Published on Development for Peace

Youth as partners in the prevention of violent conflict

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Students at the Methodist Secondary School in Kailahun. Photo: George Lewis/The World Bank.

There are about 1.2 billion young people between the ages of 15 and 24, and it is estimated that by 2030 the numbers will increase by 7 percent. Youth groups between the ages of 14 and 24 are an important focus in the work on the prevention of violent conflict. The UN resolution on Youth, Peace and Security (SCR 2250) recognizes the role of youth in the prevention and resolution of conflicts and urges to increase representation of youth in decision-making at all levels. In addition, the recently published World Bank/UN flagship study: Pathways for  Peace: Inclusive Approaches to Preventing Violent Conflict also recognizes the importance of youth in the prevention of violent conflict.

Multiple factors have led policymakers to closely look at the relationship between youth and violence, these include:

  1. Global trends of unemployment and urbanization
  2. A growing youth population or “youth bulge”
  3. Intergenerational inequalities
  4. Exclusion of young people in economic, social, and political life
However, these factors are not clear-cut when it comes to looking at how they affect youth. Let’s look at a deeper analysis of the previous factors:
  1. Unemployment is often cited as a risk factor; yet there is little empirical evidence to suggest that a direct causal relationship exists between unemployment and youth membership in armed groups, although high levels of youth unemployment indeed are a matter of concern. The International Labour Organization estimates that in 2016 the global youth unemployment rate was 13.1 percent; 37.7 percent of working youth are in extreme or moderate poverty; and 50.8 percent of economically active youth are either unemployed or working but living in poverty.  Evidence shows that employment can, in some cases, contribute to protecting youth against mobilization to violence, but that the motivation for joining armed groups is not limited to economics.
  2. Although the “youth bulge” has been linked with the occurrence of violent conflict, more recent work finds that whether youth bulge constitutes a threat depends largely on the degree to which youth are included in economic, social, and political life, and to what extent they can access opportunities for education and socio-economic mobility.
  3. Intergenerational inequality and youth perception of a lower status and less opportunity than their parents at the same age can also contribute to feelings of frustration.
  4. Young people are often victims of multiple and interlocking forms of discrimination and exclusion that can lead to an imbalance of power that excludes young people from being recognized socially as adults, undermining their needs and aspirations.
As practitioners and policymakers, we have to dig deeper on the complex and concurrent influences on young people that may affect their decision to engage in violence or in peace. Exclusion and feelings of injustice, hopelessness, and frustration have to be taken into account when designing interventions and policies targeted at youth. Some points to keep in mind include:
  • Inclusion of young people has broad benefits, and investing in young people contributes to greater economic growth and development, diminishes civil unrest, promotes environmental sustainability, and increases personal levels of happiness and life satisfaction.
  • A Mercy Corps study finds that young people are motivated to take part in political violence by multiple factors that include a sense of hopelessness, frustration, and anger that come with perceptions of injustice. The study also suggests that isolated development approaches, including educational/vocational training projects not linked to meaningful employment opportunities in the job market, can create expectations that cannot be fulfilled, thus aggravating perceptions of injustice and frustration. 
  • Unequal access to education and the quality of education can become sources of frustration, feelings of injustice, and grievances that can all increase a society’s risk of violent conflict.
  • Research suggests that injustice, poor governance practices (corruption), a culture of acceptance of violence, dysfunctional family relationships, availability of weapons, and widespread use of drugs are some of the myriad of factors that can mobilize youth violence.
  • Studies suggest that youth’s motivations to join armed groups extend beyond more practical needs of employment or income to a broader frustration with the rigidity of intergenerational social structures, frustrated aspirations for social and economic mobility, discrimination, and unmet needs for recognition and respect.
While the vast majority of young people do not participate in violence, young people tend to engage in violence in higher numbers relative to other age groups. The lives and experiences of young people are more complex than generally portrayed and youth can play many roles within fragile and conflict settings including perpetrators, victims, and peacemakers. Empowering youth is essential for prevention and peacebuilding efforts.


Catalina Crespo-Sancho

Consultant, Transport & ICT Global Practice, World Bank

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