I lived in West Africa for 28 years and worked in post-conflict Sierra Leone to bring ex-combatants and women into the recovery process. I piloted several initiatives using action research in conflict-sensitive environments and used my findings to break open new spaces for engagement for problem solving and solution seeking. The lessons in nation building I’ve learned from this process are even more relevant today – youth are growing up in post-conflict areas, looking for ways to make a living and thrive in post conflict West Africa.
In my current project, I examine how young people in post-conflict Liberia are dealing with the shifts brought about by technology and globalization as they look to find work. Young people are deploying their creative skills to make their own jobs in the informal economy.
Young people have divergent pathways to adulthood and the transition to adulthood is complex, fraught with breaks and reversals while it is both lengthening and fragmenting. By this I mean that young people are being delayed in their development by an inability to support themselves independently due to the lack of work available. Many young people are investing in themselves attending training schools or universities. However, in a post-conflict state with a small formal economy such as Liberia, jobs are not available for the burgeoning youth demographic.
My empirical research took place in Monrovia, Liberia as well as in Freetown, Sierra Leone. I conducted interviews and focus groups with young people who are creating work and employed in innovative spaces in the informal economy. What I mean by innovative spaces is that these are new forms of informal business that are emerging and are visible on the streets of Monrovia.
Most of the people I interviewed are male and working with a variety of technologies – mobile phones, computers, radio, motorcycles. They told me their stories of how they got started, how they learned their skills and shared their aspirations for their working lives.
They said that training and education are pathways to better job opportunities, but out-of-date curricula, poorly trained instructors and lack of relevant market information do not help them get a return on their investment. To gain the opportunities they need, family and social networks play a significant role. Social networks are an important resource in determining success.
Young people suggested their 21st-century skills are honed by their engagement in the informal economy, where if you want to survive, you have to be agile, flexible, adaptive and smart.
I am passionate about women's rights and claiming rights; increasing knowledge through community radio; and civil society engagement in political and national reform processes. These passions have driven me to work to co-found Independent Radio Network (IRN) in Sierra Leone, which serves as a hub for community radio.
IRN works to broadcast trustworthy, impartial news and issue-based programming on national events and contemporary issues across Sierra Leone, with the goal of contributing to a peaceful and democratic society. IRN was critical in dealing with the Ebola scourge, sharing trusted information across the country. In our current era of post-truth and alternative news, it is important to empower youth to shape their lives in Liberia and Sierra Leone to deploy their 21st-century skills to fashion global connection to access the global market.
Young people are excited by globalization as they believe that global connections offer opportunities for them. It connects them to their family scattered across the continent, permits them to receive and send money easily, and points to opportunities to learn. Smartphones, cyber cafés, mobile money, and the apps that one can use to connect across the world are tangible signs of hope.
I am grateful for the time that the Balsillie Scholarship affords me to read academic and policy literature, to share with friends and scholars from across the globe, and to deepen my understanding of the drivers of change. It is an inspiring process.
Frances Fortune works with Associate Professor Andrea Brown in Balsillie School of International Affairs in the School of International Policy and Governance.
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