Poor and unemployed young don’t seem to be a source of social instability

That is a strong statement. I’ve been taken to task for it in yesterday’s post.

A few months ago Shanta Deverajan asked me to speak to the World Bank’s management retreat for Africa directors. Here’s how I started the talk:

Whether as policy makers or social scientists, if there’s one thing we think we know, it’s that poor and unemployed young men are a source of social instability. Underemployed young men have been implicated in Kenyan election violence, religious riots in Nigeria, and rebellion in Sierra Leone.

Economic theory gives us a solid explanation: without incomes, the returns to predation are greater than the returns to peaceful production. With future earnings prospects so poor, there is little to weigh against the costs and risks of violence are weighed.

Gary Becker first argued this case with American crime. It has been applied broadly, and is the basis of economic theories of civil war. Scattered evidence on economic shocks, or the income conflict correlation, suggests its truth.

The theory also provides a strong basis for a public intervention, because there is a negative externality not being taken into account by the market.

Here’s the thing, I’ve seen nothing to suggest any of this is true.

We really don’t have much evidence one way or the other, but the little we have argues against rather than for Becker’s philosophy.

There are actually several possible explanations for violence and social instability, some of them with more evidence in their favor. If they turn out to be true, then not only could youth employment programs not stem the risk of instability, they could heighten that risk.

The rest of the talk is here.

This is certainly a hypothesis. Here’s some evidence from Iraq and the Philippines that says something similar. The hard proof should start to come in the next few months–I have four experimental youth employment programs I am testing in post-conflict zones. Once the evidence comes in, my hunch may well prove wrong.

For the moment, the pervasiveness of this idea–that poor unemployed young men pose a danger–represents the triumph of theory and intuition over evidence.