STABILITY – Linking back to violence?

Question 6: How do your programmes reduce violence?

  • Most organizations are not confident about how their programmes address causes and processes of violence.
  • Despite the pervasive problems young people face, most youth stay away from violent livelihoods.

Youth economic opportunity programmes in fragile settings claim to contribute to peace and stability. Many organizations find it difficult, however, to demonstrate peace-building impacts. Need an explanation of terminology used? Visit our glossary.

What can you do?

A first step is to define how you think your programme influences the dynamics of conflict and violence. The second step is to trace these processes more systematically, but expect only partial confirmation at best.

There are three main options for programming if you are attempting to make an impact on peace and conflict. You can focus on ‘youth at risk’, reducing inequality and exclusion, or conflict transformation.

What does experience show?

Responding to the ‘employment for stability’ agenda, many NGO programmes target youth at risk, such as ex-combatants, aiming to attract them to non-violent livelihood options. This approach risks ‘securitizing’ youth – labelling them as a security threat – instead of offering them secure livelihoods. Other organizations find this limited and look in other directions.

Many programmes work on inclusive economic development as a key to transforming the root causes of fragility. Such an approach may reduce structural economic, social and political inequalities, and, tackle the frustrations such inequalities generate.

Economic opportunity interventions may also target local conflict transformation. Organizations expect that giving people a shared purpose and including young people in decision making will defuse local sources of tension.

Young people are not only motivated by economic incentives, but are also in need of social recognition and respect.

Though there are strong theoretical arguments as to why these strategies might work, it remains difficult to directly attribute peace and conflict outcomes to NGO interventions.

Interestingly, experience shows that despite the frustrations they experience, most young people do not turn to violence. Perhaps the real challenge is to understand how they manage to preserve dignity, cohesion and hope.

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Ultimately, economic opportunity interventions for young people in fragile settings aim to contribute to peace and stability. However, exactly how this might be achieved remains ambiguous. In our research, organizations expressed that they did not feel confident about some of their assumptions and had difficulties demonstrating outcomes. 

Opportunity costs of violence

The idea that young men in fragile settings need jobs to stay out of violence has been very influential and echoes of it are found across NGO programmes. But, as we have shown, many organizations look beyond 'jobs' and beyond 'men'.

A core notion of 'employment for stability' is the so-called "opportunity costs of violence". Quoting this 2001 World Bank study by Collier & Hoeffler This means that a person will turn to violence if he has little to lose, and violent behaviour, criminal activity, banditry, or joining militia, emerge as attractive options.

Youth at risk

This logic inspires programmes to target ‘youth at risk’, hoping to offer them non-violent alternatives that are attractive enough to stay away from violence. Risk categories include ex-combatants, but also politically militant youth, and, in some cases, educated urbanites with high levels of frustration over the lack of opportunities.

In our research, we found that young people, duty bearers and NGO staff all recognize that there is a risk young men may turn to violence if they don’t have a source of income. They are also quick to point out that whether young people engage in violence or not also depends on frustration, trauma, manipulation and social norms.

Beyond “opportunity costs”

Young people act not only because they want to satisfy (immediate) material needs. They also seek recognition and respect for themselves and for the people they identify with. This is why it is important to understand the relative deprivation they experience, and the effects of horizontal inequality, which is linked to what young people see happening to the group they belong to. See the GSDRC reading pack by Cramer (2015): Jobs, Unemployment and Violence.  According to respondents in Burundi, educated urban youth fill the ranks of rebel groups. They are frustrated because they lack the opportunities they feel they are entitled to, not because they are unable to subsist. Social pressure contributes to this frustration because their families expect them to be successful. In South Sudan, some young people that are enrolled in vocational training and pursue economic opportunities beyond cattle raising keep weapons, mostly due to social pressures. They feel they are expected to help defend the family cattle, and potentially also to raid others’ cattle (as revenge, for example).

Reducing inequality and exclusion

The NGO programmes we looked at in this research incorporate a broader range of ideas about the connections between economic opportunities and violence. Although we found a variety of ideas in our research, two main approaches stand out. One is to reduce inequality and exclusion through inclusive economic development. The other is to work on local dynamics of conflict directly.

Inclusive economic development can potentially tackle structural causes of fragility and instability. By offering real economic prospects to a wider range of people, sources of frustration may be addressed. This approach requires ensuring that economic opportunities do not just work for one group only, but levels the possibilities.

Local conflict transformation

Many NGOs have experience working on local level conflict transformation. They seek to foster social cohesion, transform conflictive relations, and promote the inclusion of marginalized groups, including youth. At the local level, there are multiple complex processes, some cultivating peace, and some conflict. NGOs will try to strengthen and support the people and processes working for peace. There are instruments available to trace this, such as the community peace indicators that some organisations work with. However, it remains difficult to attribute far-reaching effects to the efforts of NGOs in such complex settings.

Final reflections

The ‘employment for stability’ narrative runs the risk of “securitizing” youth rather than offering them a secure future. It fails to recognize the many ways in which young people are also actors in peaceful initiatives. It is important to understand better how they manage to do so, despite the hardships they encounter, and find out how young people might inspire others.

As was suggested by a NGO staff member in Bujumbura:

Why are we talking about unemployed youth as if they are the problem? Let’s not pretend as if they are to blame for the situation we find ourselves in now!