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  • The Politics of Work in a Post-Conflict State: Youth, Labour and Violence in Sierra Leone by Luisa Enria
  • Susan Shepler
Enria, Luisa. The Politics of Work in a Post-Conflict State: Youth, Labour and Violence in Sierra Leone. Rochester, NY: James Currey, 2018. ISBN 9781847011985.

Scholars interested in peace and conflict in Africa are interested in youth because of a well-established set of economic and demographic arguments about the danger of the "youth bulge" and tropes about idle young men and the opportunity of enlisting them into violent projects. The usual counterargument to that kind of essentializing rhetoric is to explain that youth is a social construct, with different meanings in different contexts, and to point out that the vast majority of youth remain peaceful, even if un- or underemployed. Luisa Enria counters the blanket securitization of youth unemployment with her beautifully written book The Politics of Work in a Post-Conflict State: Youth, Labour & Violence in Sierra Leone. What she adds to the debate is the notion that labor markets are themselves socially constructed and that marginal work and notions of youth are mutually constituted.

The book offers detailed ethnographic descriptions of four Freetown "microcosms": communities of "commission chasers," motorbike riders, female street traders, and "idle women" (two primarily male and two primarily female). In each case she demonstrates the lived complexity of young people's livelihood strategies and how they are related to their identities. She focuses on micro-level mechanisms of the relationship between labor market experiences and young people's involvement in political violence, questioning "how some people starting from the same economic position might engage in different forms of political action" (3). As others have before her, she finds the concept of "unemployment" inadequate in its ability to capture the complexity of young people's experiences of labor market dynamics in developing countries and broadens the lens to focus on young people's experiences of marginal work (3)—and this requires engagement with labor markets as social institutions (4). [End Page 143]

In the framing chapters, she narrates the history of the linking of development and conflict and takes on the securitization of youth and the securitization of employment. She identifies three key gaps in the current literature: first, the specific role of labor relations in understanding which socioeconomic factors impact violent mobilization. Second, instead of focusing on ex-combatants and their mobilization and demobilization, she focuses on post-war youth generally. Third, the nonviolent political behavior of a large part of marginal youth. She explains, "This book's contribution lies in providing a different framework for thinking about how young people's labour market experiences might translate into different forms of political mobilisation" (21).

She uses Sierra Leone as a case to create a framework for addressing similar questions in other contexts. The key innovation is to look at labor markets as social institutions "whose significance stretches beyond the pecuniary, lifting the fictional divide between market and society, economics and politics, and emphasising their mutual constitution" (21). Throughout the work she adopts a grounded theory approach, allowing definitions of unemployment to arise from ethnographic engagement. She finds that for youth in this context, "their ascription to the category of youth, with its corollary of social immaturity or of being socially 'small' was seen as a direct consequence of their economic exclusion" (113). Her work underlines the importance of social networks and of finding a more established person—or sababu in Krio—to facilitate success. The centrality of social networks to the analysis is a serious critique of the individualizing approaches of many youth skills training programs.

The question of recruitment into political violence comes in the later chapters of the book. The addition of the political "task forces" as almost the fifth microcosm builds nicely on the earlier sections of the book to show how ex-combatants in particular might find such work a good way to find a position "in politics." In a sense, she finds violence to be not that different from other kinds of work that young people might engage in: another social project, operated from the top down, with young people anxious to get involved if...


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pp. 143-145
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