Youth unemployment is a particular concern to the peacebuilding agenda and has resulted in the prioritisation of giving young people jobs in post-conflict countries and an increase in resources for youth employment projects. This article challenges the traditional theory of the change underpinning these projects that job creation for young people will naturally strengthen social cohesion and decrease the risk of violence. It argues that this simplistic formulation fails to answer fundamental questions and overlooks the possibility of a trade-off between job creation and peacebuilding objectives. In doing so, it limits the potential of these projects and may even result in causing unintended harm.
It draws on examples from three post-conflict countries in West Africa: Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea-Bissau.
Unlike traditional youth employment projects, peacebuilding projects with a youth employment focus have twofold objectives: (1) giving jobs to young people and (2) promoting peace in post-conflict settings. The impact on either of these is unknown; rigorous evaluations are scarce and those that exist tend to focus on immediate outputs, such as how many jobs the project creates, rather than longer-term outcomes.
While there is evidence of a correlation between high levels of youth unemployment and violence, determining causality is not possible. This leaves many questions unanswered. Are there particular groups of young people who are at particular risk of violence if unemployed? Is it unemployment specifically that leads to violence or lack of socio-economic opportunity? Are unemployed young people more vulnerable than those who are underemployed or employed under exploitative terms? There is no evidence that youth employment projects in post-conflict affected settings create long-term stable jobs or long-term improvements in their professional status.
These unanswered questions affect the design, implementation and evaluation of youth employment projects. Is the objective to create jobs or to create jobs that are specifically intended to promote peace and social cohesion? Who gets get these jobs? Most projects only benefit a small number of youth and projects are generally unspecific when identifying criteria for target groups. While the multiplier effect is often evoked, how it happens is often left unspecified. Identification often implicitly targets ex-combatants even though they represent only a small proportion of the overall youth population. Clarifying whether projects are aiming to address either: (a) youth populations at large, (b) certain categories within the overall population, or (c) those who have already shown they are at risk of engaging in violence is important for policy and programming purposes.
The paper cautions against designing and implementing programmes on the basis of untested assumptions. The recognition that youth unemployment is an issue likely connected to the risk of violence and instability does not demonstrate that youth employment projects are the best, or a cost-effective, way of tackling in post-conflict settings. The two objectives of job creation and peacebuilding are not necessarily mutually reinforcing; at times they may even be in competition. For example, a project that has supported young people at risk of engaging in violence may not have achieved the first objective in creating jobs, but it will have contributed to the second objective. Assessing who these people are, not just the quantity, would support identifying the extent to which projects have achieved these individual objectives.