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Cross-post: a (somewhat provocative) piece from the IDS Blog, addressing the increasing focus in many development programmes on bringing “youth” into labour markets, and some of the issues that are missed in the process.
Youth and young people are becoming a hot topic among development donors and actors. But who exactly do these “labels” apply to, and are they too broad for effective policies? Or do they create too narrow a focus which is blind to larger structural issues?
Varyingly, youth are identified as “at risk” – of unemployment, of marginalisation or abuses – or “as risk”, where they may engage in undesirable activities from crime to terrorism, armed violence or migration. However, there are also many calls to understand youth “as opportunity”, particularly in the context of Africa’s “youth bulge” and its promise of a vast demographic dividend.
A recent visit to the Dutch Royal Tropical Institute (KIT) and some great discussions with research colleagues there, brought some clarity into the interlinked promises and problems arising from development actors’ burgeoning interest in youth and work. Clearly, a better understanding of the specific vulnerabilities and needs of particular young subpopulations is useful, and related efforts should be welcomed.
But if applied wrongly, a simplistic focus on young people (or a narrow “youth lens”) may obscure more than it illuminates. The reasons include categories that are too unclear, heterogeneous needs and what a “youth” focus misses.
In the context of questions around young people’s labour market prospects, particularly in agriculture, which both IDS and KIT are working on, these are particularly salient.
It’s good to see microfinance researchers seriously studying alternatives to microloans or other microfinancial services. Very poor people need assets and a helping hand more than a loan, so why not hand out a cow or some other income-generating assets, offer training, and provide basic healthcare? That’s what an 18-month “Ultra-Poor Programme” run by SKS Microfinance in India did. But the randomised impact evaluation performed by Jonathan Morduch of New York University, Shamika Ravi of the Indian School of Business and Jonathan Bauchet of Purdue University on this programme turned up a “null” result, similar to those of randomised studies of microfinance.
Perhaps it is surprising to see SKS Microfinance (India’s largest microlender before 2010, and now perhaps most notorious microlender) giving non-repayable one-off kickstarts to ultra-poor households. But the intention of the programme was not purely altruistic; it was to “graduate” households into microfinance, by giving them assets to start a business.
In the programme in Andhra Pradesh evaluated by Morduch/Ravi/Bauchet, people who got a free asset and training to become microentrepreneurs were found to be no better off later than those who didn’t. They also didn’t manage to reduce their debts or increase their savings any more than others. Why? The authors believe it is
explained in large part by substitution with other economic activities. […] During the study period, wages in agricultural labor were rising steadily in the region, so that households in the control group were able to improve their economic conditions in parallel with households in the treatment group. (35)
The opportunities outside the self-employment programme offered similarly improving incomes as the opportunities offered by the programme itself. To what conclusion should this lead us about the concept of entrepreneurial self-lift out of poverty? Overall, the take-home message from the authors is eminently logical: