youth violence: it’s not just for poor countries anymore

In case you haven’t looked at the internet recently, London is burning. After spending the last 11 weeks researching youth frustration and violence, it occurs to me that I have a few ideas about why that might be. OK, Sierra Leone and the UK are really different. But the key findings of my report read something like this: youth are unemployed, excluded, frustrated and will do almost anything to be heard in Sierra Leone. I’m not in London, but it seems like the same goes for British youth.

So based on what I’ve learned in Sierra Leone, here is my initial analysis.

Poor young people (this is mostly poor young men, and the case of developed countries it is often poor young men of color) feel like they are being screwed over, excluded and ignored by the government. In the case of the UK, this is largely because thy are being screwed over, excluded and ignored by the government. Jobless benefits are being cut, all social services to the poor are being cut, the cost of universities is tripling this year. We can have a separate discussion about the wisdom/necessity of these cuts, but they are real and are really affecting people. The exclusion and being ignored piece is also an interesting problem–in democracies politicians pay attention to the people who vote for them (and I would argue also to those with whom they can identify personally), and youth vote infrequently and run for office even less frequently. So the need for better participation absolutely cuts both ways.

One of the biggest complaints of youth (and rightly so) is always unemployment. Minority male youth unemployment is always the highest of all. This leaves youth feeling not only excluded and ignored, but also like they have few prospects for the future. People who feel like they have few prospects for the future a) have nothing to lose by being violent and b) have few other ways of venting their frustration. They do not see themselves, for example, as being able to voice their problems in a way that someone will listen and respond. This is because typically no one ever has. These are the people who have no ability to impact society in any way except negatively. Basic human needs theory says that everybody needs to be recognized, so they are doing what they need to do to be recognized.

On the other hand, young people are also the most influence-able demographic. Genetically and physically young men are the most impulsive, least rational group of humans. They are also the most vulnerable to peer pressure. This plays directly into the constraining effects of society’s dominant discourse on masculinity. Predominant concepts of masculinity dictate that they have to live up to certain standards, and there are harsh social consequences for those who do not meet these. Many of these are tied directly to financial success and/or societal influence, which are difficult for young marginalized men to achieve (see above). There are different ways to meet these standards: for example being good at sports, acquiring (and objectifying) a lot of women, etc. But when any or all of those don’t work out, violence is an acceptable substitute because it approximates the masculine ideal that you get from those other things. In Sierra Leone during the war, this meant that poor youth were able to access women and wealth that they never would have had access to without the use of violence. But it also meant that they were able to upend the traditional social hierarchy, and wield power in society for once. Fear means a certain measure of control, and when control is hard to come by, it starts to seem like a viable option. I’d venture that we’re seeing the same dynamic play out on the streets of London.

Clearly there are many issues at play here: government policy toward the poor, youth participation in decision-making, masculinity, the nature of violence. On further reflection, it’s kind of surprising how much “poor” countries and “developed” countries have in common when it comes to youth crises of this nature. One thing that is definitely true across the board is that it is not random or “senseless”. There are good reasons these things happen. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ve seen the last of this kind of youth violence, whether we’re talking about London or Freetown.

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on the ethics of learning

I always end my interviews and focus groups by asking the participants if they have any questions. They always have the same one. Even though I always explain the purpose of the research before the interview starts, I get asked at the end how my being here is going to benefit them. There is not a good answer to this question, so I’ve taken to being as direct as possible: it won’t, in any immediate way. There are huge challenges facing youth, many of them wildly outside the scope of even a superbly designed and executed conflict transformation program. One village I visited needs a market facility so women can sell their vegetables, another one needs more nurses at the government clinic. They all need teachers to stop asking for money as a condition for giving grades. I hate the question, but it definitely keeps me honest.

For one thing, the entire exercise of a 3 month unpaid internship is completely, 100% self-interested. Of course I knew this going in. I like to think I am more mature than the first time I came to Africa, now 5 years ago. One of the ways I’ve grown is that I no longer imagine that the world’s problems remain unsolved because my generation hasn’t taken our best shot yet. There is a lot for me to learn. So here I am, learning. But the privilege inherent in that position is sometimes overpowering. It turns the world into a personal laboratory or studio for me—just asking for experimentation and creation. I have the opportunity to use my critical thinking skills, my imagination, my observations. But the raw materials are human lives, in all their complexity, and I sometimes feel that I have no right to make them my personal curriculum. At a minimum, it seems fair that they get to ask me what they get in return.

