YOUNG PEOPLE – Do you know what they want?

Question 3: Do you know what young people need - and want- to become effective economic actors?

  • Young men and women suffer strongly from a lack of economic prospects, which they attribute to various forms of exclusion.
  • Most young people prefer white-collar jobs, but know they will have to settle for less.
  • Young people worry about being criticized for being “idle”.

Young men and women in fragile settings aspire to move ahead in life, but feel severely limited in their possibilities. How much do you know about the needs, ambitions and experiences of young people in the different contexts in which you work? What do you know about their efforts to get ahead? Need an explanation of terminology used? Visit our glossary.

What can you do?

Start with the realization that young people in fragile settings try to create prospects for themselves, but encounter numerous obstacles. Young people are not the problem; they have a problem – and likely more than one. NGO programming might be able to address some of these problems as young people experience them.

What does experience show?

Across different contexts, young people value white-collar jobs in the public sector the most. These are the occupations that bring economic security and status. However, they are also well aware that chances to obtain such jobs are very slim, and, likely they will have to settle for some form of self-employment, in agriculture, petty trade, or setting up a small business. Most often, young people engage in a combination of these.

Young people in fragile settings experience numerous obstacles. Local markets are limited or saturated, insecurity limits the possibilities for trade and education, and job opportunities are only available to people with the right connections.

Urban educated youth are frustrated by the lack of opportunities outside of agriculture.

 Women in particular feel limited by cultural norms. Men feel criticized for being ‘idle’ and a burden to their families and communities.

Despite the many frustrations, most young men and women try to achieve a decent livelihood. Though they understand why many of their peers turn to destructive behaviour such as alcohol, drugs, or prostitution, or to gangs or militias, they try to avoid these paths. They also try to group together to create better options.

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More evidence from our RESEARCH

A hierarchy of jobs

Young people in fragile states want to get ahead socially as well as economically. Our research found that young people’s desires form a clear hierarchy, with some variations across settings.

Alone at the top of the list are white-collar jobs in public service, such as in local administration. Working for an international NGO, although not mentioned as often, is also held in high regard. Not much is expected from jobs in the private sector, as larger companies are often absent in fragile settings or fail to offer attractive wages. Consequently, self-employment becomes the most feasible alternative, yet still some occupations are valued much more than others. Self-employment covers a wide range of activities, from opening a small bakery that fills a local niche, to selling bars of soap for minimal profit. Casual manual labour figures at the bottom of the list.


Interest in agriculture varies among young people. Urban or educated youth typically dismiss it, but rural or less educated youth sometimes value it. This stems from cultural norms and expectations but also from successful examples. In a workshop in Bujumbura, for example, young people from Cibitoke expressed interest to engage in cash generating agricultural activities, such as rice or fruit production.


Our research shows that young people value income generating opportunities for more than just economic gain. Generally, white-collar jobs are expected to come with significant status. Some of these jobs do not necessarily pay well, but they bring other benefits and grant power. For example, the ability to offer positions to others, thus allowing people to ‘pay back’ those who supported them when pursuing education.

In some cases, educated youth choose not to engage in economically viable activities they feel are below them.


The problem for most of the youth is, we still want the white collar jobs... you find someone with a diploma in agriculture running around looking for a job, and yet he has the skills to employ himself... go and farm and earn from it

[young man in Wulu, South Sudan].


There is also considerable social pressure put on young people. Families invest in education and expect a return. Young people feel stigmatized and criticized for being “idle”.

“Idle minds are the house of the devil”

Our research confirms that such criticism and stigma of young people is widespread, both in Burundi and South Sudan. Such beliefs were also found among some NGO staff, including those who are expected to work with youth. Stigmatization is a reason that young people are desperate to engage in any activity, regardless of the payoff, yet it also makes it difficult for those that are perceived as idle to escape their situation.


Young people experience multiple forms of exclusion that seem to reinforce each other, on the basis of ethnicity, political affiliation, gender, or simply not having the right connections. Political exclusion is mentioned frequently in Burundi, where it is seen to block educated urban young people’s access to white collar positions. One respondent in Burundi explained:


The other type of exclusion is that linked to family relations or friends, you need to have someone that introduces you into the service. Even those that are members of the ruling party compete on this basis

[Young woman, Rugombo, Burundi].

What do young people do?

Faced with this reality, many youth engage in the next best option: self-employment. As the following quotes from Burundi illustrate:


My brother finished his studies 10 years ago and he is still waiting for a job. Without finding one, meanwhile he has started a hair saloon.” [Young woman, Kinama, Burundi]. “Young people are ready to practice all kinds of trades but the big challenge that remains is the means to start activities that require a prior investment.”

[Young man, Mutimbuzi Burundi].


This is where NGO programmes might come in. They could address some of these problems, such as critical bottleneck around skills and access to capital.


Many young people mentioned that they engage in self-organization to improve their situations. As a group, they are better able to access NGO funding. However, organized youth risk being perceived as a threat. In Burundi, youth gatherings termed 'ligalas' had a negative connotation. One person said this about youth:


Their time is spent in the ligalas where they adopt bad behavior, like theft

[Young woman, Rugombo, Burundi].


Our research found that local authorities held negative perceptions towards organized youth and insisted on influencing such associations even when they were founded in the framework of NGO programmes. In South Sudan, the researcher and partners decided against organizing a workshop, fearing that authorities would not accept it.