Do Youth Services Reduce Social Unrest?

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What do Kenya, Liberia, Congo, Haiti, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Algeria, Iran, the Palestinian Territory and Saudi Arabia have in common?

All are intense political hotspots for which the United States has recently issued travel warnings for Americans.

They share another characteristic: All have made a list of the 102 nations with the largest percentages of young people. The hotspots, listed in a paper by Australian youth consultant Richard Curtain, have very high populations of young adults (ages 15-29) as a proportion of all people ages 15 or older – from 43.6 percent in Saudi Arabia to 55.5 percent in Kenya.

Young people in these nations face incredible competition for scarce opportunities. The essential problem is usually dire poverty, but in some places, such as Saudi Arabia, the issue is more complex. Life for young men and women there gives new meaning to the words “disconnected youth.” Jobs may be found but they are often unbearably dull. Some better-educated youth join radical groups after failing to integrate into the elite culture. Religious culture, as we have all learned, often strictly regulates and diminishes opportunities for secular youth development.

When almost one out of every two adults in a nation can be categorized as young adults – with dreams deferred – we can only imagine the consequences.

Unfortunately, imagination is not required. We see in the news daily that teens and even children in many of these countries are willing or conscripted actors in civil, ethnic and religious conflicts.

I’d love to state with certainty that strengthening the youth sector in places where the majority of the population is young will keep us out of war and diminish the need for homeland security. War and peace, sadly, do not boil down to one causal dimension. It is clear, however, that bulges in youth demographics, along with youth joblessness, poor education systems and religious intolerance, form a potent explanation for the instability we see in these countries.

I confess that I have no evidence that within this list of hotspots, the countries that offer better youth services experience less unrest and more social cohesion than the others.

However, an excellent paper by Curtain, the Australian youth consultant, cites historians showing that the English Revolution in the 17th century, the French Revolution in the 18th century and numerous meltdowns in the 20th century among developing countries were all associated with youth demographic bubbles. (“Strategies for creating employment for urban youth, with specific reference to Africa,” June 2004.) He also cites studies showing that countries with large proportions of youth are more than twice as likely to experience an outbreak of civil conflict.

Finally, Curtain notes that the prevalence of young men in these societies explains a lot of the variation in severity of unrest, even after controlling for per-capita income and degree of inequality. What’s encouraging, Curtain reports, is that as the population of males who are enrolled in secondary education grows, civil conflict declines. (He can be reached at

So maybe I don’t have to rely on a hunch and a prayer that strengthening the youth sectors in these nations will yield peace dividends. Maybe the research really supports this idea.

Some groups are not waiting for the last word in research.

The International Youth Foundation (IYF), based in Baltimore, is an outstanding group focused on strengthening the youth sector in nations around the world. In the Make a Connection initiative, IYF and Nokia plan to work in more than two dozen nations on projects that include: youth volunteers working with younger children through arts workshops in Turkey; promotion of literacy and intergenerational tutoring among emerging youth leaders in Brazil; seed grants to start youth projects in the Czech Republic, Poland and Russia; service-learning in Hungary; employability training and service-learning in South Africa; youth community engagement through media production in Mexico and the Netherlands; and volunteer activities in the slums of Lima, Peru.

Our group at Brandeis University – the Center for Youth and Communities – has been hired to consult on documentation approaches for the Make a Connection initiative. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could help document a link between these critical investments now and peace and security later?

That kind of research finding, especially in this era of evidence-based donor practices, could energize much-needed investments in the global youth sector. It would support the ultimate “return on investment” – peace.

Andrew Hahn is a professor at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. Contact: