In Koidu, the capital of Sierra Leone’s easternmost Kono province, 26-year-old Sam heads to the town-centre each morning seeking daily contract work building roads or digging ditches for the local authorities.
The most he can hope to earn is US$2 a day. But most days no jobs are available so he hangs out with friends smoking marijuana.
“There’s nothing to do here. If I could, I’d trade diamonds” he said, referring to the youths who get cash by illegally smuggling diamonds across the border with Guinea.
Most of the youths in Koidu were combatants in the 1991-2002 civil war, according to local youth councillor Tamba Kakarnbanja.
With 60 percent of Sierra Leonean youths unemployed according to the government – one of the highest rates in the world – some youth employment experts fear young people’s growing disaffection combined with chronic poverty and high cost of living pose a threat to stability.
“Youth employment is central to all crises in this country,” said Wahab Shaw, youth programme specialist with the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in the capital Freetown. “There is so much unemployment, marginalisation, so many school dropouts; and all these factors helped fuel the war in the first place.”
A 30 January report by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said a number of socio-economic forces could threaten the gains Sierra Leone has made in several years of peace. “Youth unemployment remains the most acute concern,” the report said. “Urgent action is therefore required to create employment opportunities with a view to reducing the lingering effects of the marginalization of the country’s young people, who constitute the largest segment of the population.”
Residents in Freetown told IRIN crime is rising, most of them blaming this partly on youth unemployment and the rise of increasingly politicised youth gangs.
Many urban youths still live in “survival” mode, a July 2009 International Crisis Group report said, with young migrants in Freetown focusing on earning enough to get by as they sleep in street traders’ kiosks or in tiny shared houses.
The high cost of living in Sierra Leone’s cities compound street crime, said Shaw. One kilogram of rice costs 82 US cents, up from 50 cents in July 2008, according to WFP, and the cost of fuel, at $4 a litre, is among the highest in the region.
Identity politics are still a force in Sierra Leone, as evidenced by the return of the divide between the northern-aligned All People’s Congress party (APC) and the southern-aligned Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), according to Richard Moncrieff, West Africa director for International Crisis Group.
Youth groups are increasingly polarising along party and ethnic lines, Shaw said, adding that the divide is evident at universities.
Government youth programmes are also being used to curry political favour with the chiefdoms that supported those in power, making it difficult at times for international donors to support them and maintain impartiality, said a UN official who did not wish to be named.
“Sierra Leone is at a critical juncture,” said Jenny Perlman Robinson, senior programme officer of the non-profit Women’s Refugee Commission’s youth programme. “An estimated 44 percent of countries coming out of war return to conflict within the first five years. The civil war in Sierra Leone was fuelled, in large part, by marginalised youth who saw few opportunities to participate in political and economic life.” This marginalisation has not subsided according to a recent report issued by the organisation.
Following massive support from youths in the 2007 elections, President Ernest Koroma promised to set up a commission to tackle youth unemployment, but it has yet to be set up, causing tensions to mount, said Shaw.
Just 1.4 percent of Sierra Leone’s annual budget was earmarked for youth issues in 2008, according to the UN.
In 2006 the UN Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) selected Sierra Leone as a recipient country of its Peacebuilding fund, and together with the Sierra Leone government the PBC identified youth employment as a priority issue for peace consolidation. However, since then the government has downgraded youth on its priority list, according to staff at the Centre for Coordination of Youth Activities in Sierra Leone.
But UNDP’s Shaw pointed to what he called signs of progress: a new government youth strategy and the establishment of the Youth Employment Secretariat (YES) – supported by UNDP – to better coordinate youth progammes around the country.
Under the youth strategy, 149 chiefdoms are to set up youth committees which will report to district committees and a national council, to address youth concerns and coordinate employment issues. Three district committees have been set up so far.
And Shaw says the set up of the youth commission is imminent.
For Moncrieff the only way a youth employment strategy can have deep and lasting impact is if it is tied into a wider national development plan, which will incorporate private sector development, infrastructure rehabilitation, public sector reform and decentralisation of power.
Bernard Mokam, UNDP country director, said: “Youths are a source of instability because of their current deprivation, but [they are] also a force for peace [and] the future of this country will be decided by them.”
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions