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Marc Sommers’ interest in Africa’s youth dates back more than three decades to his work in Kenya, where he was headmaster of a girls’ secondary school. In the ensuing years, he has returned to Africa routinely as a scholar and analyst, and his growing body of research suggests that the prevailing wisdom about the continent’s youth is misguided and calls for significant reform. As a visiting researcher with the African Studies Center at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, Sommers (CAS’94) has written about postwar youth in Rwanda and South Sudan, among many other nations.

His new book, The Outcast Majority: War, Development, and Youth in Africa (University of Georgia Press), invites policymakers, practitioners, academics, students, and others to revise their thinking about war, development, and youth. The book concludes with a framework for reforming international development practice and policy.

With 200 million people age 15 to 24, Africa has the youngest population in the world. The current trend indicates that this figure will double by 2045, according to the 2012 African Economic Outlook report prepared by experts from the African Development Bank, the UN Development Program, and the UN Economic Commission for Africa, among others. A new study by the UN children’s agency UNICEF concludes that at current rates, by 2100 almost half the children under 18 in the world will be African. Already, according to the World Bank, youth account for 60 percent of all African unemployed. And Sommers points out that African joblessness disproportionately affects young women, who, even if they have skills, have more difficulty getting jobs compared with young men.

In addition to archival research, Sommers’ book draws on fieldwork involving hundreds of interviews with youth in war-affected African countries as well as sources in government, NGO, and development agencies. The work led him, he writes, to “a growing sense that the status quo won’t work.”

Bostonia spoke with Sommers about Africa’s rapidly expanding youth population, and why linking youth unemployment to national instability and unrest is not an accurate assumption.

Bostonia: What sparked your initial interest in Africa’s youth?

Sommers: I was a headmaster of a girls’ high school in western Kenya from 1982 to 1984. I was 23 and went there to teach English. As I was the only one with a bachelor’s degree teaching at my school, I was asked to be the headmaster. There I was introduced to gender and youth issues and what it’s like to be an adolescent girl, and a young woman. It was a major experience.

Were the ideas presented in the book taking shape over a long period?

The motivation for the book was my having done work on youth and education during and after wars for over 20 years. Increasingly, I realized that the current approach to dealing with Africa’s enormous youth populations will never work, and sometimes makes things worse. So that was the motivation, and I was fortunate enough to get a Woodrow Wilson International Fellowship, so I was able wrote the first half of the book at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Outcast Majority Book Cover

What type of fieldwork did you do for the book?

I did a lot of interviews with donors or implementers, practitioners in the field. And I drew on interviews with youth in 13 war-affected countries. I also interviewed African government officials. One thing I learned is about subtext: when you say youth in the development field, you’re really saying male youth. And that’s generated by a fear of male youth, and those unprecedented numbers of young people, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, creating real worry for governments. When I interviewed them, people said they know the development response is inadequate. But they’re not really sure what to do.

How did your findings collide with the conventional wisdom?

What I found countered the notion that if you have so many young people and not enough jobs, you’ll have unrest. The evidence doesn’t back that up. The demographics known as the “youth bulge” across Africa and most of the Middle East would cause instability just about everywhere, if it were true. But that isn’t happening. In Africa most civil wars are over, and most countries in Africa haven’t had wars, although there are still very serious situations in countries like Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Burundi, and South Sudan. But it just doesn’t follow that having huge numbers of youth means instability. There are far more cases where youth bulge countries haven’t had violence and instability.

What’s the main result of these assumptions?

That negative take, that fear, that concern, is what dominates perceptions of young people in a big part of the world. But if we take a careful look, what we see instead is the question, why are most youths so peaceful? The book uses that as a starting point: here’s what really is going on. And the irony examined in the book is that most youth see themselves as members of an outcast minority, rather than belonging to a majority. They see themselves as outsiders, working in a sea of exclusion.

What’s the role of NGOs in addressing the sea of exclusion you describe?

I learned that how development works is there’s tremendous pressure to demonstrate success. Development work has become very quantitative. Often agencies are under pressure to deliver statistical success. One unspoken issue is that in some cases elite youth are put into programs because it helps you get the numbers to generate the positive results they need. It’s a way to generate success. Some donor officials reported that they are aware of it, and nobody seems to feel good about this. But in interviews, donor and implementing agency officials explained that this is the system, this is how it works. Often the result is that favored youth are the ones who get into these highly valued programs. The other very unintentional result is being seen as effectively supporting a government that may not be popular in response to pressure to demonstrate success.

How might this problem be addressed?

There needs to be strategic targeting, to do an assessment and then prioritize. How can you demonstrate inclusion that is reasonable in an environment of exclusion? My framework recommends reforms for development practice. Education systems in Africa are set up so that most youth can’t get into secondary school; it’s been hard enough to get people into primary school. The unit cost per student for secondary school is through the roof, and in general children who go on to secondary school can’t farm afterward. The starting point is to do mainly qualitative research to find out about the context of the target group, and generate from that research which policies or practices you’re going to address. Then you advocate for reform. Most youths in Africa can’t gain recognition as adults, and there’s a huge population of unmarried mothers, which generally is thought to be shameful, in cultural terms.

So you’re saying that you can’t target populations for development and aid until you know what kinds of stresses they’re facing?

Yes. A challenge for many female youth, for example, is there’s no one to marry. Then a whole trajectory starts that is pretty much a downward one, one that’s not supposed to be happening and yet it’s happening in massive numbers. You can’t target that population effectively if you don’t know about them, and you can’t understand youth situations if you don’t address how they become adults—and whether they succeed or fail. You need a combination of policy and practice, with strategically targeted programs.

The problems you write about seem so overwhelming. Are you hopeful things will improve?

I think in a way the book is upbeat. It talks about things that need to be talked about, and it provides a response with a detailed framework. So I am hopeful.

I’ve interviewed a lot of government officials working at local levels who are very aware of the challenge. It’s crucial to listen to uneducated youth. A lot of people working in developing countries don’t talk to poor people, as often there isn’t any time. They get to the office to address a mountain of emails. When there are so many meetings and emails, how are you going to find time to talk to ordinary people?

My book is saying it’s hard to do sustainable development in a way that’s successful when there’s such a distance between practitioners and ordinary people. The reform framework at the end of my book suggests a positive way forward.