Unspoken assumptions: youth, participation and the African policy process

by Dolf te Lintelo

Demographic change, persistent and disproportionate unemployment and their feared implications for political disorder are key drivers of growing donor attention to youth as a development category. Bi and multilateral donors thus increasingly seek to mainstream youth related goals on health, education, employment and governance into development policies that cater to youth needs and aspirations (GSDRC 2011). While youth participation in policy processes has potential to channel their energy, passions and frustrations, it often turns out to be deficient, tokenistic, or too episodic to be meaningful (SPW/ DFID-CSO Youth Working Group 2010; GSDRC 2011; McGee and Greenhalf 2011). Donors thus increasingly seek mechanisms to enhance youth participation (GSDRC 2011), raising questions such as what is meaningful participation? How can voice be extended into influence? Who should participate, through what forms, and how can participation be appropriately institutionalised?

This paper argues that answering these important questions will require donors to pay greater attention to existing national youth policies (NYPs).  The paper analyses the NYPs with reference to contemporary debates on youth in policy processes, and focuses on two aspects of the policy environment. First, it analyses philosophies of intervention of the NYPs, through an assessment of target groups; roles assigned to urban and rural youth; the social construction of the ‘youth development problem’ and youth images; and the institutional organisation of the sector (cf. Wallace and Bendit 2009). Second, it considers how policy documents assert particular models of the policy process, to suggest a propensity for particular forms of youth participation. Accordingly, we assess how NYPs incorporate normative and empirical perspectives on the policy process, in particular regarding the role of evidence, knowledge, expertise and collective action by state and non-state actors.

In the first section, the paper discusses youth policies in international arenas to note the great variation in the ways in which youth is conceptualised and operationalised in policy and legislation. The next section explores policy discourses to assess the unspoken assumptions that underpin youth policies in Nigeria, Tanzania and Zambia. We first summarise key debates in the international development community, and then analyse the philosophies of intervention of case country youth policies. Next, the paper places the NYPs within the context of academic debates on youth participation. The last section offers a conclusion.

File: te Lintelo, Unspoken assumptions, revised.pdf