Am I causing harm by asking people about their problems and then offering no solutions? I think probably not. But when the main issue I am encountering over and over is youth frustration, I worry that youth’s naturally high expectations of all westerners could lead my presence here to be misconstrued. It’s hard for someone with little knowledge of research to comprehend why I would be interested in hearing about problems that I don’t intend to solve. I worry that it leads to disappointment, and more frustration.

To be fair, the report I am writing will not do nothing. It will, I hope, help target our youth conflict transformation strategy in Sierra Leone, which will ideally make us more effective at reducing tension and violence in the future. But that won’t build a market or hire more nurses, and these issues are understandably high on people’s list of grievances.

Maybe my reaction to the dreaded question means that I’m not cut out to be a researcher, which is very possible. And of course the offering of tangible goods and services, a totally different but still common intervention by westerners in Africa, is fraught with its own challenges. I shouldn’t be surprised that my work is a delicate ethical balance. That is, obviously, part of what makes it interesting—and a fantastic learning experience.

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from god to man

Yesterday I had my first taste of poyo palm wine, the naturally alcoholic and deliciously sour liquid found in a certain palm tree in Sierra Leone. I was in a village about 10 miles from Bo to conduct focus groups. Sounds straightforward, right? Well, so far it never has been. When we arrived at the appointed time, there was no one there to have the discussion with. So Emmanuel, the local intern who has been helping me with logistics in Southern Province, went to find the youth leader, who would undoubtedly know where everyone was. This left me sitting in the middle of the village with the chief, who spoke zero English and wore a traditional West African outfit with Oakley sunglasses. For the next 45 minutes or so, word traveled that there was a bumui (white person) in the village, and just about everybody came by to either greet me or stare at me.

When we were finally assured that the appropriate youth were “mobilizing” for the meeting, we had some more time to kill. Somebody asked if I had ever tried poyo, and when I said no, suggested that it is the best way to pass time in Sierra Leone. So out came several gallon jugs of what looked like lemonade. Poyo is naturally carbonated, so it was not unlike beer, except that it is sour and tastes very natural. A gallon of it costs Le1,500, which is about 30 cents. It’s so cheap because it is not brewed or fermented—just climbed for. Somebody climbs the straight, smooth trunk of the palm, cuts into the trunk of the tree in a particular way, and drains the poyo. There are strict limits on how much you can take from one tree, in order to avoid killing the trees.

That the poyo comes out as a perfectly complete alcoholic refreshment is something of a miracle. That’s why Sierra Leoneans always refer to it with a hearty “From God to Man!”

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In Bo

I’ve been in Bo for about a week now. I’m here, and in the surrounding villages, to do interviews and focus groups for the report I am writing on youth issues. The general idea is that in order to have a tight and targeted youth strategy, a worthwhile step is asking youth what their issues are. So here I am, asking.

Bo is awesome compared to Freetown in several important ways. The first, and biggest for me, is air quality. I can’t stop feeling like breathing here is equivalent to drinking when you are really thirsty. The air is so sweet. The smoke comes from cooking fires, not trash fires. There are actual flowers growing all over the city, a consequence of its being much more spread out and not nearly as congested. And the major mode of transportation is okada, or motorbike, which means that there are hardly any four-wheeled vehicles on the road at all. You can regularly get where you are going in under 10 minutes door to door, which in Freetown would be completely unheard of unless you were walking somewhere 10 minutes away.

In my pretty limited experience, I’ve always liked field offices. They tend to be more laid back and more sensible of their surroundings than head offices. Here in Bo the staff eats a communal meal together at midday, and spends plenty of time hanging out on the veranda listening to the radio or just chatting. I think there is something about capital cities that induces people to act as if they always have somewhere else to be, even when they don’t. Besides getting to see more of the country, those are some reasons that I am enjoying being out of Freetown for a little while.

My internet access is limited, so I hope you won’t mind if the posts are clumped together!

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some thoughts on youth unemployment

Ask anyone in Sierra Leone what the biggest problem for youth today is, and they’ll tell you unemployment. This makes sense. The kids who missed school because of the war are now youth. Many felt they were too old to go back to school. Traditional livelihoods, especially agriculture, were disrupted as well, leaving skills un-transferred from one generation to the next. Youth who had broken out of their traditional subservient roles into ones of wielding some power, even if through violence, were often reluctant to return to the old ways. This contributed to rapid and intense urbanization after the war (an exaggeration of a trend already happening in Sierra Leone and most other countries in Africa). Combine that toxic mix with an economy that was shrinking for many years, a state that was being plundered by successive regimes, and the outside world’s reluctance to invest in an unstable situation, and you get high unemployment.

