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Finding work in conflict-affected states: What can Liberia teach us?

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Each month, about one million people enter the labor force in Africa. Another one million start looking for work in India. Add to this millions of others around the globe, and worldwide, some one billion people will enter the labor force between now and 2030.
Why is that date important? That’s the deadline World Bank Group President Jim Kim has set for ending extreme poverty and boosting shared prosperity. Making this happen will require not only a healthy and skilled labor force, but also requires creating ample job opportunities, and ensuring that young adults can find productive work.

Building opportunities for youth in fragile and conflict-affected states – places where armed fighting has just ended or conflicts continue to simmer – has its own challenges. Many young men and women who have been pressed into fighting never had a chance to develop productive skills that can help them in times of peace. They return home to regions that have been devastated by years of conflict, with fragile economies, broken education systems and few opportunities for work.
How can governments and civil society best steer ex-combatants to productive labor and support their transition to peaceful lives?
Mattias Lundberg, a Senior Economist on the Social Protection and Labor team at the World Bank and the Bank’s Focal Point on Youth, talked to the Strategic Impact Evaluation Fund about why employment support programs for ex-armed fighters may have big returns; what worked in Liberia; and why he’s not going to give you $100 unless he’s certain he’s getting what’s promised in return.
Q: Governments in conflict-affected states and fragile states have a lot to worry about. Usually, their populations need food, health care and above all, security. Why focus on labor programs?
These things are all inter-related. It’s expensive and unproductive to have people unemployed. Not only are you wasting valuable human resources, but there’s a cost to any government that ends up having to fill the gap and provide services that many people could get on their own, or contribute to, if they were working. When it comes to places like Liberia, and other areas that have seen armed conflict, there are even more things to consider. For starters, large numbers of young men (and women) without work can likely make it harder to stabilize a country and definitely makes it harder to build a strong economy. Although evidence isn’t clear on the relationship, if any, between unemployment and unrest, there’s a lot of discussion right now about possible links and influences.
Q: For ex-combatants, whether those who were fighting in or outside Liberia, what do they usually come home to when they finally put down their guns and are demobilized?
For the average 25-year -old former combatant—even if he (and I’m saying he, not she, because most of these ex fighters are men) had the right skills—there’s not much labor demand. In places like Liberia, the formal economy is very small. There are a handful of private employers, but the vast majority of growth and economic activity is in the informal sector. So it’s not like he’s going to go online – assuming there’s a computer and an internet connection – and surf job ads. He isn’t opening up the newspaper to see pages and pages of want ads. It’s a difficult situation for anyone, but harder for ex-fighters who have few contacts, no soft skills in terms of how to act or plan for work, no access to capital and limited education. Many of the combatants were young children when conflict first broke out and they got a few years of schooling if they were lucky.
To give you a sense of the educational situation, I manage a program called the Adolescent Girls Initiative (AGI), which is being piloted in eight low-income countries and helps girls and young women transition from school to work. There is a basic literacy requirement, but in Liberia, we couldn’t find enough women to enroll because they couldn’t pass the literacy requirement. They were unable to read a simple three sentence paragraph. Because of this, in the second round, we’ve added a basic literacy training program into the initiative.
Q: Going back to the issue of ex-fighters and how to create new opportunities – can you give us some details about that program in Liberia?
The Action on Armed Violence aimed to give young former combatants economic opportunities and reduce the likelihood that they would join mercenary forces and fight conflicts in neighboring countries. The program was implemented in two areas where thousands of former combatants were living, many now involved in illicit logging and mining. Participants received start-up materials for agricultural work, agricultural training and life skills classes. They later got assistance relocating and farmland access was worked out with the local community.
Q: So did it work?
Definitely. The impact evaluation showed that compared with the randomly assigned comparison group, those who had access to the program were more likely to have shifted to agricultural work and were earning more money. They also were less likely to report being approached by recruiters or to report interest in going to fight in Cote d’Ivoire, where fighting had broken out in 2010, even though they probably would have been offered large sums of money to do so. That’s a very good result.
Q: Are impact evaluations necessary in these cases? It seems that giving people any sort of training is always a good thing.
There is sometimes a tendency to do what seems like a good idea without much attention to what works. People have told me that they don’t need an evaluation—that they can look in beneficiaries’ eyes and see that a particular program is worth investing in. But we cannot make decisions about where to put our resources based on what people may or may not see in someone else’s eyes. We need solid evidence because we have an obligation to find the most effective solutions to the problems we’ve been tasked to solve.
Q: Why focus on fighters?
I’ve worked in many post-conflict areas, such as Mozambique, Uganda, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, and I’ve found that integrating former combatants into the economy and into society is one of the most important issues. Integrating former combatants is a way to rebuild trust, which is fundamental to any society that’s moving from war footing to peace. One problem in accomplishing this is that there’s a tremendous amount of suspicion and mistrust, and it’s very costly in terms of social cohesion, welfare, and basic human dignity. On an economic level, it also hampers growth. I mean, I’m not going to pay you $100 for something if I don’t trust that you will deliver it tomorrow.
(Read about a youth employment-related impact evaluation in Uganda here)

Written by Daphna Berman; Edited by Aliza Marcus


Daphna Berman

Communications Consultant

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