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Playing detective in Karamoja, Uganda: the case of the missing and emerging rural youth

Written by David Walker


​Uganda has the youngest population in the world under 30 years of age. Twelve percent of all youth in the country are chronically poor. The majority of these young people live in rural areas, and some of the issues affecting these youth are: risky agricultural practices and contexts, under-resourced and/or distant services, and sustained levels of poverty and vulnerability.

The Karamoja region sits on the extreme end of this picture: it is one of the most marginalised and historically insecure areas of Uganda, where challenges that affect youth wellbeing are multiplied by several orders of magnitude. I’ve written about similar issues before with respect to marginalised children in Viet Nam, but my recent experience of conducting an evaluation of a 3-year Youth Empowerment Programme with ‘Restless Development’ in Karamoja, north-east Uganda, was perhaps more concerning. There is a danger that ‘development’ will proceed without considering – and engaging – the interests of those it will most affect: young people. Rural youth are at risk of being left behind altogether. In the lead up to the Commonwealth Youth Forum (10-14 November), it’s time to get specific when it comes to creating opportunities for young people.

The first time I went to the Karamoja region was in 2011. I went in the mid-spell of the East Africa Drought and was confronted by a region on its knees: communities were quickly shifting from coping to surviving, selling major assets, and moving closer to towns where many would eventually end up being even more vulnerable. Fast forward two years and I was confronted with long stretches of green foliage, tall sunflower and sorghum plants, merrily ambling cattle and other signs of promising developments: several vibrant market places, full petrol pumps and, markedly, the foundational layers of the first tarmac road, which will completely transform access to markets and other migrational dynamics in the region.

However, the Karamojong are primarily agro-pastoralists. The idea of growing anything other than a staple to them can be seen as borderline heresy. So what happens in the down-season when agricultural production ceases or when drought kicks in? Young men and women hit the road and find the nearest, high-risk, low-paying jobs – while their parents complain about them becoming urbanised and exposed to STIs. These are issues all too familiar to adolescent girls, who require targeted, accessible interventions to ensure that they can access social and economic opportunities.

Marginalised youth also need to be addressed as actors and agents in their own right. The following three recommendations will surely resonate with programmes in many other rural contexts:

1) Work with young people on agricultural extension services. The NGO community can learn from how Restless Development is engaging youth in a systematic way. Previous decades of blanket food-security and cash-for-work programmes have pretty much ignored bulging youth unemployment and lost productivity benefits. While almost everybody else is arriving in villages, dumping seeds and tools, and leaving the Karamojong to get on with it, assuming they know all they need to, Restless Development’s main advantage is in understanding the capacities of youth, what motivates them in the area of agriculture, and ingraining knowledge through their peer-educator programme (see next point).

2) Use the knowledge of local youth to embed learning in the community. This is certainly easier said than done, but Restless Development have pioneered a peer-educator model, which draws on the agricultural, community and cultural know-how of 75 local youth across 25 villages who act as active and reactive communication nodes for Restless Development’s messaging on livelihoods, sexual reproductive health and peacebuilding. The Karamojong rural youth therefore essentially become front-line staff of Restless Development. They undergo training and contribute directly to the monitoring and evaluation of the programme through monthly reports. (The traditional method of doing this community outreach is bringing in a gaggle of 75 youth on a Boeing 747, i.e. a bunch of over-zealous and socially awkward gap-year students to do the job, who overwhelmingly lack intimate knowledge of the local language, as well as the subtle but important power dynamics of each location.) An unforeseen bonus of the ‘localised’ peer-educator model is that a number of government departments and NGOs are starting to rely on this formal youth network for their own mobilisation and research activities. In the process they are learning about Restless Development’s interventions and the benefits of integrated programming – such as the mutually reinforcing benefits of sexual reproductive health and livelihood programming.

3) Migration is a critical issue for rural youth; it is intimately related to support for vocational skills. The issue of youth migration seems to be off radar for everyone except the International Organisation for Migration in Karamoja, yet it is a large factor in the reality of young people. There are basically two options here: either stop youth migrating (unlikely) or provide them with the skills to avoid risky and exploitative jobs when they do move. Unfortunately, the only vocational schools in Karamoja are private and prohibitively expensive. NGOs are only beginning to toy with ideas like informal peer-to-peer vocational training that does not include hairdressing. On top of this, the government focus continues to be on cash crops and staple foods, while both innovative and established livelihoods options, such as pastoralism, are neglected. Such options are unpopular with programmers, and are increasingly under-resourced.

Ultimately, while Karamoja is on the move, rural youth are at risk of falling between the cracks – again. The Commonwealth Youth Forum is an opportunity to focus on young men and women in chronically deprived rural areas, and to recognise that marginalised youth want to develop, not just survive. The connections between informal vocational training and migration are critical, as well as targeted agricultural training activities for young people, and the reframing of pastoralism, not as ‘traditional’, but as ‘innovative’. There is a danger that such specifics can get lost in the mix if we don’t recognise and promote policy options to address the particular situations of these marginalised young people.