in dichotomies, are often debates about something else.

As unsurprising as that may be, it is no less problematic. Dichotomies limit our understanding of the social world; they reduce multifarious phenomena into two-sided problems, dramatizing them by accentuating their extremes and by omitting the vast continuum in between. If social scientists have a responsibility in this regard, it would be to problematize this and to provide alternative concepts that reduce the complexity of a given phenomenon in more nuanced ways.

I would like to argue that, while Africanist scholarship has been successful in pointing out the complexity and diversity of African youth, it remains weak in reducing complexity and disaggregating diversity. Most of the above-cited works on African youth bear dichotomous titles precisely because they seek to emphasize youth’s ambivalence, their fluid and ambiguous identities, or, in the words of Honwana and de Boeck (2005a:2), that African youth are “both makers and breakers of society, while they are simultaneously being made and broken by that society.” This paradigm has been crucial in shaping the field of African youth studies. It has been able to integrate a large variety of youth-related topics, and, rather than shying away from their contradictory elements, has taken these contradictions seriously, positioning itself as a caveat against dominant simplifications of the matter.

And yet, there is a need to move beyond this paradigm. First of all, because it has become unsurprising, if not a ready-made conclusion for youth-related inquiries. Secondly, because it is in fact self-evident. Youth’s diversity (anywhere in the world) allows for no other characterization than ‘ambivalent’—and Honwana and de Boeck’s above-cited “fundamental paradox”, while beautifully put, applies to numerous internally heterogeneous social categories (think of politicians, Christians, or soccer fans, for that matter). Third and finally, there is a need to move beyond the paradigm of paradoxical youth because qualitative African youth research is likely to remain largely inconsequential beyond the academic realm if it embraces complexity without intending to clarify its obviously complex research object.

Many Africanist academics may not find any problem with that. Indeed, the majority might be content with complying exclusively with the standards of their scientific field. Others, however, who may judge their fieldwork and expertise potentially useful for public policy concerns, find themselves confronted with a field where qualitative case studies are held in rather low esteem, where clear and tangible information is demanded, and where economists and demographers seem to respond to this demand in often frustratingly superior ways. Consider Urdal’s (2007:96) argument that “For each percentage-point increase of youth in the adult population, the risk of conflict increases by more than 4 percent”: as much as such statements may cause serious allergic reactions among qualitative social scientists—it is usually what youth policy makers refer to as their scientific underpinning. Now, it should be considered equally worrisome that qualitative social scientists often see such arguments as a wrong conclusion in a wrong debate, to then retreat back into their own academic communities. If they were to address such statements as a starting point for debate, the quest would be to define what is missing or problematic in such arguments, and why that is important to consider.

Let us shortly take Urdal’s (2007) paper as an example in this regard and, in a nutshell, outline the usefulness of a qualitative researcher’s response. One main concern would be that numbers tell us very little about the phenomenon itself (how come that youth and conflict are correlated?). Another concern would be that Urdal (2007:90) oddly approaches his scientific problem by citing journalists like Robert Kaplan and Fareed Zakaria. Yet, instead of directly criticizing Urdal and other scientists on such dubious conceptual framing, most African youth researchers have, over and over again, attacked Kaplan’s The Coming Anarchy—a blatantly easy target. Third, and most obviously, the de-contextualized nature of hypotheses like Urdal’s necessitates specification, contextualization, refinement through substantial knowledge of different cases, differentiation with regard to urban and rural contexts (which Urdal and Hoelscher [2009] have provided two years later), etc. This leads fourth and finally to the methodological caveat that aggregate national data glosses over the variations within countries, within cities, across different youth categories, etc.

All of this is common sense among qualitative social scientists, and yet, Sommers (2006, 2011) is one of the few to openly and explicitly question youth bulge theory’s predominance in the mainstream debate on African youth. That is surprising because, ideally, any youth-related debate and intervention would necessitate substantial knowledge about the young people it addresses: how specific categories of young people perceive their surroundings, how they are organized, how they make a living, how they interact, what language they use and what is dear and important to them. Truth be told, many policy makers and project managers do not know these things, but that does not negate the argument that substantial knowledge would increase the relevance of their efforts and produce more tangible results.

Why then have Africanist studies remained in the shadows of mainstream policy debates on African youth? One aspect may be that Africanist social scientists are not interested in this debate and in packaging their insights in an accessible format. Social science often comes with a habitus that disregards simplification. Accessibility and practical relevance seldom feature on the list of criteria for good scholarship. Most Africanists moreover remain quite skeptical vis-à-vis non-academic formats of knowledge production: the development industry is suspected of framing African youth only for its own institutional benefit, and the media is criticized for its sensationalist approach. Such skepticism, while by no means unwarranted, often precludes attempts of making good scholarship accessible to non-academic audiences.

What may be more troubling than academic disinterest in non-academic debates is the neglect of methodological reflection: even some of the most prominent scholars in our field omit the connections between their data, methods, and theory, and there is usually little mention of the ways in which the youth sample under study allows for the conclusions to be drawn from it. Oftentimes, case studies on a specific category of youth are directly linked to the general African youth literature, addressing an oversized analytical category with highly specific empirical material. The inclusive notion of an ambivalent African youth that is difficult to pin down analytically, invites any empirical finding to restate this point.

