One of the most common challenges of youth focused policies is their technocratic approach to address the challenges of youth and young people. When technocratic approaches dominate, policies and strategies are loaded with the discourses of good governance and instrumentalise young people either as ‘dividend’ or ‘bulge’. At the core of such policies lies an apolitical approach towards analysing either the nominal inclusion or structural exclusion/marginalisation of young people. The apolitical tone and content of youth focused policy frameworks enables setting stronger normative thresholds but paradoxically is ineffective in practically reshaping the lives of young people.
This essay aims to put forward the following three interrelated points towards the forthcoming regional youth strategy by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) as indicated in the Regional Strategy 2016 -2020.
Conceptual clarity on ‘Youth’, ‘Young People’ & ‘Youthfulness’
Conceptual clarity is a major step towards an effective policy. Hence, it is imperative to make a distinction between young people as members of a society and ‘youth’ as a social category. Young people are persons who share the same age cohort. The African Union Youth Charter for example sets 15 to 35 as age boundaries to define young people. Hence, when we talk about young people, we are talking about a specific segment of the population. In this segment of the population, we have men and women, students, workers, farmers, traders, parents etc.
Moreover, depending on the existing socio-economic and political dynamics, young people may also have a leading presence within different aspects of societal dynamics. For example, the expanding young population in most IGAD countries inevitably leads to an increasing presence of young people in political processes such as elections and popular protests as well as other dominant socio-economic trends such as migration. The salience and visibility of young people in politics, conflict and post-conflict situations as well as in the informal economy can be a sufficient ground for youth focused policies. However, I argue that youth focused policies need to go beyond recognising the increasing presence of young people within society. Policies should have a broader aim towards positively shaping the quintessential shared identity of young people, i.e. their ‘youthfulness’. This requires approaching youth as a social position.
Youthfulness is ‘a distinct social location between childhood and adulthood’. In such position of liminality, young people are less constrained by responsibilities unlike their adult counterparts. But they are also inhibited by minimum experiences, skill, economic, political and social resources and power. Age is one factor in shaping this social position of youth but not the only factor. Rather, the most crucial elements in affecting the social position of youth are shared dispositions, common challenges and opportunities, aspirations and desperations, lifestyle, fashion and identity.
Youthfulness is hardly a granted social position. Rather, it is a fluid state defined by constant processes of contestation and negotiation both among the youth as well as between youth and adults in positions of power. The contestation for youthfulness is well-captured in the notions of ‘stuck’ and ‘waithood’. By taking the case of rural youth in Rwanda, Sommers explained how young men’s youthfulness is compromised by their failure in ‘building a house’. Young men’s constrained youthfulness is also reflected on young women’s inability to pass through socially acceptable route of being an adult through marriage. On a similar vein, Honwana adopted the concept of waithood to explain how youthfulness can be shaped by socio-economic and political structures. The notion of waithood also addresses how young people navigate through the terrains of socio-economic and political structures to claim and fulfil their ‘youthfulness’.
One way of ensuring the effectiveness of the forthcoming IGAD youth strategy is through according equal recognition to both the demographic status and the social position of youth. Often times, these two distinct but not unrelated positions are conflated. Failure to differentiate these two positions leads to generalising young people either as a ‘dividend’ or a ‘time bomb’. Such homogenising discourse hardly recognises the diversity among youth across gender, socio-economic status, cultural background, religious lines etc.
Concerted effort towards understanding how youthfulness is claimed and experienced among young people of the IGAD member states can open ample room not only to recognise but also to value the diversity among youth. For example, youthfulness in the pastoral communities of the IGAD region has distinct experiences and manifestations than agricultural communities. Likewise, new social phenomena such as the emergence of digital technologies as vital spheres of social interaction also affect young peoples’ lives to a various degree. On the one hand, social media can serve as a created space of exercising civil and political rights that are curtailed in the formal structures of political mobilisation. On the other hand, digital technologies can also play a vital role in facilitating young peoples’ pursuit for better life opportunities through migration. Both the similarities and diversities among youth can be well-captured only if policies can transcend the categorisation of youth as a mere demographic group. Recognition of youthfulness is also a vital departure point to understand and enable youth agency.
