Neoliberalism, African Youth and the notion of ‘waithood’

The majority of African youths are today grappling with a lack of jobs and deficient education. After they leave school with few skills, they are unable to obtain work and become independent, i.e. to build, buy or rent a house for themselves, support their relatives, get married, establish families and gain social recognition as adults. The idea of ‘waithood’ stems from Honwana’s lecture on the subject and maybe it is best you start with viewing the video.

Having watched the video you will recognise that we are living during a momentus times of youth rebellion, anxiety and concerns about the reality of globalisation on the lives of young people. Some major questions emerge: Has neo-liberalism, i.e. global market liberalisation led to new vibrant economic futures for young people? Does

Debt reduction and neoliberal reforms

The reality is that neoliberal globalisation has swept unevenly but steadily across the world, including Africa. According to Harrison (2010) the term encompasses ‘a diverse set of interventions over a protracted period of time that are oriented towards the removal of political control of the economy, the free market and the rational individual’. (Harrison, 2010, pp.26-27, cited in Konings, 2011, p.1). Since the 1980s, neoliberalism has been the dominant development agenda in Africa because of its championing by powerful external agencies like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and Western neoliberal states that have compelled African states to pursue this agenda (Cammack 2002; Harrison 2004). The neoliberal agenda in Africa has deepened and broadened over the years. In the early years, neoliberalism had primarily an economic agenda that included a negative view of the state and the public sector, which advocated thst ‘more market and less state’ was the prime objective of the macro-economic stabilisation programmes that started in the late 1970s. It suggested that structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) that were vigorously enhanced and extended in the 1980s (Fernández Jilberto & Mommen 1996; Demmers et al. 2004). These SAPs were a mechanism of economic conditionality and credit was only forthcoming if governments implemented ‘correct’ policies – based on a desire to liberalise economies. Their initial goals were to remove price subsidies within internal markets, abolish quotas and allow exchange rates to flow freely.

Following considerable pressure on the Bretton Woods institutions (e.g. IMF, World Bank) to modify their painful neoliberal economic policies, transitory social improvement packages were attached to the core neoliberal reforms of the late 1980s to cushion the social costs of structural adjustment and give it a ‘human face’ = ad hoc debt reduction and rescheduling packages were introduced. The Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative (1996 and enhanced in 1999) required a min. 3 years of satisfactory adherence to an IMF structural reform programme (SAP), which included incentives of a debt write-down – to release money for social expenditure, especially in primary healthcare and education. Moreover, in 1999 SAPs were replaced by the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) and its related funding mechanisms within the World Bank and the IMF (Harrison 2010: 41-42).

The notion of ‘good governance’ and neoliberal reforms

It was not until the early 1990s that the neoliberal agenda became more openly political. Attributing the lack of success in the first decade of SAPs to domestic policy issues, in particular corrupt and inefficient governments in Africa. The World Bank introduced the concept of ‘good governance’ as a solution to the economic and political failures of African states (see World Bank 1989, 1992, 1994). In 1994, it gave its clearest generic definition of governance reform as ‘the promotion of accountability and a more efficient public administration, the establishment of the rule of law and a capable judiciary, and transparency’ (Konings, 2011, p.3). The discourse of ‘good governance’ emerged at a time when the promotion of liberal democracy had already become an important element on the development agenda of bilateral donors.

Accordingly, it has been argued that there are in fact two governance agendas: An overtly political agenda of bilateral donors calling for multiparty elections; and the World Bank’s less political, managerial and administrative agenda that focuses on efficient and accountable government procedures, defined as ‘a dual conditionality agenda emerged in the 1990s that was supported and promoted by multilateral and bilateral donors alike’ (Konings, 2011, p.3). Moreover, it indicated that international development aid in the 1990s therefore became conditional both on a set of macro-economic performance criteria and issues of governance and democracy which was aimed at transforming African states and societies into an ‘ideal’ type that ‘conforms with neoliberal ideology and doctrine'(Konings, 2011, p.3).

