New research: Overcoming systemic barriers facing young people in African cities

Jul 11, 2024

By 2050, half of Africa’s population will be under the age of 25. This makes young people key to development outcomes across the continent’s cities, with youth often regarded as the “makers or breakers” of the future.

A new ACRC paper presents research into the challenges facing young people as they transition to adulthood in five African cities: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Freetown, Sierra Leone; Kampala, Uganda; Maiduguri, Nigeria; and Mogadishu, Somalia.

ACRC’s youth and capability development domain research aimed to investigate commonalities in youth capabilities, as well as the political and systemic influences that shape them, across diverse urban contexts.

The authors of this paper – Olha Homonchuk, Elizabeth Dessie, Nicola Banks, Katja Starc Card, Susan Nicolai, Nansozi K Muwanga, Imrana Buba, Zainab Hassan, Haja R Wurie and Eyob Balcha Gebremariam – uncover prevalent systemic barriers hindering young people in African cities from fulfilling their potential, particularly within social welfare systems and politics.

Young people in the cities studied emphasised the importance of quality education, vocational skills training programmes, financial services, health services and political participation. The research revealed that while youth have high stakes in political settlements, they also have little power – undermining their ability to influence and improve the social systems affecting their livelihoods.

The five cities studied were chosen because they have youth-majority populations and have been affected by conflict. City-level research teams drew on secondary and primary data collection, with primary data collected through individual interviews and focus group discussions with participants ranging from 15 to 30 years of age. Research teams were committed to distinguishing between the experiences of different vulnerable groups of young people – including young migrants and those living in refugee camps – as well as documenting how these challenges differ based on gender and socioeconomic status.

Key findings

The capabilities of young people are hindered by a number of factors:

  • Political settlements that exclude young people and restrict their influence on policy agendas and ability to hold government agencies accountable;
  • Insecure labour markets, characterised by under and unemployment, nepotism and corruption, financial exploitation and sex discrimination – with many young men joining militia groups or organised youth gangs to meet social and economic needs, and young women more likely to encounter exploitation and sexual discrimination during job searches;
  • Limited opportunities to acquire skills, with poor quality formal education and vocational skills programmes that lack relevance to the labour market – plus private provision for the better off perpetuating socioeconomic inequalities;
  • Little mental health support for symptoms caused by the stress of conflict and economic insecurity – leading to substance abuse as a coping mechanism – as well as severely restricted access to reproductive health services.

Policy implications

Our findings highlight the need for urban policy reform. Multisectoral youth programmes need to be broadened to incorporate youth skills training and mental health support. As a first step, it is crucial to assess the existence of long-term, locally-led initiatives of this nature that can be expanded or scaled up.

Young people need protection and support in labour markets, particularly those vulnerable to exploitation in informal apprenticeships. Technical and vocational education and training (TVET) curricula should be regulated, to address quality differences in such programmes.

Meaningful inclusion of young people in decisionmaking is also required. Youth often find themselves forced to align with existing power networks to access any benefits at all. Youth empowerment and capability development projects need to meaningfully collaborate with young people during research and programme design phases. This would support the creation of sustainable interventions that are relevant to young people and meet their needs.

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Header photo credit: AnjoKanFotografie / iStock. Young people outside an electrical shop in Kampala, Uganda.

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