Today, more than 600 million young people globally live in fragile and conflict-affected areas, a large proportion of them in Africa. 1 Considering that a rising youth population in Africa—the fastest growing in the world —intersects with a number of threats to peace and security on the continent, it is no wonder that this growth, which will continue for at least the next three decades, is widely perceived as a sociopolitical time bomb. 2

In conflict-ridden regions of the continent, political instability, unemployment, radicalization, forced migration, and the effects of climate change, acutely affect young people. Evidence suggests that these threats take on a more pervasive nature when considered in the context of a rising youth population. 3 This has been further compounded by advancements in social media and the shrinking of political spaces in Africa.

In relatively stable regions of Africa, youth are also facing deepening social and economic problems. The youth population increase will add to existing problems such as inadequate access to education and jobs. Large numbers of foreign migrant arrivals and the overall pressures of urbanization, thanks to population booms and citizens moving to cities from rural areas, will put additional stress on these developing economies. These are likely to reduce the economic opportunities and well-being of young people in Africa, thus creating a vicious cycle.

A major question that arises therefore is if—and how—Africa can reap a demographic dividend from its youth bulge. I believe it can, if efforts are made at the global, national, and local levels to harness the potential youth bring to building peace and sustainable development.

Efforts are already being made at the global level to address issues of youth vulnerability and to empower the next generation of world leaders, social entrepreneurs, activists, and champions of sustainable development. The landmark 2015 United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 2250 on youth, peace, and security provides a unique platform for meaningful dialogue on cross-cutting issues and partnerships between youth, civil society, the private sector, and the UN. The UN even declared August 12th International Youth Day, to celebrate “young people’s contributions to conflict prevention and transformation,” and to promote young people’s “inclusion in the peace and security agenda and in society more broadly,” which is key to building and sustaining peace.

Similarly, efforts at the national level must actively include young people. First, governments must embrace pluralism by allowing for the political participation of citizens, especially the youth. Youth should also be integrated into decision-making processes across sectors. Governments can do this by establishing interagency committees on youth development, comprised of youth-focused departments that are in strategic partnerships with non-governmental stakeholders. These can be used to ensure effective coordination of youth development actions; to craft and implement national youth policies and action plans that are feasible and measurable; and to create devolved structures that ultimately support the implementation of these plans and policies.

Finally, local level and individual youth initiatives need to be given room to flourish. With the advent of social media and the proliferation of information communication technologies, a growing number of young people are developing socially and economically profitable initiatives which improve their lives and their communities. These innovative and engaging solutions at the local level are vital, yet they are ultimately dependent on national security policies and concerted multi-stakeholder engagement, which may either impede or facilitate their success. This is especially true of countries emerging from conflict, which face particular challenges related to peacebuilding and the involvement of youth in brokering peace.

In Africa, real or perceived exclusion and lack of representation has been the most consistent underlying cause of violence and armed conflict. The onus therefore is on policymakers to enhance their understanding of these factors and to make policy processes more inclusive of youth in Africa, who have the largest stake in the outcome of these decisions. Policymakers must also avoid the conceptual trap that portrays youth as either victims or perpetrators of violence, and instead draw upon the increasing evidence that shows youth to be agents of, and assets to peacebuilding. 4

Governments too, must reflect on the configuration of power hierarchies surrounding peace and security decision-making. They must create inclusive spaces and platforms for young leaders to learn from, and share practical knowledge and skills with experienced professionals. This will not only help to promote various perspectives on addressing conflict and development challenges, but it will also transform the way young people think, act, and speak about critical issues of the 21st century.

  1. “UNDP Youth Strategy 2014-2017: Empowered Youth, Sustainable Future.” United Nations Development Programme, New York (2014).
  2. “World Development Report 2011: Conflict, Security, and Development.” World Bank  (2011).
  3. Urdal, Henrik. “A clash of generations? Youth bulges and political violence.” International Studies Quarterly 50 no. 3 (2006):  607-629.
  4. “UNDP Youth Strategy 2014-2017: Empowered Youth, Sustainable Future.” United Nations Development Programme, New York (2014).