Department of Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology

Circular Nomadism: youth and labor in Liberia and Ghana

Funded by: Swedish Research Council 2015-2017
Researchers: Mats Utas and Emy Lindberg

Okada riders in Ganta, Liberia, March 2013. Photo: Mats Utas

Project description

This project is partly picking up where many current studies on African youth have left off: at wars end. Where demographic studies simply use abstract statistics to identify youth bulges and give woeful predictions of renewed conflicts driven by armies of disenfranchised youth, this study concretely investigates how young people make a living in one of the poorest countries in the world; Liberia. Youth in Liberia fought ten years of civil war. Socio-economy remains much the same after the war - poor remain poor. But does this mean that history will repeat itself, or will we see change?

At the same time, another image of the young Africa is projected; that of the new African growth, where young entrepreneurship is regarded as the key to the future. This picture is frequently painted when Ghana, the second country of this study, is presented to an international audience. Yet, even there social and economic injustices are ubiquitous, and most importantly, there are not enough jobs around.

Through in-depth studies and long-term engagement in these two countries this project answer questions such as: How are labor structures manifested, and how do they change? How do young people find work and what does this mean for the societies they are part of? In particular, what impact do labor market experiences and the mechanisms for finding employment have on longitudinal, post-colonial structures/relationships of dependence? This project aims to explore youths´ navigation of employment trajectories, and more particularly the role of young labor migration in the functioning of labor markets in Liberia and Ghana. By adding a gender perspective and a special focus on the experiences of young women we will also give space to a social group that has often been ignored in contemporary studies on African youth.

The research project aims to make several critical contributions. First, it will contribute to theories on youth labor and labor migration by developing a theoretical framework suitable for exploring how labor structures manifest and change. Second, it will add important empirical material on youth and labor in Liberia and Ghana, which will broaden our understanding of (African) youth in search for work in post-conflict and postcolonial structures of dependencies with large young populations. Third, methodologically, it will show the usefulness of adding a qualitative and ethnographical perspective to an area that has been dominated by a statistical focus on unemployment. Finally, this project will contribute to current policy debates and help to improve development projects focusing on issues of youth and labor.