CONSTRAINTS – Beyond your control?

Question 5: How do you address the factors limiting young people’s economic possibilities?

  • Political exclusion is a main limiting factor.
  • NGOs recognize constraining factors but struggle with how to bring about systemic change.
  • Local authorities tend to delegate the responsibility of economic opportunities for young people to NGOs.

Enhancing the economic prospects of young people is not only a matter of skills and resources; it is also about the social, economic and political environment. How can you address these issues? Need an explanation of terminology used? Visit our glossary.

What can you do?

Recognize the limitations to what you can achieve with your programmes – limitations that stem from economic and political fragility. Though many NGOs aim to create an ‘enabling environment’, most struggle with how to achieve change at the system level.

What does experience show?

To some extent, NGOs address economic, political and social constraints in their programmes. One option is to work on young people’s awareness of these constraints, although this method does not tackle the constraints themselves. Another option is to focus on advocacy (concerning economic legislation for example), but any results are likely to take a long time to trickle down.

A somewhat controversial issue is how to deal with political constraints. Local authorities are happy to relegate the task of employment creation to NGOs. Some organizations work with local duty bearers to promote the interests of young people. Others, however, prefer to keep their distance, afraid to legitimize ‘bad governance’.

Political exclusion and favouritism is an issue highlighted by young people and agencies alike, but is it something that NGOs can address? Rarely do organizations seem to work on political exclusion beyond the local level.

Where some organizations train young people to resist political manipulation, they do not address the manipulators themselves.

Organizations also find enabling and constraining cultural factors. Violent livelihood practices (such as cattle raiding) are often given a high-status and organizations find it hard to present people with equally attractive alternatives. They also aim to change cultural norms around gender to enhance young women’s income generating opportunities.

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Our discussions with NGOs revealed their concerns and struggles. They asked: “how [can we] achieve systemic change?” and “how [do we] deal with wider societal factors around youth?” Such factors are not only economic, but also political and social.

The challenge of political exclusion

In our research, young people in Burundi and South Sudan identified political exclusion as one of the major obstacles to economic opportunities. Many young men expressed that they cannot access positions because these are ‘reserved’ for those who are loyal to the people in power. This explains why and how politicians can manipulate young people.


Young boys are attracted to political movements where they hope to find employment opportunities, but most are trained in political violence and run the risk of losing their lives or ending in prison

[young woman, Cibitoke, Burundi].


NGOs recognize these problems, but find themselves in a difficult position to tackle them. Organizations are dependent on the permission of power-holders to function, and taking a political standpoint might jeopardize their ‘license to operate’. An interesting approach to such challenges, from one of the consortium members, is to focus on young men’s awareness of political manipulation with the aim of making them less vulnerable.

Duty bearers

Our research found that duty bearers, mostly local authorities and civil servants, but also religious leaders, acknowledge exclusion, but downplay the extent of it. In Burundi, duty bearers feel that NGOs have no business addressing such sensitive issues, with the exception of gender exclusion. During a workshop, they said that the role they see for NGOs is to provide services for which they themselves lack the expertise or resources. They also insisted that NGO activities should align with their preferences. They argued that too often NGO activities fail to generate lasting effects and blamed this on a lack of coordination with the authorities.


What can make a project fail? When NGOs come without any collaboration with the authorities. In that case there is no link between the NGO and duty bearers. Sometimes there is only contact between NGOs and beneficiaries directly, but when the NGO leaves they are not linked to the authorities or any other instance” 

[civil servant, Buganda, Burundi].


The organizations in our study differ on how to best address this. Some work directly with local duty bearers, especially local government authorities, aiming to promote accountability and inclusive governance. Others find this problematic, and feel that working ‘with’ corrupt authorities might legitimize bad behaviour and thus deepen rather than solve problems of exclusion and favouritism. Furthermore, donors funding NGOs may restrict the involvement of such actors for similar reasons. One of the organizations studied navigates this complex arena by involving local authorities on a personal level instead of in their official role.

Cultural change

The organizations in our research found cultural norms and practices to be very relevant to their programmes. Most of them work on gender. Gender is a highly sensitive issue in all the contexts researched, and income generating activities might be a relatively low-threat entry point to achieve some gender equity outcomes. Alongside supporting women in developing economic opportunities, NGOs try to influence gender norms. In Burundi, for example, vocational training allowed some women to work as masons, a type of job previously reserved for men.

In South Sudan, gender norms prevent young women from pursuing education and engaging in income generating activities. Interviewees explain that families prioritize marriage. Young girls represent future wealth (often the only source) for the family because of dowries in the form of cattle. In south Sudan, respondents referred to dowries as the wealth or goods the families of the bride receive. Young girls are kept at home so as not to become ‘spoilt’ and ‘lose their value’. Male siblings depend on their sisters’ dowries, as they will need cattle for marriage themselves.

Other programmes focus on local perceptions of masculinity. In Rumbek, South Sudan, for example, young men are expected to participate in cattle raids for the benefit of their families and their own future, perpetuating cycles of violence and insecurity. One of the organizations studied conducted pilot programmes that supported a group of young men to discuss cultural norms surrounding ‘being a man’ and how these tie in with conflict.