Vandals or Vanguards? Lagarde on youth in Senegal

(This blog was originally posted at

By Thibault Uytterhaegen

On February 10th 2015, Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), presented a speech to the Senegalese national assembly in which she outlined several key objectives to ‘unlock Senegal’s potential, significantly roll back poverty, and secure a brighter future for its youth’ (1). The mention of youth is not incidental. In her speech, concerns over Senegal’s increasingly youthful population were voiced with a sense of urgency that denotes a widespread policy problem; how to deal with an abundance of young people entering the labour force with so little formal economic opportunities that await them?

Indeed, Lagarde lamented the average economic growth Senegal experienced in recent years, questioning the ability of the Senegalese government to spur private sector investment and create more jobs. Here she thinks specifically of ‘the 45 percent of [the Senegalese] population under 14 years of age for whom action is urgent’.

Lagarde warns, however, that policy goals solely focused on ambitious growth and disregarding the ‘well-being of the population’ can lead to disastrous outcomes. She claims that a lack of economic opportunities can result in a ‘social strain’ and undermine Senegal’s developmental agenda.

While the sentiment is not novel, these statements betray a certain alarmist tendency that undermines the positive message of prosperity in her discourse: both her policy recommendations for well-being and shared prosperity are followed by stark visions of instability should these policies remain unfulfilled. This discourse contributes to a narrative where policy objectives regarding youth and well-being function to allay fears of political conflict and destabilization, rather than pursuing them for their own sake.

Indeed, the focus on youth as integral to the accomplishment of Senegal’s development goals can be understood as more broadly symptomatic of policy actors’ fears of the disruptive potential of young people. These fears are supported by an ever-increasing number of articles and papers written on the destabilizing power of the un(der)employed ‘youth bulge’, or, the demographic explosion of young people in Sub-Saharan Africa (2).

The problem is very few of these papers have actually established credible causal explanations between youthful populations and political violence, only strong correlations. And this is where the alarming view of young people should be checked. As Sommers (3) states, to make the causal claim that more young people leads to civil disobedience is to both simplify the causes of violent eruptions in Sub-Saharan Africa, and to disregard the heterogeneous voices of young people. Indeed, to purport such a view, Sommers claims, is to support discourses of young people in Sub-Saharan Africa as ‘savage’, ‘barbaric’ and ‘dangerous’.

Instead of focusing on threatening narratives of civil conflict and youth, Sommers suggests, we should rather be attentive to the manifold complexities young people face growing up in Sub-Saharan Africa. And indeed, from the difficulty in achieving sociocultural notions of adulthood, to the impact of globalised media on imaginaries of modernity, young people’s lives are increasingly fluid, fuzzy and non-linear. To reduce young people to binary actors who are happy with jobs and angry without, is grossly misleading.

During her speech, Lagarde provides a strong indication of this binary approach when she quotes Ousmane Sembene, a famous Senegalese writer. She quotes him speaking of the ‘terrible gulf between young people’s aspirations and their accomplishments’. Here, Ousmane makes a statement about the impact of young people’s inability to secure work on their self-respect and their well-being. He alludes to the personal importance attached to having a vocation that is respected. Lagarde, on the other hand, says it is crucial to bridge the gulf in order to sustain levels of growth. In this statement she frames young people are supporting elements of the economy. In doing so she betrays a vision of development which is firmly rooted in economic growth, and where all other elements – including young people and well-being – are complementary factors. In other words, young people’s role in society is binary: either they benefit the economy or they destabilise it.

In reading her speech I was reminded of Abbink and Kessel’s edited volume entitled ‘Vanguards or Vandals’. In it, they suggest that there exists a strong political narrative that regards Africa’s youth as either dangerous criminals or idealised agents of change (4). In Lagarde’s speech, I would argue this narrative is clearly there. On the one hand, young people carry the hope for economic prosperity as powerful agents of change. However, if they are not attended to, African youth turn into the Hydra of Lerna, a terrifying many headed dragon where, for every head chopped off, two will grow in its place.


(1) Lagarde, C. (February, 2015). Senegal on the Way to an Emerging Economy: Transformation, Inclusiveness, Equity by Christine Lagarde, IMF Managing Director. Accessed 10th January 2017:

(2) Azeng, T. F. & Yogo, T. U. (2013) Youth unemployment and political instability in selected developing countries. African Development Bank Group. 

(3) Sommers, M. (2011). Governance, security and culture: Assessing Africa’s youth bulge. International journal of conflict and violence, 5(2), 292-303.

(4) van Kessel, I. (Ed.). (2005). Vanguard Or Vandals: Youth, Politics, and Conflict in Africa. Brill.

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