Critique of African neoliberal reforms

There is a vast literature criticising the neoliberal experience in Africa on numerous counts. Firstly, according to Konings (2012) neoliberal economic reforms have largely failed to generate socio-economic recovery and a broader social well-being, especially between 1980 and 2000. Evidence is indicative of a stalled growth, low investment rates, increasing volatility in economic performance, growing aid dependency and a worsening income distribution (Oya 2007). Also, the social impact of economic liberalisation, i.e. the reduction in state expenditure on health and education and the introduction of user fees have further exacerbated social hardship. Therefore, the impact of neoliberal political reforms has proved to be disappointing  (Abrahamsen 2000; Ferguson 2006; Harrison 2010). The political liberalisation of many African states, which was taken to mark an optimistic new beginning for the continent, did, however, change Africa’s political landscape in certain respects. Between 1990 and 2004, multiparty elections were held in 42 African countries (Rakner & Svasand 2005: 85) and there was also a wave of constitutional revisions that enshrined rights of expression and association. The so-called ‘second wave of change’ or ‘second liberalisation’ in Africa was underpinned by the establishment of democratic conditionalities by major bilateral donors.  But as research indicatest multiparty elections, where they have occurred, have done little to alter the fundamental dynamics of authoritarian and neopatrimonial regimes in Africa (Chabal & Daloz 1999). For one thing, many African elections have been little more than elaborately staged ceremonies that authoritarian leaders have used to ratify their rule. Rakner (2003) convincingly shows that, in the case of Zambia, the political practices associated with one party rule, such as centralisation in the presidential office and extensive use of state patronage for political gain, were prevailing  (cited in Konings, 2012, p.4). Konings (2012) suggests that neoliberal reforms in Africa within the formal structures of liberal democracy and a market economy have failed, citing the ongoing  power base of incumbent political leaders; the acquisitive nature of opposition parties and the lukewarm commitment to democratisation by western states (2012, p.4).

Honwana: Waithood

The majority of African youths are today grappling with a lack of jobs and deficient education. After they leave school with few skills, they are unable to obtain work and become independent, i.e. to build, buy or rent a house for themselves, support their relatives, get married, establish families and gain social recognition as adults. Such attributes of adulthood are becoming increasingly unattainable by the majority of young people in Africa. Thus Honwana suggests the notion waithood, a portmanteau term of “wait” and “-hood”, meaning ‘waiting for adulthood’ which refers to ‘this period of suspension between childhood and adulthood. On the one hand, young people are no longer children in need of care, but on the other, they are still unable to become independent adults’ (Honwana, 2012, p.19).

Sommers (2012) Stuck : Rwandan Youth and the Struggle for Adulthood

The pressure on youth to meet social expectations is great, and the consequences of failing are harsh. The hard edge of what appears to be an inflexible part of Rwandan culture is illuminated by the following quote from an executive secretary of a rural sector, who stated that:

You can’t become a man without building a house. To be a woman, you have to marry. If a woman produces children without a husband, then she’s a prostitute. And if she reaches twenty-eight years old without getting married, then she will be rejected by youth society. She will become an old lady and not a woman. (Sommers, 2012, p.116)

Rwandan Adulthood – housing as the cultural gateway to adulthood

The challenge of male and female adulthood usually begins, and too often ends, with discussions of roofing. For youth and adults in rural areas, the lack of roofing can be associated with: informal, live-in marriages; illegitimate children; urban migration; education/schooling; crime; prostitution; AIDS, or a perilous fate: becoming an “inzererezi” (wanderer or social outcast).