In this context, I would like to make two very short suggestions: following a more comparative methodology and a more self-confident positioning in the mainstream debate. As to comparison, an explicit comparative approach would take diversity and ambivalence not as a conclusion but as a starting point. If, for example, otherwise similar categories of young people differ with regard to their political agency, why do they differ? What are the similarities and differences between urban youth collectives and rural ones, or between female and male students at the same university? Such questions inquire into the diversity and ambivalence of youth by disaggregating this oversized category and attempting to make sense of its variety. Rather than trying to find iron laws governing the worlds of young people, such inquiries would seek to find and explain patterns and processes and to differentiate what we assume to be general tendencies as opposed to case-specific phenomena.

With regard to the self-positioning in the mainstream debate, qualitative African youth research should and can be more confident about its qualities, and less defensive vis-à-vis quantitative research. Of course, we cannot conclude a percentage increase of conflict risk for a given country from our 50 interviews and ‘deep hanging out’ with youth. And most of us do not want that, either. What we can do, however, is addressing the questions that many quantitative researchers are unable to answer: for example, if an econometric study establishes that youth unemployment correlates with political conflicts, we can inquire whether the definitions of youth, unemployment, and political conflict match the notions and realities that matter within the specific context it describes; we can study why, of the thousands of young people without a job, only very few protest and riot, and what distinguishes those from the peaceful rest—maybe questioning the significance of the single independent variable ‘youth unemployment.’ Eventually, this should not just the trigger excitement of having problematized the quantitative approach but invite collaboration with statisticians to operationalize better survey questions for statistics that provide us with a more nuanced and yet representative picture of what we are studying. After all, we need those statistics, too.

To some, such a call for a more policy-relevant Africanist youth research may seem akin to surrendering to the developmentalist discourse on African youth. I would argue quite the opposite. If we find it politically and analytically problematic that Africa’s young population often seems reduced to either a security threat or its economic potential, then there is a need for discussion, not withdrawal. Authors like Paul Richards, Alcinda Honwana, or Marc Sommers have shown that there is room for critical voices and anthropological perspectives in this notorious discourse, which, after all, may not be as homogenous as it seems. What it certainly requires us to do is to increase the clarity of our methods and language, and, not least, to step beyond the embrace of complexity and ambiguity as our analytical conclusions.

Joschka Philipps is a PhD candidate at the Centre for African Studies Basel, Switzerland. His award-winning study on youth gangs and urban protests in Conakry, Guinea has recently been published in English and French by L’Harmattan, Paris. In his doctoral research, Joschka compares youth collectives involved in urban protests in Conakry, Guinea and Kampala, Uganda. Follow Joschka Philipps on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JoschkaPhilipps.


 

REFERENCES CITED

Abbink, J., and Ineke van Kessel, eds. 2005. Vanguard or Vandals: Youth, Politics, and Conflict in Africa. Leiden: Brill.

Cunningham, Wendy, Lorena Cohan, Sophie Naudeau, and Linda McGinnis. 2008. Supporting Youth At Risk: A Policy Toolkit for Middle Income Countries. Washington, D.C.: The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / The World Bank. Retrieved May 3, 2013 (http://theyouthalliance.org/node/205).

Honwana, Alcinda, and Filip de Boeck. 2005a. “Children & Youth in Africa : Agency, Identity & Place.” Pp. 1–18 in Makers & breakers: children and youth in postcolonial Africa, edited by Alcinda Honwana and Filip de Boeck. Oxford: James Currey.

Honwana, Alcinda, and Filip de Boeck, eds. 2005b. Makers & Breakers: Children & Youth in Postcolonial Africa. Oxford: James Currey.

Muhula, Raymond. 2007. “Youth and Politics in Kenya: Promise or Peril?” Africa Insight 37(3):362–75.

Perullo, Alex. 2005. “Hooligans and Heroes: Youth Identity and Hip-Hop in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.” Africa Today 51(4):75–101.

Sommers, Marc. 2006. “Fearing Africa’s Young Men: The Case of Rwanda.” World Bank Social Development Papers (32).

Sommers, Marc. 2011. “Governance, Security and Culture: Assessing Africa’s Youth Bulge.” International Journal of Conflict and Violence 5(2):292–303.

Urdal, Henrik. 2007. “The Demographics of Political Violence: Youth Bulges, Insecurity and Conflict.” Pp. 90–100 in Too poor for peace?: Global poverty, conflict, and security in the 21st century, edited by Lael Brainard and Derek Chollet. Washington, DC : Brookings Institution Press.

Urdal, Henrik, and Kristian Hoelscher. 2009. “Urban Youth Bulges and Social Disorder: An Empirical Study of Asian and Sub-Saharan African Cities.” World Bank Policy Research Working Paper (5110). Retrieved May 3, 2013 (http://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=1503804).

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