When Violent Conflicts Are Youth Conflicts

Governments and development organizations should pay more attention to unemployed youth, who often play a catalyzing role in violent conflicts around the world.

By Yvonne Chen
February 28, 2012

Last month, the Moroccan youth who self-immolated were part of an ongoing protest by unemployed university graduates. They were imitating Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit vendor who set himself on fire and started the Arab Spring over a year ago. During the Egyptian revolution, BBC reporter Paul Mason’s number-one insight was that “at the heart of it all is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future.”

These acts of desperation by dispossessed youth point to a large problem of youth-bulge related violence. Samuel Huntington’s study of revolutions in history showed that an unusually high proportion of young people in the population leads to increasing insecurity and makes countries especially prone to conflict. In fact, the French Revolution and the rise of Nazism coincided with a male youth population above a critical level of 20 percent of the total population. Today, these “youth bulges” help explain the recruitment of young people into terrorist networks and civil wars.

As illustrated by the self-immolating protesters, youth are more likely to turn to destructive protest and conflict when they feel desperate due to failures in the educational system and a lack of employment opportunities. In a powerful call to truth, a Rwandan Movement Leader following the genocide was quoted as saying, “If youth can be such a powerful force that can destroy a whole nation, why do people overlook our resources when working for peace?"

The message is clear – a large youth population plus poor economic opportunities can be a formula for violence. This is a worrisome thought considering that youth under the age of 24 now make up 50 to 65 percent of the population of the Middle East (youth make up 10 to 30 percent of the population in developed countries).

Youth bulges are a security threat and should not be ignored. Decision makers who continue to view conflicts by traditional explanations – such as religion and ideology – are missing the point. Countless cases in contemporary history, from the struggle for independence in Kosovo to the rise of Al Qaeda, have shown that violent conflict is often linked to a large, dispossessed youth population. At the same time, countries with weak political institutions are most vulnerable to youth-bulge-related violence. Yet much foreign aid to institutionally weak countries is wastefully spent on counter-insurgency efforts. Instead of pouring money into counter-insurgency, policy-makers ought to increase foreign aid for evidence-based programs such as economic development projects targeted at creating jobs for youth.

To that end, USAID should designate specific funds for youth work placements, self-employment grants, and job-training in countries with high youth unemployment rates. Moreover, reducing youth unemployment should be brought into the mainstream of national development strategies. The price of these programs is small, and they provide great bang for the buck compared to full-scale wars.

Photo courtesy of how will i ever via Flickr.

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