Promoting youth engagement in Africa during the COVID-19 pandemic

May 07, 2020
A girl walks past shacks in the township of Khayelitsha, Cape Town, South Africa.
Tommy Trenchard/Panos Pictures

Physical distancing and economic lockdowns to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic have altered everyday life and how people interact around the world. They have also upended social science research, just when data and evidence are needed to understand the effects of sweeping pandemic-related policy responses.

While IDRC’s research partners are by no means immune to these challenges, they still manage to advocate for inclusive policy approaches and to increase awareness about the virus among youth.

Research highlights

  • Data and evidence are needed more than ever to understand the impacts of sweeping policy responses to COVID-19.
  • Researchers are helping to forecast and forestall negative socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic on vulnerable groups, especially among youth.
  • Our research partners are advocating to avoid the use of force, respect human rights, and involve youth in policy development during the pandemic.
  • Grantees in eastern and southern Africa are using virtual platforms, social media, radio, and television to inform and mobilize youth and engage with policymakers.

Protecting rights during the pandemic in South Africa

The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation is examining the relationship between socioeconomic opportunities for youth and violence prevention. Since South Africa declared a national lockdown on March 26, 2020, the Centre has been working closely with the South African Ministry of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs to defend the socioeconomic rights of vulnerable populations. The researchers are focusing on the people enrolled in South Africa’s public employment programs.

The Centre also lobbied government to allow informal vegetable vendors and “spaza shop” (informal convenience store) owners to operate during the lockdown. If they hold a municipal licence, these businesses can continue to provide poor townships with local food outlets, provided they exercise safety measures such as wearing masks, hand-washing, and social distancing. However, the researchers highlight the situation of foreign spaza shop owners, who are unable to obtain municipal licences and do not qualify for financial support under the COVID-19 social protection scheme.

The University of the Western Cape’s research focuses on gangs, how South African youth develop these networks of violence, and how they can become resilient to them. No longer able to organize face-to-face capacity-building sessions with youth affected by gang violence, university researchers have moved to the virtual policy engagement space. They are advocating against a militarized approach to enforce the lockdown. Working closely with South Africa’s Department of Social Development, the researchers promote mobilization rather than militarization during the COVID-19 pandemic, as they continue to encourage youth-centred and inclusive approaches to dealing with the challenge of gang violence.

Promoting youth involvement rather than use of force

The Organization for Social Science Research in East and Southern Africa, based in Ethiopia, is carrying out research in collaboration with the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, a regional cooperation body representing eight East African countries. In addition to research on youth involvement in policymaking to counter violent extremism, this IDRC grantee is liaising with the regional body to highlight the risks of enforcing physical distancing using public security measures. The research team is also underlining the importance of a collaborative approach that engages citizens and youth during the pandemic with the intergovernmental authority’s Conflict Early Warning and Response Mechanism.

In Kenya, the Centre for Human Rights and Policy Studies has been researching how the National Youth Service impacts youth in the informal settlements of Mathare and Kibera. With the onset of COVID-19, the researchers continue to engage policymakers and security actors about the nature of policing in informal settlements, human rights, and personal liberties.

Similar efforts are underway in Uganda, where the Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Support Trust has been examining the factors that discourage youth from engaging in violence. The non-governmental organization is now encouraging policymakers to strike a balance between safeguarding public health and protecting the socioeconomic wellbeing of people. 

Researchers from the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania have sensitized government officials at the National Counterterrorism Centre about the impacts of border closures in East Africa on various groups of people. Discussions focus on how to handle the ongoing illegal and undocumented cross-border migrations between Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Uganda, which put people at risk and weaken measures to fight COVID-19. The University has been studying potential links between informal community security mechanisms and more formal early warning systems and prevention measures for violent extremism in Tanzania and Kenya.

Raising awareness about COVID-19 among youth

Two organizations that promote youth initiatives and mechanisms in policy development and implementation in Zimbabwe are collating and compiling information on COVID-19. The Youth Empowerment and Transformation Trust and the Research and Advocacy Unit aim to be credible sources of information on the pandemic for youth. Sharing this information provides youth with a complete picture, minimizes alarm, stems the emerging culture of fear, and increases citizen trust in government interventions on COVID-19.

Both organizations are involved with the national inter-sectoral COVID-19 task force to help ensure that response strategies are inclusive, gender-sensitive, and respectful of human rights. The Research and Advocacy Unit has joined forces with the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe to raise awareness about heightened domestic violence and the challenges that pregnant women and midwives are facing at this time.

Using social media, radio, and television to reach everyone

These IDRC-supported researchers are not letting physical distancing measures prevent them from engaging with youth or policymakers. They use social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter to communicate with citizens and provide feedback to governments on measures instituted to address the pandemic. By doing so they are enhancing people’s adherence to the safety measures.

Recognizing that not everyone has access to the internet, some IDRC-funded organizations have helped inform radio and television programming. For example, the Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Support Trust in Uganda worked with the Ministry of Gender to share research findings with local communities through national television spots on the role of the family in promoting social cohesion during the pandemic. The Organization for Social Science Research in East and Southern Africa has been working closely with community radio stations such as Ghetto Radio and Radio Maisha in Kenya to ensure that messages on COVID-19 reach young people in vernacular language.

The work of these researchers is demonstrating how social scientists are essential collaborators and problem-solving partners for government. They are calling for inclusion, gender sensitivity, and accountability, even as states rapidly institute unprecedented containment measures to keep populations safe.

This article is based on discussions from a virtual indaba (informal thematic discussion) organized by IDRC’s regional office in Nairobi on April 8, 2020.