Depending on how you define “employment” and “youth”, it is somewhere in the neighborhood of 70%.

But what, exactly, can be done to reverse the situation? The answer depends, as I have noticed a lot of things here do, on who are talking to. Since I’ve been doing a lot of talking to people about this, I’ve taken the opportunity to ask the question directly: what should be done and who should do it?

When talking with policymakers, there are two trends: they focus on the big picture, and they talk a lot about foreign assistance. For example, one senior youth focused policymaker says that the only way to solve the unemployment crisis is through expanding the economy. Period. It won’t happen any other way. But he also points out that NGOs will have to play a significant role. When I ask for clarification, he points out that the government is severely underfunded and has no ability to give handouts. This leaves training, micro-lending, and general capacity building to outsiders. Policymakers acknowledge that most new employment will have to be in the private sector, and refer me to other ministries for progress on that front.

Here in Bo and the surrounding villages, the responses look and sound a little different from those in the capital. Local and traditional leaders cite the importance of you being self-reliant and not constantly waiting for handouts. They say that youth today are less interested in working than they used to be. (What elders, in any place, at any time in the history of history have not said this?). They happily confide in me that youth are “not serious” and therefore can’t expect to be taken seriously.

And when you talk to youth, before you can even ask a question, a mess of frustration, ambition and expectation spills out. “Youth are ready to work”, “the elders are wicked and greedy”, “we are never consulted in decision making”, “every time we try to do something for ourselves we get stuck because of poverty, marginalization, or both” were phrases I heard just this morning. Even educated youth are unlikely to find formal employment, and most aren’t educated. The pressure on them to provide for their families, not to mention uphold expectations of masculinity by their communities, is enormous. From where they sit, they are being frustrated in their ambitions by greedy politicians and political leaders who see a landscape of scarce resources and seek to retain as much for themselves as possible. And they’re angry about it.

Having made it my business to elicit all three of these sets of opinions, I firmly believe that they are all more or less true. Maybe that is taking the easy way out as a researcher, but it seems to me that elements of each of these perspectives on the youth issue are clearly warranted. Senior policymakers in Freetown share my view that even in a perfect polity with no corruption and a 100% tax collection rate, Sierra Leone would still be extremely poor and have to make horrible choices about resource allocation. The local and traditional leaders are right about youth today being less ready to work—in agriculture. There has been a shift in youth attitudes toward work, and its underpinnings are undoubtedly found in the war and the fast urbanization it caused. That is a reality that has to be contended with. And, of course, I can see for myself that youth are marginalized and excluded from decision-making, and as their numbers steadily increase, opportunities for fulfilling their ambitions and others’ expectations are diminishing. Add to this that there is now a nasty combination of plenty of rhetoric and very little action being thrown at the youth problem, and you naturally get anger and frustration.

The scary piece of all of this (at least from the outside, where hunger is depressing, not scary) is that this situation is really very similar to the situation before the war. That youth frustration, marginalization and eventually mobilization to violence was a major cause of the war is widely accepted here. That the war in turn caused further youth frustration and marginalization is not that surprising, but still cruel. There are good reasons that Sierra Leone is not headed for another rebel war. But elections have traditionally been a time of instability, with rival political parties mobilizing youth to violence on their behalves. And there is a presidential election next year. With intractable unemployment fueling resentment and really young, really motivated population, the next 18 months or so in Sierra Leone should be a pretty interesting time to watch.

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happy birthday, South Sudan!

The huge news in Africa today is the emergence of the world’s newest country tonight at midnight. Since that will be 9pm here and I won’t have internet for the next few days, I will take this opportunity to wish South Sudan the best. Considering the party that was thrown (and the buildings repainted, shops renamed, number of flags hung) for Sierra Leone’s recent independence anniversary, I can only imagine what Juba will be like tonight. In any case, the whole continent (and I like to think the whole world) is rooting for South Sudan today!

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I have recently discovered perhaps the most delicious delicacy ever. At the restaurant across from my office on Bathurst Street in Freetown, where I eat my lunch most days, they have something that is only referred to as “pancake”. On any given day, there is only one thing on the menu (today it was “vegetables rice” a delicious sort of rice salad with plenty of hot chili stew), so this is a big discovery. It is basically a banana pancake, made with very fresh bananas, deep fried. High calorie? Probably. High deliciousness quotient? Definitely.

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