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Many policy-makers consider the African youth population an asset, a “demographic dividend;” but as with any asset, it only yields dividend if one invests properly and creates the optimum conditions. These conditions are far from being the reality in many countries in Africa, in particularly “fragile states.” According to the African Development Bank (AFDB), 20 out of 36 fragile states are in Africa with a total population of 200 million people. In other words, millions of African youth live in countries or communities experiencing a set of systemic disturbances (conflict, ‘bad neighborhood’, economic crisis, sociopolitical and environmental shocks) that negatively affect their state’s decision-making process, its ability to ensure security and provide expected basic services to its populations.

More than any other segments of the population, youth take the brunt of the state fragility and systemic dysfunctions, due in part to the fact that they are still in a life stage focused on the development of core human assets, such as: skills on literacy and numeracy, critical thinking and problem solving abilities; the building up of social assets consisting of networks of supportive adults, community spaces and structures, peer groups and life partners; along with the creation of financial assets (wages, access to both savings and credit services). Drivers of state fragility also impact youth supportive structures and institutions, such as family, community, and associations. As a result, some young people find themselves in situation of vulnerability, where they lack access to supportive services (health, education), institutions (school, workplace, family, etc.) and resources (land, finance, information and knowledge). This vulnerability reinforces the sense of exclusion and marginalization.

Therefore, the challenge for African states, particularly fragile states is to harness the potential of their youth population and reap the promised “demographic dividends.” One of the difficulties in investing on youth development has been targeting the most appropriate segment, particularly the most vulnerable and the hard to reach groups, those youth who may feel excluded or those who are already at the limit of engaging in destructive behaviors. Failing to include them in youth development interventions risk undermine the stability of a country and jeopardize its future.

Anatomy of vulnerable youth

The United Nations defines ‘youth,’ as those between the ages of 15 and 24 years. Yet the African Youth Charter refers to youth as a person between the ages of 15-35. Approximately 65% of the total 1 billion people living in Africa represent those below the age of 35 years, and in most countries of the region, over 35% of the population is between the ages of 15 and 35 years – making Africa the most youthful continent. However, the sociocultural reality goes beyond the age marker. In African countries, just as in many states around the world, the definition of youth is grounded in local realities and perceptions. In some cultures, there are several rites of passage an individual has to go through before graduating to adulthood. In many places in the region, youth is associated with marital status (being single), a student or at age of being in school (which can reach up to 35 years for university undergraduates) and not yet financially autonomous (that is still relaying on family or other individuals). The overall perception of youth is associated with some level of vulnerability; this perception of vulnerability reinforces the sense of dependency and in some cases exclusion in decision making, particularly for young girls.

While most youth in fragile states are vulnerable, those who have links or access to one or more support structures and institutions (family, schools, workplace/apprenticeship, youth centers / associations) seem to be more resilient. Therefore, the profile of vulnerable youth takes different shapes:

Unemployed out-of-school –This is a very broad category of youth, which may include many of the categories discussed below. These are out-of-school youth who have completed either primary, secondary education, vocational schools, universities, or some types of formal education. These youth have no access to appropriate work or income generating activities in the formal sector. Educated youth and those who have never attended formal education struggle to look for alternative livelihood pathways. In most fragile states where there are no legal protection frameworks for these youth, they face harassment, abuse, and extortion by the police and local authorities, as they go about building their livelihoods. This treatment reinforces their sense of exclusion and marginalization.

However, this is still a broad category, which in most cases hides critical groups of vulnerable youth who run the risk to be left out if not purposefully targeted:

Orphans and youth affected by HIV/AIDS – There are 48.3 million orphans in Africa (UNECA). The three main contributing factors are diseases (HIV/AIDS, malaria, etc.), poverty, and an increasing number of youth runaways.
Orphans as head of household including young single mothers–This group of youth faces particular difficulties as they have entered parenthood abruptly, generally without the necessary preparation and support (psychological and social). They struggle with their own internal transformation as they mature from youth to adulthood and at the same time take care of family members and children. The pressure is sometimes higher for single mother, particularly those who reside in the rural areas. For example, in Burundi approximately 30,346 orphans are the breadwinner of their households (UNICEF).
Former gangs and militia members of different conflicts – These profiles of youth are generally those who fall in the cracks of Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR.) processes. They are left out of many civilian assistance programs, on the assumption that they have received the DDR reinsertion package. As a result of this exclusion, most of them end up roaming the streets of major cities at best or worst they join gangs or militia groups selling their services to the highest bidders. Countries of the Mano River Union (MRU) are well too familiar to the rage of these groups.
Youth with disabilities and victims of human trafficking – There are no reliable statistics on youth living with disabilities, but given the economic and social factors, it is safe to argue that this category of youth faces stiff challenges that can only aggravate their vulnerabilities.

The world’s youth population is very diverse. The most vulnerable youth are left out from development programs and interventions because of broad categorization during the design of these programs. In fragile states, most youth are vulnerable, but not all vulnerable youth are reached by youth development and livelihood programs. When vulnerable youth are not purposefully targeted by a program, they generally do not take advantage of it. In some cases, they are “pushed out” by other youth who are more equipped with advanced skills, education and have access to supportive structures and institutions.