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Living for the City: The Urban Bias in Kenya's Youth Programmes

Entrepreneurial programmes implicitly geared towards urban youth neglect rural unemployment and underdevelopment.
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A youth group office in rural Kenya. Photograph by Olli Pitkänen.

Nairobi, Kenya:

At the recent Youth 21 Conference in Nairobi – hosted by UN-Habitat and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to discuss youth participation, employment and entrepreneurship – there seemed to be an inescapable bias towards urban youth.

This featured amongst UN staff as well as representatives from NGOs and youth organisations. Joan Clos, Chief Executive of UN-Habitat, for example, advocated the migration of rural youth to urban areas based on the assumption that, at least in the developing world, cities are a better place for young people than rural areas.

Living for the city

Looking more broadly at the UN’s youth strategies, a deeper structural bias is revealed. There is a disproportionate focus on urban youth enterprise – there is no rural equivalent, for example, to UN-Habitat’s youth enterprise fund for urban development – and a growing emphasis on entrepreneurial investment as a strategy for poverty reduction, which as we shall see, implicitly privileges urban-dwellers.

These assumptions and trends can also be seen in Kenya’s national policies whereby development strategies have been increasingly shifting towards private-sector models of investment. In 2006, for example, the Kenyan government launched the Youth Enterprise Development Fund (YEDF) as its primary strategy for tackling youth unemployment. The Fund provides small, low-interest loans to young people seeking financial support for entrepreneurial activities.

During discussions with UNDP staff in Nairobi, it was evident that the agency supported YEDF as a suitable governmental strategy for addressing Kenya's widespread youth unemployment. They made it clear that it is important to use loans and credit as tools for development – not handouts. As far as the importance of reducing donor dependency is concerned, this ethos is worthy of support. However, the implications of treating development work like venture capitalism are somewhat worrying.

Ultimately, the criteria for accessing YEDF loans is fundamentally geared towards urban youth, as the level of education and capacity required to create the necessary business proposals to apply for loans are far less likely to be exhibited by young people from rural areas or aimed at projects in rural areas.

A number of studies suggest that individuals who possess the creativity to become an entrepreneur are more likely to engage in entrepreneurial activities in urban areas, as those raised in urban areas are more exposed to these kinds of activities in their day-to-day lives. Meanwhile, rural youth groups face unique socio-political challenges that are not as prevalent in Kenya’s urban areas. Rural Kenya remains largely segregated along ethnic lines, and challenges such as inter-ethnic mistrust combined with language and cultural barriers can significantly hinder youth groups’ ability to run successful income-generating projects.

Another model

What is needed in Kenya and other developing countries is a strategy which seeks to actually engage with isolated and disconnected young people living in rural areas. A potential solution would be to focus more on giving, rather than lending, seed money to youth groups, possibly even supporting the formation of these groups, and guiding them through basic income-generating activities like small-scale commercial farming.

This model has been tested successfully on one youth cooperative in Kenya’s Rift Valley province. Since the cooperative started growing potato seeds a few months ago, the cooperative's members are now planning to diversify into other income-generating activities such as operating a local store and petrol depot. Had there not been a project which formed this group and gave them the necessary seed capital and training, it is unlikely that the young people currently involved in the cooperative would have accessed YEDF loans and become entrepreneurs.

Selective development?

Given the additional costs, time, and risks involved in developing rural entrepreneurial capacity, it is understandable that the Kenyan government and its development partners chose to create and support policies that are more beneficial to urban and semi-urban youth. After all, it is more cost-effective to support young people who are already capable of pursuing entrepreneurial actives, and effects are likely to be more immediate.

However, the problem of widespread youth unemployment cannot be solved with investment in programmes which, due to the implicit educational and motivational benchmarks set by their criteria, are only open to a few exceptional young people who are most likely male and living in urban areas.

If countries such as Kenya continue to rely on the private-sector models of investment as a means of solving rural youth unemployment, then ‘rural-urban’ youth migration will continue and rural Kenya will remain underdeveloped.

The UN also has a responsibility to correct urban biases and work with governments to ensure that the disconnected and uneducated rural youth are not overlooked when youth enterprise programmes are developed.

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