Youth Explosion in Developing World Cities: Approaches to Reducing Poverty and Conflict in an Urban Age
By 2030, it is estimated that over 60 percent of the world's population will live in cities, and that 60 percent of urban dwellers will be under the age of eighteen. Almost all of the growth will occur in developing countries, where already, close to 30 percent of the urban population lives below official poverty lines. Some have argued that urbanization, poverty, and the presence of large youth cohorts can destabilize nations, but causal links between these phenomena remain tenuous. On February 10, 2003, the Comparative Urban Studies Project convened a forum on "Youth Explosion in Developing World Cities: Approaches to Reducing Poverty and Conflict in an Urban Age" to more fully understand the relationship between urbanization, youth, poverty, and conflict.
As Ann Van Dusen, Vice President of Save the Children, noted in her keynote address, the development community has been slow to adapt to the complexities of urban living. Despite the great potential for urbanization to improve livelihoods for youth, cities have also been classified as a "kind of Darwinian universe," where only the tough survive. History has shown that urbanization cannot be stopped, but it can be transformed into a positive process, improving life prospects for youth while fostering both democracy and economic growth.
During the first panel, "Demographic Shifts and Conflict in an Urban Age," Barney Cohen, Director of the National Academies' Committee on Population, commended the increasing attention youth are receiving within the development community. In his discussion of current demographic trends, Dr. Cohen noted that in both absolute and relative terms, youth populations are growing in cities of the developing world, mostly in small and medium sized cities. It is estimated that 200 million more 10 to 24 year olds will live in these cities in the next 25 years. According to Dr. Cohen, this cohort constitutes a demographic bonus, providing a window of opportunity for economic growth due to large groups of working age individuals, low dependency rates, and higher savings rates. Yet, as guaranteed government employment programs are phased out, both national and local policymakers will need to be creative as they devise strategies for capitalizing on these temporary windows of opportunity.
The second panelist, Marc Sommers, Research Fellow at Boston University's African Studies Center, highlighted the strong sense of alienation among youth in African cities. Dr. Sommers maintained that youth in urban Africa view surviving in the slums of the city as a new rite of passage. Highlighting the youth's appropriation of the American rap "All Eyes on Me" by Tupac Shakur, Dr. Sommers argued that youth in cities often celebrate their outcast status. Despite perceived and real notions of alienation, however, youth in African cities have not historically been the catalysts of conflict. In fact, according to Dr. Sommers, conflicts in Africa usually begin in rural areas, causing masses of youth to flee the countryside. Claims that urban youth cause conflict, therefore, seem unfounded in the African context.
According to Tarik Yousef, Assistant Professor at Georgetown University, the Middle East has received the lion's share of attention regarding urban youth and conflict. Yet, economics alone cannot lead to violence, Dr. Yousef argued. Despite the challenge of truly unprecedented levels of unemployment, he noted, conflict is not inevitable. High levels of poverty and large inequality gaps, not unemployment alone, are more likely to result in conflict and both of these happen to be relatively absent in the Middle East. Whilte intergenerational conflict and competition amongst excluded youth cohorts are perhaps probable, alienation among youth, conventionally thought of as the cause of conflict, might in fact heed positive outcomes. By forcing youth to demand a renegotiation of the social contract, their initial sense of isolation might in fact empower them and extend democracy in the Middle East.
Sharon Morris, of the U.S. Agency for International Development, concluded the first panel by highlighting the importance of considering political processes and local governments. A large youth cohort need not be destabilizing, she said, but whether or not it is depends in large measure on whether political elites are constructively harnessing the potential of youth or whether they are using youth in a destructive manner. The fact is that violence unfolds along lines of patronage in much of the developing world because young people are easier to mobilize, are often affected by issues of honor, and often live according to immediate economic rewards.
In the second panel, "Linking Youth to Employment Possibilities," Amina Rasul-Bernardo, of the Magbassa Kita Foundation, described current conditions for Muslim youth in Mindanao. Although tensions between Muslims and Christians in this region are hundreds of years old, Ms. Rasul-Bernardo claimed that armed hostilities have historically been infrequent. Recent patterns of unequal development have created sizeable disparities between Muslim and Christian provinces, fueling "conflict by magnifying the sense of marginalization and exclusion" that youth feel. Integrating youth into the local governance structure, through participatory practices such as the youth council in the Philippines, can help maintain stability by fostering a sense of empowerment among youth. Simultaneously, vocational and technical training can advance the economic prospects for youth in both urban and rural areas.
