Selected findings from the study are discussed below in four sections. The first section takes a step back to consider youth as a period of change and transition and briefly outlines the challenge of youth unemployment in sub-Saharan Africa. The second section provides an overview of national youth service in the region based on the findings of the landscape study and notes some of the distinctive features of these programmes in the region. This is followed by a discussion of ways in which national youth service can support and enhance young people’s employability and prospects of successful self-employment. The chapter closes by noting some of the challenges in the design and implementation of these programmes that limit the extent to which they are currently able to achieve these goals.

Youth as a time of transition: The concept of youth varies across social and cultural contexts, but it is commonly understood as a period of change during which individuals must negotiate a number of transitions into adulthood (Henderson, Holland, McGrellis, Sharpe, & Thomson, 2007). Although these transitions vary, milestones may include leaving school, entering further education or training, starting to work, moving away from the childhood home, entering marriage and having children. Young people also start to take on the responsibilities of citizenship, such as voting in elections.

The pathways along which young people negotiate these transitions to adulthood may be formal or informal and are shaped by social and cultural expectations (Catalano, Berglund, Ryan, Lonczak, & Hawkins, 2004; Heinz, 2009; Pittman, Irby, Tolman, Yohalem, & Ferber, 2003). Formal pathways to productive adulthood include going through post-secondary education and training, accessing bursaries, entering an apprenticeship or finding opportunities to be absorbed into the labour market. Examples of traditional or more informal pathways may include initiation ceremonies that signal the transition from adolescence to adulthood; young people assisting their families to increase the productivity of their land in rural areas, or supporting parents or other family members who may have contracted complex chronic illnesses such as HIV and AIDS or multi-drug resistant tuberculosis.

A variety of factors are changing the nature of the pathways that guide transitions from youth to adulthood. Globalisation has more closely connected youth in subSaharan Africa with other parts of the world and media and technology, particularly from Western countries, have had a pervasive effect on young people’s identity formation. Some current notions of development (such as Sen, 1999; Nussbaum, 2003) view citizens as using their own agency and assets to chart the development of their countries. Economies are becoming increasingly knowledge based and capacity development, skills transfer and social capital have become fundamental to people’s ability to take charge of their future (Perold, Cloete, & Papier, 2012).

However, in many parts of the world, these transitions are becoming increasingly drawn out (Arnett, 2004; Furlong, Cartmel, Biggart, Sweeting, & West, 2003). Where previously young people had fairly structured and predetermined pathways to adulthood, these pathways are becoming less predictable and more disjointed. Reasons for this vary. In some cases, particularly in developed countries, these extended transitions are by choice. Young people may choose to delay seeking work so that they can study further or take their time to explore opportunities before deciding on a career and taking on family obligations. Growing levels of unemployment also affect the prospects of young people in developed countries and limit their options for transitioning into work.

In the African context, these extended transitions are generally driven more by structural factors than individual choice (ICP & VOSESA, 2013b). Structural economic factors drive people to migrate from rural to urban areas in search of more productive livelihoods, but in the urban context many young people experience exclusion from job opportunities in increasingly high-skills economies owing to insufficient education. High levels of youth unemployment, limited means and few pathways to develop the skills and social capital needed to access the labour market all limit young people’s opportunities to achieve many of the milestones commonly associated with adulthood, including the transition to work. This situation calls for alternative pathways to be considered.

The challenge of youth unemployment: In 2012, the regional youth unemployment rate in sub-Saharan Africa was estimated at 11.8 % (International Labour Organisation, 2013) . This was twice the estimated adult unemployment rate of 5.9 %, making young people twice as likely to be unemployed. Where young people are working, it is often in the informal sector, in self-employment or irregular work for low wages. High levels of poverty in the region mean that despite these income streams being unreliable, they are essential for survival (International Labour Organisation, 2013). Low levels of education and skills, limited decent work opportunities and a mismatch between the type and level of skills that young people have and those that are in demand in the labour market all contribute to youth unemployment. Throughout the region, these conditions are often a product of inadequate education systems which demonstrate high rates of dropout in secondary school or a lack of access to good quality schooling.

A range of services offered both by the state and civil society sectors act as pathways to productive employment for young people. However, often such pathways are not integrated, making it difficult for young people to navigate them, or they are difficult to access at the local level. Young people also frequently encounter financial barriers to access.

Formal civic service or volunteer programmes provide another possible pathway to increased employability. Volunteering can build social and human capital (Spera, Ghertner, Nerino, & DiTommaso, 2013) and provide young people with skills, experience and, potentially, opportunities to access employment or self-employment once the period of service is complete. A study by the Corporation for National and Community Service in the United States provides empirical evidence that volunteering can indeed act as a pathway to employment. The study found a “statistically significant and highly stable association between volunteering and employment” (Spera et al., 2013, p. 23).

A number of countries in sub-Saharan Africa have established youth-focused civic service programmes in the form of national youth service. The rest of this chapter considers the evolution of national youth service in the region and the potential role that civic service can play as a pathway for increasing young people’s employability and prospects of successful self-employment.

Evolution and current status of national youth service in the region: Volunteering in sub-Saharan Africa, as in other regions, takes many forms including individual giving and support, community-based forms of service delivery and advocacy, and lengthier, formalised service programmes. Civic service can be distinguished from other forms of volunteering by its highly structured and formalised nature. It comprises some training, but differs from other skills development programmes such as apprenticeships and internships in that it is intended to “do good” or contribute to the betterment of society (Lough & Sherraden, 2012).