The ‘push’ effect of urban migration

The downward spiral that youth face, and their difficult quest for adulthood, was detailed by an umudugudu leader interviewed in a rural area:

The situation of the youth here is bad. They are desperate. They have no hope that their situation will ever change. The only thing they can do is dig until they get rid of that life and migrate. They have given up on the idea of getting [formally] married because they can’t afford that. They can’t build their own houses because the price of roof tiles is too high for them. (Sommers, 2012, p.117)

The case of rural ‘escaping’ (youth flight) in Rwanda, is in contrast to general rural– urban migration trends in Africa. Cities are the location for all things modern: the Internet, traffic jams, big buildings, and the latest videos, music, slang, and fashions. Cities can be a proving ground for male youth – they return with money in the pockets, marriage and manhood are all possibilities. However, Sommers (2012) suggests this is not the case in Rwanda, where our youth respondents rarely mentioned these options. Sommers (2012) findings for this research strongly suggest that large numbers of youth in Kigali endure desperate, extreme poverty and social isolation:

  • Hunger appeared to be endemic, employment was sporadic for a great many youth, and connections or networks with those who might assist them were weak or non-existent.
  • Many urban youth held a persistent belief that whatever money or success they managed to obtain was entirely tenuous. Most believed that there was little they could do to improve their situation.
  • Fear of bottoming out and becoming an inzererezi or a prostitute seemed to haunt many.
  • The moral coloring of male and female youth, so common in big African cities (and beyond), that labels poor male youth as thieves and poor female youth as prostitutes is commonplace in Kigali.
  • In addition, most poor youth in Kigali were found to be living in inadequate or no housing. There is a serious housing crisis in Kigali, too.

Gendered transitions: the impact on Rwandan young women

The incapacity of so many male youth to marry crushes most female youth, too, since without a proper marriage, most have no chance of gaining social acceptance as adult women. By age twenty-four or twenty-five, an unmarried female youth may have to face the prospect of never getting married resulting in living a life, essentially, as a ‘social outlier’, i.e. a family embarrassment, and a drain on her parents’ resources.  The situation facing the poorest female youth constitutes a high-risk emergency. Though the research sample was small, evidence suggested that prostitution was the most common poor female youth occupation and that the results of the dire female youth situation are illegitimate children, urban migration, and an apparent spread of the HIV/AIDS virus. Which Sommer describes as a ‘tumble of consequences that stem, in large part, from the inability of most male youth in rural Rwanda to build houses extends beyond the housing crisis in the countryside and emergency conditions afflicting poor female youth’ ( 2012, p.194).

Social and economic challenges, risky lives and HIV

Sommers (2012) research study ‘Stuck’ indicates that the rate of HIV/AIDS prevalence,  in the Rwandan population may be substantially higher, stating that:

‘In a nation with such a profoundly youthful population, where so many youth endure truly difficult social and economic conditions, and where HIV/AIDS carries with it a punishing stigma, aligning the methods of this sort of survey with the ways in which most youth live is essential. (p.199)

Among the most serious problems facing female and male youth is the likelihood that they will be exposed to HIV/AIDS. 2005 national survey (3 percent in the nation and 3.4 percent for youth in Kigali; Institut National de la Statistique and orc Macro 2006: xxix).


Buckingham, D., Bragg, S. and Kehily, M.J. (2014) Youth Cultures in the Age of Global Media.

Honwana, A. (2012) The Time of Youth: Work, Social Change and Politics in Africa Kumarian Press

Honwana, A. (2006) ‘Historical and Social Contexts’, in ‘Historical and Social Contexts’ Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 26-48.

Honwana, A. (2006) Looking to the Future and Learning from the Past Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 135-164.

Honwana, A. (2006) ‘Young Women’, in ‘Young Women’ Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 75-103.

Konings, P. 2010;2011;, Politics of Neoliberal Reforms in Africa: State and civil society in Cameroon, Langaa, Oxford.

Lipsitz, G. (2004; 2011; 2005) Youthscapes: The Popular, the National, the Global.

Porter, G., Hampshire, K., Mashiri, M., Dube, S. and Maponya, G. (2010) ‘‘Youthscapes’ and escapes in rural Africa: Education, mobility and livelihood trajectories for young people in Eastern Cape, South Africa’, Journal of International Development, 22(8), pp. 1090-1101.

Sommers, M. (2012) Studies in Security and International Affairs: Stuck : Rwandan Youth and the Struggle for Adulthood.



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