‘Youth’ have recently become the centre of development debates, particularly around African agriculture. A poorly defined category of young people – maybe adults, sometimes children – youth are presented in relation to a dizzying array of policy narratives. To get a sense, just dip into recent reports by AGRA (the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa), FAO and IFAD (the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and the International Fund for Agricultural Development), the ILO (International Labour Organisation), the World Bank or IFPRI (International Food Policy Institute). Building on earlier commentary, in this series of five blogs I want to unpick some of these, and reflect on them in relation to new data from Zimbabwe, grounding the often very generic debate in context.
A central policy concern, in Zimbabwe and beyond, is who will be the next generation of small-scale farmers. This is particularly important in relation to land reform. With a major redistribution to one generation, what happens to the next? Are they going to do what their parents and grandparents did? Or will they leave agriculture for other livelihood options? Or are they going to transform agri-food systems, in ways unimagined by their parents?
In this hot policy debate, narratives compete with each other, depending on the positioning of the commentator. A doom-and-gloom narrative of exit is a frequent one articulated in policy debates. Admonished for not being committed to agriculture, young people are seen as a problem – creating a demographic ‘threat’, a ‘youth bulge’ of the unemployed, migrating to towns or abroad, and becoming a burden on society, and in some cases a potential source of disruption through civil upheaval or even terrorism. Other narratives present youth as victims of accelerating scarcities – of land and livelihood options – prevented from getting on by ‘tradition’, ‘elders’ or state policy that is failing to provide for them. This in turn leads to a ‘wasted generation’; often of educated youth, unable to contribute, limited by structural constraints of society, economy or politics.
Contrasting these pessimistic narratives are others that offer a positive spin. Here the ‘entrepreneurial’ youth is celebrated. Tech-savvy, business-oriented, educated young people can, so goes the argument, contribute to agriculture in new ways, across value chains. Rather than their peasant parents, enslaved to a life of drudgery in agriculture, the new generation can make agriculture a business, and unleash the economic value of land and agriculture, especially in areas where land is abundant. As a route to modernization and technological transformation, youth are seen, in these narratives, as the vanguard.
Many influential organisations supporting agriculture in Africa – as in the reports highlighted earlier – adopt the positive, young person as entrepreneur narrative, while at the same threatening the worst (migration, civil strife and more) if nothing is done. As with all narratives – possible stories about the world and its future – there are grains of truth in each. However, too often in the current policy debates they are not located in context, and so broad, high-flown policy proclamations are too often floated without grounding.
In a number of important interventions, colleagues at IDS and across the Future Agricultures Consortium have critiqued and nuanced these positions, offering a more sophisticated perspective on youth and agriculture, including foci on youth aspirations, perspectives, opportunity spaces and imagined futures. Other work has looked at the ‘life courses’ of young people, showing how varied and non-linear young people’s life trajectories are. Still other work has tried to locate a rather narrow ‘youth’ debate within a bigger picture of economic and demographic transition, with changing opportunities for accumulation influenced by shifts in the political economy of rural, agrarian spaces and wider economies.
Changing life courses in Zimbabwe
In Zimbabwe the ‘youth’ debate is especially heated, but also conditioned by a particular context. What will happen to the next generation post land reform? Will they demand their rights to land as their parents did in the land invasions of 2000? Or can they find off-farm employment in a highly depressed economy? Which farming areas and what types of farming – and linked activity – can support more people, and how will youth be involved? These are the sort of questions that have been exercising us in our work in Mvurwi, Masvingo and Matobo over the last few years, as we seek to explore the consequences of land reform on people’s livelihoods across the country. There are some major changes afoot, and our understandings of livelihoods after land reform must certainly take generational questions into account.
Past patterns of demographic transition, linked to a classic southern African pattern of circular migration, have changed. In the past, a young man would leave home (often after marriage following the establishment of an independent home, but still economically reliant on parents); they would send remittances home to their wife/parents, and build up assets (notably cattle); and then return home later, following a period of stable employment in towns, in the mines or on the farms. Some women would follow the same route, but patrilocal marriage arrangements, and a highly gendered labour economy would restrict options, and women would move on marriage to their husband’s home, often remaining in the rural communal area, committing to social reproduction and farming.
Today, things are totally different. Patterns of migration have changed, both in terms of destination and who goes when. Men and women migrate, but often only to temporary, more fragile employment, with just a few gaining access to stable employment, often abroad. This is highly dependent on education, and so the resources of parents, restricting social mobility. Otherwise, the local economy, at least since the mid-1990s, has been precarious, offering only short-term work. The so-called kukiya kiya economy involves trading, panning, vending, and overall dealing and hustling. This is the new form of jobless work of the informal economy, as described by James Ferguson for South Africa, with multiple, fragmented classes of labour, as observed by Henry Bernstein. Such work is for survival. It creates vulnerability and precarity, and so little opportunity of accumulation. In the last 20 years, and particularly recently, this is the alternative to farming and land-based livelihoods for most.
In our on-going study across our sites, we have been interested in exploring how young people have been responding to these conditions, and asking what difference land reform makes. Those who were born at the time of land reform in 2000 are now in secondary school, approaching ‘Form IV’, when the majority leave. What are they thinking about what the future holds? Those who were at school at land reform, between around 5 and 16, are now in their 20s and early 30s. How have they fared after school in practice?
We have been looking at these two groups of ‘youth’ in A1 resettlement areas in three sites across country – Mvurwi (an high potential commercial hotspot), Wondedzo (in Masvingo district, but with reasonable rainfall and not far from a medium-sized town) and Chikombedzi (a remote location on the border of South Africa, in the marginal, dry far south of the country). These are areas we have been working in for a while, so we know the areas, and have been researching the lives and livelihoods of those who gained land through land reform.
So what have we done so far? First, we explored the perceptions of today’s Form IVs – nearly all aged between 16 and 19 – in three schools in or close to A1 resettlement areas, asking about what they imagined they would be doing in 20 years, and what constraints they thought were in the way. This was done through a combination of a ‘Q sort’ exercise and focus group discussions. Second, we sampled a cohort of those now between 20 and 31, who were kids of people in our long-standing sample. This group has (mostly) left school, and allowed us to explore what actually happened to a group of people (half men, half women) in the age group immediately above those we discussed with at school settings. Through a simple questionnaire we examined what happened to all children in this age cohort in the sample households, and pursued in detail their experiences, perceptions and life stories through a series of in-depth interviews, mostly of those who were resident or visiting their parental homes.
Aiming to go beyond the simplistic narratives, with this data we have an opportunity to explore not only imaginaries of the future but also emerging life courses, and examine how outcomes related to, for example, gender, location (high to low potential areas), the wealth status (including asset ownership) of their parents and the educational qualifications, both of the young people and their parents. In turn, we explored what our sample of young people were doing, how they had been surviving, and how they were establishing homes and families, and how they were striking up relationships with land and agriculture, including what opportunities for accumulation existed, and how the prospects for and experiences of entering adulthood appeared.
The analysis is on-going but in the coming weeks, I will share some of the emerging findings, and begin to explore some of the implications. Feedback on our emerging in analysis will be much appreciated.