What can you claim to realistically do about the lack of economic opportunities for young people in fragile settings? What are appropriate levels of ambition for NGO programming? You may find that what you have to offer falls short of what young people need - decent jobs and secure livelihood options.
What can you do?
There are two main entry points for NGO programming to strengthen young people’s economic agency. One is to stimulate entrepreneurship and create the conditions for business development. The other is to focus on strengthening local livelihoods, through saving groups, microcredit schemes and vocational training.
Both, however, centre on opportunities for self-employment rather than job creation. The first approach is promising in terms of self-employment and may stimulate the broader economy, but the question is whether it works in settings of extreme fragility. The second approach seems particularly suitable to settings where monetary resources are very limited and markets are remote, but the question is whether it can boost young people’s economic agency enough in the long run.
What does experience show?
Formal employment at a significant scale is not available in most fragile settings and NGOs are unlikely to change that. Most NGOs will find themselves contributing to self-employment or, more modestly, adding to the patchwork of income generating activities that help young people get by.
The challenge is how to offer real prospects for economic independence and help young people get ahead.
The policy debate around economic opportunities for young people has been strongly shaped by the idea of ‘employment for stability’, suggesting that “jobs for young men” are an effective antidote to potential recruitment in militias and criminal gangs. But how appropriate is this as a starting point for NGO programming?
More evidence from our research
Looking beyond employment
The idea of ‘employment for stability’ is very attractive. As the president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, states: “Jobs equal peace. Jobs can make fragile countries stable”. The question is whether or not this assumption holds in practice. Is violent conflict in fragile states really the consequence of young men having no jobs? And even more importantly, are jobs actually being created?
Organizations develop a range of economic opportunity interventions in fragile settings, under diverse headings. Where some speak of ‘entrepreneurship’ and ‘business development’, others use keywords such as ‘economic resilience’, ‘economic empowerment’ or ‘economic citizenship’. Despite the different terminology, they all have the dual imperative “to generate material welfare benefits and to contribute to peace-building outcomes”. However, next to a range of other studies on the topic, what we learn from Mallet and Slater is that economic opportunity interventions seldom realize either of these outcomes.
Many organizations have responded to the concern of limited economic opportunities for young men and women in fragile settings. But few of their programmes actually lead to jobs. What they do, at best, is help people be self-employed or add another option to the range of income generating opportunities that people have developed.
Evidence from fieldwork
Our research confirms the rather grim picture sketched above. Where some of the organizations in our study aim to generate jobs, this is mostly about self-employment. Others do not define ‘employment’ as a central goal, but try – with a range of strategies – to support young men and women in generating an income. Among the organizations that participated, we identified different objectives, including entrepreneurship, economic resilience or economic citizenship.
Some of the participating organizations focus on entrepreneurship and business development. They believe in supporting businesses that have potential and helping them grow. In doing so, they create economic opportunities for the entrepreneur, and, if the business proves to be successful, for others too. This type of work focuses for example on value chains (examples from our fieldwork are honey in South Sudan and sorghum in Burundi). Activities include business plan competitions, entrepreneurship trainings or micro credit.
On the other end of the spectrum, NGOs try to improve people’s livelihoods and aim to increase their resilience to economic shocks. They engage young men and women in collective saving schemes, sometimes combined with income generating activities such as making and selling bricks. Many of these activities target subsistence farmers and help them diversify their income.
In practice, organizations also combine the different approaches. Some activities, such as vocational training, are utilized in both approaches.
Helping young people get ahead?
These interventions help people get by, but do they help people get ahead? This is a critical question, especially when considering young people. Young men and women need prospects and opportunities to build up lives of their own.
In some cases, interventions can turn the lives of individual beneficiaries around. A Burundian beneficiary of one of the programmes explained that over a five-year period, he took out a loan from a savings association, invested it in rice cultivation, paid the loan back, and, from the profits, managed to acquire four goats and two pigs and build a durable house.
However, another respondent involved in a similar association explained that some people are able to make small changes in their lives and are involved now in agriculture, but for many the change isn’t long-lasting
These outcomes are far removed from employment on a significant scale. With employment come many benefits that such interventions do not offer, such as stability and a transfer of risk from employee to employer. With this in mind, NGOs should question how much they really have to offer and aim for more realistic ambitions.