The Double Edges of Youth Agency
The notion of youth agency can explain both individual and collective efforts of young people towards ‘claiming and reclaiming their youthfulness’. Such conceptualisation of youth agency can offer a nuanced perspective to discern whether the exercise of youth agency is primarily serving the youth or the power elites. It is also important to emphasise the vital role of power relations between youth and powerful elites in understanding youth agency. Since agency is contingent on the constraining or enabling role of structures, power elites in a privileged position of socio-economic and political structures can manipulate youth agency. In other contexts, the youth can also exercise their agency to resist and challenge asymmetrical power relations or to survive the pressures of structural inequality.
This entails that there are different forms of exercising youth agency. For example, in Ethiopia and Uganda, young people are co-opted and mobilised by the respective ruling parties to constitute a youth wing or a pro-government militia group. This shows how political elites can take advantage of the numerical dominance of young people within society to consolidate and legitimise their political power. The result of such manipulation is a prevalence of ‘tokenism’, nominal inclusion or participation of young people in mainstream politics.
On the contrary, youth agency can also help us understand how youth are constantly engaged in activities of claiming and reclaiming their youthfulness towards ensuring smoother transition into adulthood. Examples of exercising such kinds of youth agency include ‘getting by’ or ‘[to] eke out a living’, ‘hustling’ and ‘side-hustling’. Di Nunzio’s notion of hustling explains the ‘varieties of activities of survival’ by marginalised youth in inner city Addis Ababa whereas, Mwaura’s ‘side hustling’ explores how educated young people in Kenya are engaged in alternative income earning activities.
The forthcoming IGAD regional youth strategy needs to recognise that youth agency is a double edge sword. It can be manipulated to satisfy the political ambition of political elites as well as to enable youth in their navigation towards achieving socially acceptable status of adulthood. The following point with further elaborate the vital role of political dynamics in influencing youth agency and youthfulness.
The salient role of politics
Last but not least, it is important to note the underpinning role of politics in shaping both youthfulness and youth agency. Politics can be understood as the processes of negotiation, co-operation and contestation in the production, control and distribution of resources. Both the demographic dominance of young people as well as prevailing narratives about youth can contribute to the ways in which political elites pursue their politics. This means the power of political elites to control the distribution and access of resources that the youth can potentially access inevitably influences the experiences of youthfulness. With this regard, the evolution of youth employment focused policy frameworks in Ethiopia over the last 18 years can be a good example.
Ethiopian legal and policy frameworks that focused on youth employment evolved from framing young people as ‘dangerous vagrants’ to ‘marginalised social forces’ and, more recently, as ‘seeds of democracy and development’. In 2004 the Ethiopian government issued a Vagrancy Control Proclamation (VCP) and National Youth Policy (NYP) consecutively with contradicting narratives. On the one hand, the VCP criminalised youth survival activities such as youth hustling, proposes punishment as remedy with police, courts and rehabilitation centres playing a key role, while also adopting a purely technocratic policy to address youth marginalisation and enhancing youth participation with the active role of government and civil society. The criminalising discourse of the VCP created a sour relationship between the youth and the government in the build-up to the 2005 elections. The NYP on its part played a negligible role either in addressing youth marginalisation or softening state-youth relations.
The political dynamics after the highly contested 2005 elections put politics at the center of state-youth relations. A post-election political crisis brought thousands of protesting urban youth to the street. As a response, the government formulated a new policy framework called the Youth Development Package (YDP) in 2006. Compared to the previous youth focused documents, the YDP carried better leverage in shaping the socio-economic and political life of urban youth especially in Addis Ababa. The policy document problematized the structural and institutional manifestations of youth marginalisation with practical political remedies. The government initiated a youth consultation platform called Youth Forum in Addis Ababa, which has continued to serve as an invited space of youth participation. Similarly, the government also augmented its efforts of resource distribution targeting young people through micro and small scale enterprises. Both the youth forum and the job creation programs have continued to serve as invited spaces of shaping the relationship between the government and urban youth in particular. This confirms how politics as a process of co-operation and negotiation in the distribution of resources can directly affect the way young people can claim and exercise their youthfulness or youth agency.