On average, young people are two to three more times likely to be unemployed than adults. In an effort to realize the Millennium Declaration goal of finding "decent and productive work" for young people everywhere, the United Nations has created the Youth Employment Network. Steven Miller, Secretary of the Youth Employment Network, argued that the first necessary change needs to come in the form of a conceptual change: youth need to be considered an asset, not a problem. Mr. Miller maintained that youth employment programs inform general employment strategies, but they must center around employability, equal opportunities, entrepreneurship, and employment creation. In addition, Mr. Miller argued that city governments can play a critical role in facilitating a favorable regulatory environment, improving youth prospects for work in the informal economy, and encouraging infrastructure investments.
Despite considerable economic growth in recent years, high rates of unemployment persist in much of Latin America. Caroline Fawcett, Assistant Professor at American University, noted that rates of youth unemployment are more than double the rates for adults, and school-to-work transitions have been elongated. Since the informal sector is the entry point into the labor market for almost all youth, it is vital that policymakers take heed of such realities. In an effort to devise long-term solutions, Dr. Fawcett noted the importance of targeting the poorest of the poor and fostering stronger stay-in-school incentives.
During the third panel, focused on street children, Clementine Fujimura, Associate Professor at the United States Naval Academy, described the hazards of the urban environment for street children in Russia. Dr. Fujimura noted that rampant disease and dangerous environmental conditions paint a bleak picture for street children in Russia, who live according to myths about urban life and their own invincibility. Cultural taboos preventing open discussion about HIV and other sexually-transmitted diseases further endanger the lives of street children. Furthermore, what Dr. Fujimura perceives as an already overwhelming feeling of helplessness, ambivalence, fatalism and victimization among Russians is exaggerated among street children.
According to Rosemary McCarney, Executive Director of Street Kids International, street involved youth are an urban phenomenon, and remain absent from the policy agenda. Children become involved in street life for a complex and serial set of overlapping issues, she said, ranging from war and conflict in some places, to family breakdown, or the need for supplemental family income in other places. Current programs aimed to help street involved youth are skewed toward emergency responses, addressing mainly issues of hunger and shelter. According to Ms. McCarney, current interventions often do not address the persistent patterns of poverty, or the inability to effectively prevent and treat AIDS patients that cause youth to become street involved in the first place. Ms. McCarney argued that the myths, stigmas, and stereotypes of adolescence need to be dispelled and that we must be careful not to stigmatize youth further by insinuating that youth foster terrorism. The issue should be guaranteeing human security, Ms. McCarney maintained, and ensuring youth the right to work, the right to access health care, and the right to access education as they need it.
Sarah Thomas de Benitez, Executive Director of International Children's Trust, concurred with Ms. McCarney that urban street children must be prioritized on the policy agenda. The urgency and intensity of this challenge was best summarized, she said, in a quote by Ximena de la Barra of UNICEF who said that "being poor is in itself a health hazard; worse, however, is being urban and poor. Much worse is being poor, urban, and a child. But worst of all is being a street child in an urban environment." Street children live outside the usual norms of society, have a much lower probability of being able to access formal education and are easily exposed to street accidents, chronic skin infections, STDs, and abusive sexual relationships. Ms. Thomas de Benitez noted that the way street children earn their money is "usually sporadic, always marginal, sometimes criminal and always in the informal market." All of these circumstances combine to form a multiple barrier of exclusion. Thus far, the development community has responded with three different approaches: reactive programs, protective programs, and rights based programs. Reactive programs are predicated on the understanding that street children are a threat to public order, thereby heavily utilizing the juvenile justice system. According to Ms. Thomas de Benitez, these programs further alienate homeless children. The protective approach is based on the understanding that children need extra attention to reintroduce them into normal socializing systems. Although these programs can provide temporary solutions to the problems of street children, said Ms. Thomas de Benitez, they are charity driven and often do not address the priorities of the children themselves. Ms. Thomas de Benitez argued that the rights based approach, which sees street children as human beings whose fundamental rights have been violated, was the best of the three choices, but it takes time and money to make such large structural changes.
The urban environment can promote development and improve livelihoods, but it can also aggravate despair. Current demographics trends indicate that a window of opportunity exists at the present moment for policymakers to capitalize on large cohorts of working age youth. Yet, understanding the potential of youth will require that societies dispel the many myths about the inherent violence of youth. It is not enough that we make youth a priority on the policy agenda, we must seek to understand them and ameliorate the alienation they feel.