National youth service programmes first gained prominence in the region during the post-liberation period of the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s. In many cases, national youth service programmes focused on youth who had been involved in armed liberation struggles or civil conflict and drew them into the process of developing and building newly independent states (Patel & Wilson, 2004; Perold, Patel, Carapinha, & Mohamed, 2007). The programmes often had a strong political purpose, such as the promotion of national unity and nation-building, and were driven by national development objectives.

However, a number of programmes established during this period have been criticised for becoming militarised and being used by ruling parties to further elite political interests and intimidate local populations (Patel, 2009). One example is the Malawi Young Pioneers (see Moleni & Gallagher, 2007). Established by President Banda in 1971, this national service programme initially differed from others in the region at the time in that it was voluntary and aimed to uplift the rural poor rather than recruit university graduates. However, the group became increasingly politicised and militarised, and was used as President Banda’s private army. The paramilitary group was eventually disbanded in 1993 in the move to democracy. Other examples of politicised programmes include the Zambia National Youth

Service, which was introduced at the time of independence as a paramilitary system of national service, but was closed in the 1980s and then relaunched with new objectives in 2005; and the National Youth Service of Zimbabwe, which was established in 2001 and has been criticised for being a vehicle for the political indoctrination and militarisation of youth (Moyo, 2015; Shizha & Kariwo, 2012; Shumba, 2006).

Over time some national youth service programmes have drawn to a close, while others have evolved in response to political, economic and social changes. The programmes in Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana are the longest running in the region.

The Kenya National Youth Service Programme (NYSP) was established in 1964 to create a pool of trained, disciplined and organised young people to undertake work on national development projects (see VOSESA & ICP, 2013a). Specifically, the programme aimed to train youth in national matters such as service in the armed forces, national reconstruction programmes and disaster management. Until the late 1980s it ran as a compulsory pre-university programme, but in 1990 recruitment became voluntary due to sustainability challenges. Today the programme is designed to offer basic paramilitary training, volunteering opportunities and vocational training to participants. In 2013, Kenya’s Senate passed legislation to bring back national youth service conscription for all high school graduates before entering university.

The National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) in Nigeria and the National Service Scheme (NSS) in Ghana were established almost a decade later in 1973. After a period of civil war and religious tensions, the NYSC in Nigeria was formed with a strong focus on promoting national unity, tolerance and social cohesion across ethnic and racial divides. The programme is currently compulsory and engages all graduates of universities and technical schools in a period of service to address developmental challenges .

The Ghana NSS aims to provide graduates with hands-on training and practical exposure on the job, while contributing to the country’s social development agenda (see VOSESA & ICP, 2013b). The programme is compulsory and mobilises thousands of young tertiary graduates each year, who are legally required to obtain an NSS certificate of completion as a precondition for entering employment. The original 2-year requirement has been reduced to 1 year, and while military training formed part of the original programme, it is currently rarely provided due to insufficient funding.

Since these early programmes were established, a number of new programmes with different designs and objectives have emerged, particularly in the last decade (see Table 4.1). In most cases, the drivers underpinning the recent emergence (and sometimes re-emergence) of national youth service programmes are concerned about the growing youth populations within African countries and the need to engage young people in the face of high levels of youth unemployment. The launch of seven new or re-established programmes in the region in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis suggests that national youth service is increasingly viewed by governments as having a role to play in national strategies to address youth unemployment.

The 2013 study showed that most of the active programmes are voluntary, with the exception of the two older programmes in Nigeria and Ghana. The majority

Table 4.1 Year in which national youth service programmes in sub-Saharan Africa were established (as of 2013)


Year established

1. Tanzanian National Youth Service

1963, closed in 1994 (lack of funds); relaunched 2012

2. Zambia National Service

1963, disbanded in 1980s; relaunched 2005

3. Kenya National Youth Service


4. Malawi Young Pioneers

1971, closed in 1993 (politicisation); relaunched 2013

5. Ghana National Service Scheme


6. Nigeria National Youth Service Corps


7. Botswana Tirelo Setshaba

1980; disbanded in 2000

8. The Gambia National Youth Service Scheme


9. Senegalese National Civic Service


10. Namibia National Youth Service


11. Zimbabwe National Youth Service


12. South African National Youth Service


13. National Volunteer Programme of Burkina Faso

2005 (first volunteers started in 2008)

14. Liberian National Youth Volunteer Service


15. Cote d’Ivoire National Civic Service Programme


16. Niger National Volunteer Programme

2007; disbanded in 2011 (lack of funds)

17. Mali National Centre for Promotion of Volunteering


18. Lesotho Youth Volunteer Corps Project

Youth service active in 1970s/1980s; new project 2010

19. ECOWAS Youth Volunteer Programme


20. Promotion Programme of National Volunteering in Togo


21. The African Youth Volunteer Corps


22. National Programme of Volunteering of Cape Verde


23. Rwanda Urugerero


Source: ICP and VOSESA (2013a)

target youth from 18 years of age, although the Namibia programme accepts participants as young as 16 years old and the programmes in the Gambia and Zambia programmes accept youth from 17 years old. Nine of the 15 programmes specify an upper age limit of 30-35 years of age. Programmes range in duration from 6 months to 2 years, with most typically running for 1 year.

The reach of the programmes varies considerably, from hundreds per year in some cases through to hundreds of thousands in others. Programmes such as those in Ghana and South Africa have the capacity to involve tens of thousands of young people each year, while the Nigeria NYSC engages hundreds of thousands of youth annually. In most programmes, the 2013 study found a lack of consistent data on annual participation rates that were comparable across the years, making it difficult to obtain a clear sense of the size of the programmes in some countries and how participation rates have changed over time .

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