The Ethiopian government has clearly demonstrated its strong commitment to use distribution of resources and facilitation of economic opportunities as key political strategy in its relation with young people. With this regard, the revision of the micro and small scale enterprises strategy in 2011, the two consecutive Growth and Transformation Plans (2010; 2015) and the recently adopted Revolving Youth Fund (2016) are solid validations. However, recent political developments tend to show that a political strategy that attempts to solve only one side of the equation – economic opportunities, can hardly sustain unless it is accompanied by, at least, proportional political reform.
As mentioned in the beginning, the aim of this piece is to put forward three interrelated points towards the proposed regional youth strategy in IGAD. To summarise, making a clear distinction between young people as a demographic section or youth as a social position helps to avoid a homogenising approach. Likewise, recognising the inherent power relations in the exercise of youth agency allows understanding both the constraining and enabling role of socio-economic and political structures towards youthfulness. Finally, the ‘primacy’ of politics in shaping policy narratives as well as the distribution of resources proves that apolitical youth focused policies will always remain ineffective in influencing the lived realities of youth.
Dr. Eyob Balcha Gebremariam is currently based London School of Economic and a LSE Fellow. His research interests focus on the politics of development, African political economy, youth and citizenship. Dr. Eyob blogs on www.eyobafrikawi.blogspot.co.uk and can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org / email@example.com.
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 Bayat, Asef. 2010. “Life as politics.” How ordinary people change the Middle East. Amsterdam.
 Ibid: 116.
 Christiansen, Catrine, Mats Utas, and Henrik E. Vigh. 2006. Navigating youth, generating adulthood: social becoming in an African context. Nordiska Afrikainstitutet ; Bayat, Asef. 2010. “Life as politics.” How ordinary people change the Middle East. Amsterdam; Sommers, Marc. 2012. Stuck: Rwandan youth and the struggle for adulthood. University of Georgia Press; Honwana, Alcinda Manuel. 2012. The time of youth: Work, social change, and politics in Africa. Kumarian Press Pub.
 Sommers, Marc. 2012. Stuck: Rwandan youth and the struggle for adulthood. University of Georgia Press, 2012; Honwana, Alcinda Manuel. 2012. The time of youth: Work, social change, and politics in Africa. Kumarian Press Pub.
 Sommers, Marc.2012. Stuck: Rwandan youth and the struggle for adulthood. University of Georgia Press, 2012. Pgs 115-139.
 Honwana, Alcinda Manuel. 2012. The time of youth: Work, social change, and politics in Africa. Kumarian Press Pub. Pg: 24.
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 Honwana, Alcinda Manuel. 2012. The time of youth: Work, social change, and politics in Africa. Kumarian Press Pub.; Di Nunzio, Marco. 2012. “We Are Good at Surviving”: Street Hustling in Addis Ababa’s Inner City.” In Urban forum, vol. 23, no. 4, Springer Netherlands; Mwaura, Grace Muthoni. 2017. “The Side-Hustle: Diversified Livelihoods of Kenyan Educated Young Farmers.” IDS Bulletin 48, no. 3.
 Ibid 442; Ibid 54.
 Leftwich, Adrian, ed. 1996. Democracy and development: Theory and practice. Polity Press.
 Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia(FDRE).2004. “Vagrancy Control Proclamation”; Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture (MoYSC). 2004. “National Youth Policy.”; Ministry of Finance and Economic Development (MoFED). 2010. “Growth and Transformation Plan, 2010-2015.”; Ministry of Finance and Economic Development (MoFED). 2015. “Growth and Transformation Plan, 2015-2020.”
 Gebremariam, Eyob Balcha. 2017.”The Politics of Youth Employment and Policy Processes in Ethiopia.” IDS Bulletin 48, no. 3.