Krijn Peters - Youth, Jobs and the Role of the Public Sector in Developing Countries




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Oct 04, 2015
by Krijn Peters
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Krijn Peters - Youth, Jobs and the Role of the Public Sector in Developing Countries

Associate professor in armed conflict and post-war reconstruction at Swansea University, Wales on how motorcycle taxis are helping ex-combatants contribute to the economy in post-war African countries Krijn Peters speaks at the Salzburg Global session on Youth, Economics and Violence

We all know the challenge ahead: the current youth bulge, as is manifesting itself in the global South, will require the creation of hundreds of millions of additional jobs. If we fail to do so, it will result in socioeconomic marginalization and misery for young people at an individual level, and social unrest or even violent conflict on a national level across large regions of the world. The key question is: Who should create these jobs, the public or the private sector? A major problem with the first - particularly true for development countries - is that it often has limited means at its disposal. This may not be such a problem for the private sector, where the revenues of the largest multi-national corporations (MNCs) outdo the Gross National Product (GDP) of some of the smaller developing countries, but its focus on profit does not automatically generate more jobs for young people, let alone decent jobs with a living wage. That said, the private sector is more than MNCs, and in developing countries in particular includes the large informal sector populated by traders, farmers, small-scale miners and day laborers among others. But the question remains, who should we turn to for job creation?

In search of an answer, it may be instructive to look at the post-war reconstruction process that follows the end of contemporary armed conflicts. Here the challenge is to rebuild the war-ravaged country - war has sometimes been labelled as "development in reverse" - with limited financial means (with most of those means provided by overseas donors) at a time when most foreign private investors find it yet too risky to invest in the country. A particular challenge is to provide an alternative and more peaceful livelihood for the tens- or hundreds of thousands ex-combatants, often young and poorly educated or trained. Six or 12 month skills training courses tend to be the preferred option of the international donors. Tens of thousands of ex-combatants are trained in skills such as carpentry, masonry, tailoring or car-mechanics, with soap-making or hairdressing on offer for female ex-combatants. After completion of the training, the ex-combatant is given a toolbox, in the expectation that he or she will be able to set up shop and make a living from his or her newly acquired skill. In both Sierra Leone and Liberia, two war-affected countries in West Africa, the majority of these newly trained ex-combatants failed to secure a job, finding themselves competing with much better trained craftsmen in an economy with low demand. Hence, they ended up selling their toolkit and involving themselves in underpaid manual labor in the agricultural or mining sector, or left for the urban centers trying to make a living on a day-by-day basis. So much for the concerted efforts of the donor-funded public sector.

But there is one success story coming out of both countries, and interestingly, it became successful despite (or thanks to) not being part of any of the donor-funded skills training programs on offer. In both Liberia and Sierra Leone the post-conflict period has seen a spontaneous explosion of motorcycle taxis, many ridden by ex-combatants. This development first affected the towns - offering an effective means to ensure ex-combatants' social re-incorporation along the way - and then fanned out into the remotest rural areas. Not only are hundreds of thousands young people employed as bike riders (often one bike has several riders taking shifts to keep the machine on the road all the time and maximize profits) but thousands of bike repair shops have been created in addition to hundreds of little road side restaurants. The bike revolution has connected remote communities, offering better access to education and health services while simultaneously enabling subsistence farmers to start producing for local markets, breaking the deadlock of rural poverty.

So what is the general lesson here? To speak with the renowned American development economist William Easterly, the "planners" - here the government, the international donor community and its implementing partners - have failed, while the "searchers" - the young ex-combatants - have succeeded in finding a significant economic niche. So is there no role for the "planners" for job creation? Or in other words, can we leave it all to the informal or private sector? Clearly not, but the government's and donor community's focus should be on removing barriers and facilitating initiatives originating and taking place in the informal sector which do create jobs and livelihoods for young people, rather than creating more of what is already not working.

Dr. Krijn Peters is an associate professor in armed conflict and post-war reconstruction in the Department of Political & Cultural Studies at Swansea University, Wales, UK. He is participated in a session on Youth, Economics and Violence: Implications for Future Conflict, held in partnership with the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.