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The nexus between 'youth bulge' and armed conflict

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The nexus between 'youth bulge' and armed conflict

Minas Feseha

09 May 2018

6min min read
  • Youth and war

outh in most developing countries are a demographically significant section of the population. Most see themselves as an outcast minority and they are treated that way, which has been a challenge to most developing countries. In the discourse on youth, the issue of the multifaceted exclusion of youth is routinely overshadowed by youth bulge concerns, which are illuminated by quantitative data and correlations, not the views of the youth. This has led to a tendency which views young people as an undifferentiated mass who lack the necessary conditions for transition from childhood to adulthood. The reality arguably is far more prosaic. 

Even in the most when desperate and humiliating circumstances, the majority of youth resist engaging in violence or remain more or less peaceful with only a small minority engaging in armed violence. This article is divided into three parts – a brief introduction, the correlation between youth bulge and armed conflict and a conclusion.

Youth bulge and Armed Conflict

Youth bulge is a common phenomenon in many developing countries, and especially in the least developed countries. A central dynamic that explains the youth bulge phenomenon in developing countries is the situation where a country succeeds in reducing infant mortality, but mothers still have a high fertility rate. This leads to a situation where children and youth make up a large portion of population. 

Youth bulge has both advantages and disadvantages. Demographic dividends can be achieved when a country enjoyed the benefits of a youthful population which is absorbed into the labour market and contributes to socio-economic development. On the other hand, also entails that national level policy makers should emphasise the expansion of and job-skills training programs coupled with a focus on job-creation and housing

Youth often play an important role in political violence and the presence of a ‘youth bulge’ has been linked with political crisis. 'Youth bulge' discourse in the sphere of peace and conflict studies is often mistakenly understood as a cause-effect relationship, when it is better described as a correlation mediated by the impact of several intervening variables. In other words, it assumed that the youth bulge increases the risk of armed violence and such risk is mediated by the effect of two factors; structural conditions and social agency of young people. Structural conditions, similar to structural violence, refer to institutions or processes that create or assist in maintaining institutionalised and patterned systems of inequality and exclusion. There are institutions or practices of doing things that promotes inequality, marginalisation, exclusion and injustices, which blocks certain groups from fulfilling their potential or discriminate against them and constrain them from exercising their citizenship. Such systems are not natural but socially constructed historically.

Transition from youth to adulthood

The 2007 World Development Report conceptualised the five stages in the transitions 13 from youth to adulthood; acquiring knowledge through education to young adults starting to work, attaining new lifestyle to establishing families and taking active role in citizenship as structural conditionings. There are certain structures that are put in place in society either to facilitate so that young people have these transitions in those five areas efficiently or the lack of it in developing society that impede young people from having those transitions. In such cases, it would lead them into violence. For example, a key takeaway from the recent episode of electoral violence in Kenya is that youth unemployment, which was about 22.17%, can easily escalate into explode the political violence and civil unrest. According to a World Bank survey in the year 2011, nearly 40% of people who took part in rebel movements mentioned unemployment as a factor in leading them to join insurgent movements. It is these structural conditions in the context of a youth bulge that require proper attention.

The transition from child to adulthood has been restructured in recent years by a mixture of demographic, economic and cultural changes in which the transition from education to employment is at the heart of the challenge facing youth, especially in the global south. In recent years, there has been a gradual change from debates about ‘children’ as the victims of violence to ‘young people’ as a risk to security and stability. Furthermore, there have been manifold claims that a surging youth bulge; combined with joblessness and other related factors, leads to violence. For instance, Africa’s population is growing relatively fast and is projected to reach around 2.4 billion in 2050, which is about two times its current level. By that time, it has been predicted that 40% of Africa’s population will be below the age of 15 years and 60% below 25 years. It is now widely recognised that creating acceptable livelihood opportunities for young people is a pressing challenge facing Africa today and denial of those conditionings would lead them into violence. 

Interlinked structural conditions

As indicated above, we should have to understand that youth bulge is not synonymous with armed violence. A statistical connection cannot be taken as a predicator of war as many countries with youth bulges have not experienced bouts of violent conflict. Malawi, Zambia and Botswana can be taken as instances where states with a relatively high youth bulge are free from armed conflict. It can also be argued that youth bulge presents a ‘demographic window of opportunity’ if it is backed by economic opportunities in countries like China, South Korea and Japan. 

In strong governance settings with healthy political and social systems, incompatible interests are managed and ways found for various groups to pursue their goals peacefully, but when there is poor governance and weak social and political systems, complaints, disagreements and rivalry for resources are more likely to become violent. For example, an expanding corpus of works explains the Arab Spring and the expansion of religious extremist movements in the Middle East through demographic shifts and the youth bulges.

"The five fundamental transitions, namely; education, employment, new life style, family formation and exercising citizenship are essential elements for the wellbeing of the youth."

What makes the issues of youth bulge and attaining those five transitions more challenging is that the transitions are interconnected and can negatively affect each other. Libya, during Muammar Gaddafi’s rule, possessed an extensive social welfare system, but politics was characterised by the absence of popular participation and transitions in citizenship. The structural conditionings or transitions are interlinked and affect each other, and the Libyan experience arguably exemplifies their interdependence. The argument could be made that in spite of the Gaddafi regime assuring some of the structural conditions for its youth, it was the regime’s failure to ensure other ‘structural conditionings’ that led to armed conflict in the Libya. 

Social agency

The second reason is the social agency of young people themselves. Disrupted transitions do not lead invariably to a large proportion of the youth becoming recruited into, or volunteering for rebel movements. It is only a small proportion that embraces the option of violence. Youth agency refers to the capacity of young people to process what is going on around them, rationalise it, articulate strategies of survival, define their own agendas, gather resources to pursue their agenda, form alliances with different groups and push their own agenda. In the context of armed conflicts, the social agency of young people is often marked by survival, social mobility, social status, agenda setting for social change, resiliencies to test exclusion, manipulation, social injustice, political operation, etc.

The available evidence clearly shows that more nuanced analysis and understanding of the linkages between the youth bulge phenomenon and violent conflict is necessary to better understand the predictors of violent conflict. The available evidence shows that even in the event of blocked transitions or absent structural conditions, youth do not invariably opt for violence. The factors that potentially affect the decision to engage in violence include basic survival, material wealth, setting their own agenda, acquiring certain status, co-optation into power structures, opportunity to circulate ideological orientations that justifies them to challenge injustices and so many other related reasons. 

An apt illustration of the above dynamic is research from the conflict in Liberia which reveals that for many youth, economic challenges and the incentives of employment and the promise of loot functioned as the major motivator for young soldiers loyal to Charles Taylor in Liberia. A key aspect of the relationship between youth bulges and political violence that is often elided in the literature is the instrumental role and function of violence. Youth engagement in violence is often a strategy for upward social mobility.

Youth bulge by itself is not the main factor that encourages youth to commit violence, rather it is lack of structural conditioning that are essential for transition from childhood to adulthood. The five fundamental transitions – education, employment, new life style, family formation and exercising citizenship – are essential elements for the wellbeing of the youth. Failures to provide for these rudiments would highly motivate young people to engage in armed violence.

This is a version of an article that was first published in the January-February 2018 Horn of Africa bulletin by our content partner, Life & Peace Institute.

(Main image: Albert Gonzalez Farran/ UNAMID/ Flickr)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.