Bridging the Gaps to Increase Youth Employment and Decrease Youth Poverty
Profitable employment or self-employment of youth in agriculture and food systems is critical for the reduction of poverty and hunger in many countries. But achieving this goal requires a systems approach that fosters productivity and innovation among those with the fewest resources. So how do we get there?
How is youth employment linked to poverty?
As of 2019, the United Nation’s (UN) data on progress toward the eradication of poverty showed that youth workers were twice as likely as adult workers to be living in extreme poverty. This is particularly critical for 27 of USAID’s partner countries across Africa, Asia, Central America and the Middle East, in which youths between the ages of 15 and 29 comprise more than 40% of the labor force. Almost half of those countries (13) also have rates of youth not in employment, education or training above 20%.
Why is youth employment in agriculture and food systems particularly urgent?
The youth labor force in agriculture represents a significant development asset that is underutilized and less productive than it could be, particularly in those countries with more than 40% of youth employed or self-employed in agriculture, which include Madagascar (73%), Burkina Faso (67%), Malawi (60%), Pakistan (50%), Myanmar (49%), Liberia (42%) and Zimbabwe (41%). Despite these very large concentrations of youth employed in food systems, research undertaken by the Youth in Agri-food Systems Learning Activity on youth involvement in agriculture-led economic growth, resilience, nutrition, water security and sanitation and hygiene across 28 countries reveals that only about 10% of USAID’s activities specifically target youth. While the other 90% certainly include youth (at least older youth in their 20s), monitoring, evaluation and learning plans rarely include robust approaches to capturing, analyzing and reporting disaggregated information about the impacts on youth populations.
What are the critical gaps preventing expansion of profitable youth employment and self-employment in food systems?
The most critical gaps for youth involvement in agriculture and food systems are education, skills, networks, infrastructure and access to innovation and technology. These gaps, combined with structural barriers in labor markets and limited entrepreneurship opportunities, inhibit the expansion of youth opportunities.
Many programs focus on supply-side solutions and attempt to bridge gaps in education and skills. But, translating knowledge and skills into productive and profitable practices requires cognitive maturity and experience. Youth achieve cognitive maturity in their own time, but it is important to recognize that the psychological impacts of living in extreme poverty and uncertainty delays the maturation process. Thus, youth who experience and are most vulnerable to poverty may require longer lead times to benefit from knowledge and skills development activities. Social norms around respect for elders and hierarchy can compound a youth’s difficulty in adopting effective behaviors, as youth may not learn self-advocacy, and advocating for oneself to authority figures may result in negative consequences.
Youth also need networks, and their connections to others and activity in the public sphere represent critical behaviors to succeed, both in professional and personal spheres. Yet, few activities position connections to others as foundational to success. While mentoring activities are relatively common, programs rarely have sufficient mentors to match with participants. Other strategies include peer-to-peer mentoring and work within groupings of youth, but even in groups, they sometimes cannot gain access to institutions and resources as older adults do.
Finally, youth are typically small market actors and they often lack the assets, knowledge and means to access and benefit from technological advances and certain kinds of infrastructure investments. In addition, introduction of technologies that exclude these populations can strengthen the competitive advantage of larger, resource-rich, large market actors, which further disadvantages small market actors.
So what can we do differently to bridge the gaps?
Some fundamentals of youth interventions may not change, but there are three critical elements that can be incorporated into activities to better meet the needs of youth.
First, activities targeting youth in extreme poverty or experiencing other vulnerabilities should take a trauma-informed approach and incorporate life skills into curricula. Comprehensive life skills programs can significantly improve mental health and other outcomes for adolescents in low-resource settings.
Second, activities must foster meaningful connections to other youth and adults and create opportunities for youth to exhibit leadership skills in public settings. Concrete opportunities for collaboration between youth and adults serve as an important tool to develop skills and relationships and to foster innovation.
Finally, as changes in inequality are more important for poverty reduction than income growth, it is important to fund and roll out investments in infrastructure and technological advances, such that small market actors are able to access and utilize them along with large market actors. Analyses on a case-by-case basis will be important tools for determining how to minimize the inequality introduced by any publicly funded measures.
 UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, SDG Goal 1 (2021). Retrieved from https://sdgs.un.org/goals/goal1.
 Zimbabwe, Zambia, Yemen, Uganda, Tanzania, South Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda, West Bank/Gaza, Nepal, Niger, Malawi, Mozambique, Mali, Madagascar, Honduras, Guatemala, Gambia, Guinea, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Angola and Afghanistan.
 International Labor Organization, Youth Labor Statistics (August 2021). Retrieved from International Labor Organization: https://ilostat.ilo.org/topics/youth/.
 International Labor Organization, Youth Labor Statistics.
 Zimbabwe, Zambia, Yemen, Uganda, Tanzania, Somalia, Senegal, Rwanda, Nigeria, Niger, Nepal, Malawi, Mozambique, Mali, Madagascar, Liberia, Kenya, Jordan, Indonesia, Honduras, Haiti, Guatemala, Ghana, Ethiopia, DRC, Cambodia, Burkina Faso and Bangladesh.
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