Doctors of the World has launched a harm reduction project with Tanzanian institutions and the local community at the start of 2010.
c Agnes Varraine Leca / Doctors of the World UK

Tanzania: The forgotten youth

The United Republic of Tanzania is home to one of the largest youth populations in the world. A generation of this size brings with it an abundance of raw potential, and the opportunity to cultivate their abilities as a vital development resource.

However, this group is particularly vulnerable to marginalisation, lack of education and exploitation. It is vital that the problems these young people face are fully understood in order to secure a positive future for Tanzania.

Tanzania is still one of the poorest countries in the world, but it is undoubtedly showing great promise as a developing nation. It is peaceful, politically stable and independent with an affluence of natural resources and a rapidly growing tourism sector. According to a recent survey by Restless Development, there are a staggering 22 million people under the age of 25 living in Tanzania. This means that almost half of the population is made up of young people that are the first to experience this economic and political progress.

In the next few decades Tanzania is set to experience a ‘youth boom’ as this number continues to rise rapidly. It is during this time that the promise of the nation will fall sharply and abruptly into the hands of this generation. The problems and challenges that this group face must be confronted now in order to prevent a future of forgotten adults.

Tanzania is a culturally hierarchal society in terms of both age and gender, and young people are often left out of decision-making processes at both community and national levels. This is particularly prevalent in rural areas, where access to education and other basic provisions are not readily available. In addition, unemployment rates in these areas are high, and those young people in work are rarely paid a fair wage, as the agricultural sector declines.

But if it is the youth that are at the most risk of exclusion in Tanzania, then it is young women that are in the greatest danger. In rural areas women are often tasked with larger burdens of labour, influenced to leave school earlier and subject to high levels of domestic abuse.

The percentage of girls completing secondary school in Tanzania is very low; a Restless Development study found that only 25% of girls transitioned from primary to secondary school in the Southern Highlands region, often due to teenage pregnancies and the general perception of their role in society.

Young women in Tanzania are on the wrong side of an already bad situation. Their ability to engage as productive members of their own society is severely hindered, but as women account for a large percentage of the population, utilising their skills and input is critical for the success of the nation. It is crucial that the environment of inequality they experience in Tanzania is challenged, not only in the spirit of the human rights that this group deserve, but also in the name of the continued development of the nation.

Steps to combat youth exclusion have already been taken in Tanzania, such as the 2007 National Youth Development Policy. The policy aims to monitor and evaluate youth demands whilst implementing actions accordingly. Whilst this is unmistakably a stride in the right direction, youth inclusion is still said to be low, and the policy has been subject to criticism.

The policy states that, under the multiparty system, youths should participate in political decisions, and are prepared to take up positions of leadership. However, it goes on to concede that “there is no clearly defined system which prepares young men and women to take up leadership positions in the existing parties and Government.” The lack of a clearly defined structure in place is sure sign that the problem is far from a solution.

Approaching this issue highlights the relationship between poverty and inequality, and raises some interesting questions about the way in which development is measured. If development methodology is separated into two distinct camps, there may be a ‘wealth’ based approach on one side and a ‘structural’ path on the other.

The first camp is often populated by governments and large organisations that opt for a more statistical and economic measure of progress. In utilising methods such as the calculation of gross domestic product per capita the concept of poverty is translated into readable and recognisable figures.

The second camp is more concerned with the social and structural aspects of a society that define patterns of inequality. They may focus on the distribution of wealth or certain power relations that create social exclusion. Both approaches have their advantages – and may even meet in the middle with the Human Development Index, however, an arguably dominant and purely ‘wealth’ based approach can mask the true nature of inequality.

The importance of a more structural approach to development is paramount when observing the youth situation in Tanzania. What can be seen is a nation that is making relative economic progress, but a demographic that is at a significant risk due to their specific position in society. The problem is not simply about wealth, and the youth will continue to experience marginalisation despite the statistical improvement of gross domestic product.

A single measure like GDP that aims to capture market activity misses the instants when money does not change hands, such as when young people in Tanzania are not paid for their labour. It fails to recognise domestic abuse, political awareness and the diverse emotive needs of the young people in society.

It is essential that a structural approach to youth exclusion in Tanzania is maintained alongside an economic measure of poverty. This will allow the social framework that puts young people at risk to be better understood, and for more provisions to be put in place to combat the problems. To achieve this, more effort must be put into allowing young people to participate in political affairs at local and national levels. This will involve the formulation of a greater number of incentives aimed at involving the youth in decision making, as well as deploying more scrutiny towards the existing policies.

This must also entail a revitalisation of operating directly at a grass-roots level to promote an environment of debate, awareness and inclusion. By working alongside the people in the most marginalised areas, development is achieved from the bottom up, as young people are urged to take ownership of their country. The youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow – and never has this statement rang so true as with the future of Tanzania.

Tony J Spence


Tony is a graduate of International Relations and Philosophy from Nottingham Trent University. He holds a particular interest in social and cultural development issues, and has worked across the sustainable development and humanitarian sectors.

2 comments on “Tanzania: The forgotten youth

  1. Dr David Murphy on said:

    Good luck Tj
    Great cause. Hopefully your insignificant frame can handle it.
    Hope you’ve packed some Chomsky to read