Beyond Lip Service: Co-Creating Solutions for Youth Employment in South Sudan

Accelerator Lab members engage with young people at the launch in Juba, South Sudan.

It is easy to write off youth-centric programming in development. The solutions seem straight forward and obvious. The efforts can feel performative. Young people themselves are rarely in the room. But we are left with the stark reality that more than 70 percent of South Sudanese are under the age of 30 – and of this vast majority, an estimated 97-99 percent lack formal employment.

Sustainable peace in South Sudan is dependent on more than the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS). To envision and enact solutions that create the South Sudan we want by 2030, we must push our current “business-as-usual” approaches to development – specifically those which target young people – beyond lip service.

So, how?

Young people in Torit participating in an issue mapping exercise on a canvas.

Moving beyond programming in the dark

Young people in Torit participating in an issue mapping exercise on a canvas.

One of the lesser-discussed consequences of the conflict in South Sudan is the effect prolonged insecurity has had on data collection. Quantitative evidence-gathering is necessary to make informed public policy decisions, especially decisions related to a multi-faceted problem such as high unemployment amongst young people.

Meanwhile, public data, such as polling and surveys, remain limited in South Sudan. Aside from humanitarian sources, the most recent large-scale public data collection was the High Frequency Survey conducted in 2017 by the World Bank in collaboration with South Sudan National Bureau of Statistics. While the South Sudan National Bureau of Statistics has managed to persevere during this challenging time, most known data sources originate from UN agencies or international organizations. Logistical constraints, language barriers and a highly mobile population results in severely limited survey sample sizes.

This dearth of data means many traditional programming decisions happen in the dark, without data and evidence as justification. Instead, consensus is made via a top-down approach to problem solving. While projects and programmes attempt to check off a “consultative” phase, it is largely a tokenistic exercise.

The Accelerator Lab approach, in contrast, is built to push beyond development business-as-usual. Creating scalable and replicable solutions which get to the heart of solving unemployment amongst young people requires going beyond assumptions. Dictated needs must be replaced with evidence-based activity formulated from what works on the ground.

We need more open source data shareable across players in the space to address this blind spot. It’s neither easy nor comfortable – and we recognize that neither UNDP nor the Accelerator Lab can do this on our own.

A lab team member demonstrating sense making to young people in Torit.

Taking sensemaking to Torit

The Accelerator Lab Network, scattered across 60 countries worldwide, works in rapid learning cycles based on four protocols: sensemaking, exploring, experimenting, and ultimately, growing and scaling solutions outwards in a variety of directions.

Our Lab is introducing this learning cycle to tackle the inter-connected issue of unemployment and underemployment. Sensemaking, as we are executing it, aims to build a shared understanding emanating from the young people themselves.

In consortium with South Sudanese young people, we want to deeply consider the system of driving forces and different dimensions of unemployment, and their implications on the lives of young people. These engagements will lead to discovering and co-creating more varied and dynamic solutions which address real needs.

It is vital to understand:

  • What the young people of South Sudan themselves aspire for their lives,
  • What they are trying to do to solve their own problems, and
  • What immediate support they need to jumpstart progress on their goals.

Our first priority – get out of Juba, the capital, and connect with young people around the country.

Due to a serendipitous solidarity mission of the UN Youth Envoy Jayathma Wickramanayake, the Accelerator Lab team ventured out to Torit, both a county and a municipality in Eastern Equatoria State, located approximately 90 miles away from the capital, Juba.

There we worked with 60 “young peace-makers” during a two-day engagement spanning Accelerator Lab protocols, including exploration of young people’s role in peace and development.

Importantly, we witnessed a shift in problem framing and mindset among the participants from enumerating requests and needed actions by external partners (donors, agencies, and the like).

“Young people’s voices and perspectives should be accounted for when designing policies and programmes. They are the future of this country’s growth and development,” UN Youth Envoy Jayathma Wickramanayake said while participating in our solutions mapping exercise with young people in Torit.

UN Youth Envoy listening to Youth in Torit during her solidarity visit to South Sudan on 30 January 2020.

What happens when young people frame the challenges they face?

During the Lab’s official launch event in December 2019, we carried out an opinion survey to capture a very limited sample of young people’s perspective on this issue. The main objective was to demonstrate the value of posing meaningful questions on employment and livelihoods to young people.

The respondents identified several issues facing young people of South Sudan. The below graph shows the popularity of each of the main issues among the respondents.

