Understanding ‘Urban Youth’ and the Challenges they face in Sub-Saharan Africa: Unemployment, Food Insecurity and Violent Crime

Jaideep Gupte, Dolf te Lintelo, Inka Barnett


This paper reviews how the various definitions of ‘youth’ relate to three dominant discourses about poverty and vulnerability in urbanising Africa:

  1. food insecurity;
  2. unemployment/joblessness; and
  3. violence/insecurity.

Some, but not all of these discourses highlight young people. The paper’s discussion of common youth definitions seeks to identify if and when these are responsive to the needs of youth as well as practical for policy efforts aimed at reducing poverty and vulnerability in urban areas.

Key findings:

  • The main conclusion is that any definition or categorisation of young people must account for developmental processes, as well as the social and physiological realities of young people as they mature from childhood through to adulthood (ranging from brain plasticity and cognitive development, to social skills, literacy, numeracy, physical activity and artistic competencies, for example). This is of particular relevance to younger age groups who are just beginning to make the transition from childhood.
  • Furthermore, how young people are understood must also be relevant to context-specific realities. This implies that definitional frameworks used in youth-focused research and urban policies need to exhibit flexibility towards the contextual and localised circumstances of young people, particularly in rapidly urbanising contexts characterised by a high degree of flux and contestation, including peri-urban spaces. In such contexts, an inflexible definitional framework can be limiting, and becomes a particular problem when generic notions of ‘youth’ are equated with ‘problems’ in policy discussions, with responses being limited to the imposition of more control on the one hand, and on the other, the direction of ‘remedial’ resources and interventions at those deemed to be in need.
  • Recent studies have showcased that definitional flexibility in youth-focused research could involve the addition of participatory or respondent-driven methods for the purposes of categorisation, and articulation of target groups. Such a strategy also involves understanding youth poverty and vulnerability as dynamic and multi-dimensional. Similarly, definitional flexibility in youth focused urban policy implies that inclusion of locally extended definitions of ‘youth’ are crucial to reduce both inclusion and exclusion-based discrimination and to ensure better programming and outcomes for the intended target groups.
  • These studies notwithstanding, the study also find that there continues to be an evidence gap warranting further research on the social and cultural meanings placed on younger populations, as these can vary significantly between and within countries. Importantly, this includes the need to be cognisant of the wide array of contexts that characterise urban SSA and to apply current advances in poverty-related knowledge. Critically, the study also found some evidence that highlighted distinct sets of relationships between on the one hand broad macro-definitions and their usage for surveillance purposes, and on the other, more nuanced definitions and their usage as targeting criteria for programme responses. How, in what contexts, and for which types of programmes these relationships hold true, also present themselves as areas for further systematic research.


Gupte, J., te Lintelo, D., & Barnett, I. (2014). Understanding ‘Urban Youth’ and the Challenges they face in Sub-Saharan Africa: Unemployment, Food Insecurity and Violent Crime (IDS Evidence Report 81). Brighton: Institute of Development Studies.