Sources: UNDP HDR 2019 & Accelerator Lab Launch Survey questionnaire (n=40), December 9, 2019.

The limited survey showed that 48 percent of the respondents directly consider unemployment as the main challenge facing young people in South Sudan. This result confirms the Lab’s initial assumption to focus on employment of young people as an area to make quick and measurable progress. It also shows a host of other issues that affect young people, in comparison.

This builds on UNDP South Sudan’s initiative to engage young people in gathering #MyWorld2030 surveys to gauge which of the Sustainable Development Goals are of immediate concern to them and their families.

Perceptions of labor market readiness

Sources: UNDP HDR 2019 & Accelerator Lab Launch Survey(n=40), December 9, 2019.

One of the refrains in our initial conversations with several stakeholders in the agenda’s ecosystem is that young South Sudanese are unprepared for the labour market.

In fact, many of the programmes run by different organizations, including UNDP, are premised on that idea. The results above, however, show a disconnect with how young people themselves perceive their labour market readiness – at least among the moderately-to-highly educated young people who attended our launch.

If the general perception among young people is that their educational institutions prepare them for the labour market, has an analysis been done on a skills mismatch and/or a disconnect which may exist between current employers and the youth labour supply?

We know there are limited private sector employers in the country. Is there a “job market” for university graduates in South Sudan? If so, are university students enrolling in and studying subject areas in demand on the current job market? Are universities and other training programmes preparing their students to create self-employment opportunities, if such a market does not exist?  

We are left with more questions than answers, and the desire to work with interested parties to learn more concretely how the skilling and employment system is working in reality. We are also inspired by connections we are making on the ground and the potential of nascent enterprises, including the stories of young people like Gama and his poultry farming, as entry points for greater collaboration.

Quantitative and qualitative evidence may provide an opportunity to review capacity development programs littered across the country in closer consultation with young people themselves – and in collaboration with universities and private sector. To that end, we are organizing a collective intelligence summit by the end of this month to conduct the much needed broad-based review of youth programs with other stakeholders within the youth agenda ecosystem.

Key desired skills

Sources: UNDP HDR 2019 & Accelerator Lab Launch Survey(n=40), December 9, 2019.

There are several barriers that prevent young people from building the lives they desire in South Sudan. The lack of skills needed to obtain desirable employment is one of the most commonly cited barriers. As such this question wanted to gauge which skills are regarded valuable by both job seekers and potential employers.

Hard skills, like ICT, lead the way. Yet, respondents also showed demand for “softer” skills in entrepreneurship, leadership and communication.

Potential areas of investment: creating the jobs

Sources: UNDP HDR 2019 & Accelerator Lab Launch Survey(n=40), December 9, 2019.

As the graph shows, agriculture and agribusiness is considered one of the most popular areas of exploration for the young people who attended our launch. Considering the event was over-indexed with university-level or aspiring education-level, this is quite encouraging.

One cannot overemphasize the importance of agriculture to the South Sudanese economy. It is the highest employer in the country, with nearly half the population involved in the sector. Despite this, more than half of South Sudanese are food insecure according to the most recent IPC Acute Food Insecurity analysis.

According to the World Bank, linking the agriculture and food sector to the job creation agenda represents an opportunity to drive inclusive and sustainable growth to reduce poverty, hunger and unemployment. In the past, agriculture has been described as “unappealing to young people” – citing low-income, lack of technology, challenges accessing information, and limited financial services as obstacles to considering the field as a long-term option for prosperity. 

We believe, if findings similar to our limited survey can be expanded and proven, the interest young people have in agriculture could be cultivated through sustained long-term capital investment. Where could strategic infusions of agribusiness investment be used to increase productivity, profitability, and competitiveness of this sector – and thus inspire an entire generation of enterprising young people?  

Maximizing collective impact by breaking silos

There is no single silver bullet solution to this challenge and no organization or entity equipped to address it on their own. Solving unemployment of young people and creating decent work and economic growth (Sustainable Development Goal 8), demands an integrated approach-whereby different organizations work collaboratively with each other when designing their interventions instead of working in silos. The Accelerator Lab is committed to the inclusion of young people into decision-making and finding opportunities to dive in for deeper understanding of which interventions work.

It’s with this experimental and collaborative mindset that we can co-create solutions for employment of young South Sudan.


Interested in working on an open source data-gathering project with us? Know of a solution already working on the ground? Get in touch with us at