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Youth and Citizenship

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 F eb 6, 2007, Varun Gauri and Mattias Lundberg


The World Development Report 2007: Development and the Next Generation analyzes five key transitions that young people undergo as they enter adulthood—completing education, entering the labor market, taking responsibility for their own health, starting their own families, and exercising citizenship. This research brief—based on a chapter on citizenship in the report—reviews the institutions through which young people encounter their social and political world, and the implications of citizenship for development. WDR2007 cover


Economic outcomes, such as well-being and poverty, depend crucially on political relationships and an active citizenry


For example, the effective delivery of basic services, economic growth, measures of human development, AIDS policies, and political violence are all linked to the ways political officials provide benefits to their constituents, the inclusiveness and competitiveness of political participation, and the institutions that separate ethnic groups.[1]


Active citizenship can facilitate collective action, which can yield more effective and better-targeted public services.  Collective action, public accountability, caring for kin and community, and stewardship of the environment are much more difficult without the contributions of an active citizenry. Active citizenship can also broaden the access of previously excluded groups to opportunities for growth and higher living standards, most obviously in the empowerment of women.


But what makes a good citizen?  What enhances a person’s feeling of belonging to and responsibility for the social and political community?  What processes determine the quality of citizenship, and are there policy interventions that could make these processes more effective? 

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The dispositions of citizenship are largely established in youth through experience with several specific institutions


By the time people reach their early to mid-twenties they have developed stable preferences and lifelong behaviors regarding voting, participation in politics, political affiliation, and a disposition toward violence. Patterns of interaction, informed by the principles (e.g., equal opportunity, fairness, or tolerance) that permeate social and political institutions, affect citizenship formation in complex and diffuse ways. But for young people certain institutions are particularly important for citizenship formation, including schools, military service, community service, prisons, and the experience of war.


For most people, school presents the first exposure to the world outside the immediate family  


Young people learn to deal with rules and authority, to negotiate, and to act collectively. Yet although schools promote national identity over the long run (schooling policies partly explain, for instance, why Basque separatism is strong in Spain but not France), it is not clear whether explicit civics education promotes citizenship. Evaluations have repeatedly found that civic education classes have a weak effect on school-age children.


For example, one after-school civic education in Zambia successfully changed children’s knowledge of social and civic issues, but not their behavior, and the impact was mediated by educational attainment. Civics lessons in South Africa were effective only if the methods were participatory, if civics classes met more than once a week, and if students found their teachers charismatic.

These findings suggest a general problem that might explain why civics courses, although able to promote civic awareness, have almost no impact on “the development of democratic attitudes and behaviors.” Students learn as much, and probably more, about citizenship from the broader school culture than from civics classes, and the broader school culture usually replicates the patterns of exclusion and hierarchy in society.back-to-top gif

Military service
especially for disadvantaged ethnic and racial minorities who have few other opportunities for advancementcan provide opportunities to learn skills and integrate into national society

Military service depresses earnings for whites and women in the United States, but active-duty service has large positive returns for African-Americans. But conscription into the military tends to be unevenly applied, with exceptions favoring the wealthier classes, with the result that it is more likely to undermine rather than promote a democratic conception of citizenship premised on equal rights and obligations.

In Russia poor, low-educated, and rural households were much more likely to have their sons enlisted, and the annual, lifetime losses they incurred—about 15 percent of annual income—were large. And recent research shows that in Argentina those who served in the military were significantly more likely to engage in subsequent criminal activity.


Community service and voluntary service programs promote civic engagement


A rigorous longitudinal study of the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps program in the United States compared civic and political outcomes for program participants with those for young people who applied to the program, but did not participate.


The study found that participating in the program increased the probability of later civic engagement, but not the likelihood of voting. Systematic evaluations of community service programs are difficult, because the very characteristics of successful programs—organizational autonomy and initiative—are confounded by selection effects.


Punitive criminal justice systems can harm young people and impair development


Gauri citizenship incarceration figure 1Countries exhibit wide variation in the extent to which they incarcerate young people (Figure 1).

Premature or excessive punishment, including incarceration and social stigma, can lead young people to continue to participate in criminal activity or violence. Harsher prison conditions are associated with higher recidivism rates.[2] 

Restorative (in contrast to retributive) justice provides opportunities for victims and offenders to meet face-to-face, talk about the crime, express concerns, and work out a plan for restitution. The most famous of these is the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and restorative justice programs are now in place in more than 80 countries.

Victims and offenders who participated in restorative processes are more satisfied than those who went through the courts. In general, offenders in restorative justice programs were more likely to complete restitution agreements, and less likely to reoffend, than those in control groups.

As with service programs, the voluntary nature of restorative justice programs complicates evaluation.

Youth suffer more than any other age
group from war violence

In northern Uganda, those who had been abducted were more than three times as likely to have a serious physical injury or illness that impedes their ability to work. Abductees were twice as likely to report difficulties in family relations. Abductees had nearly a year less education—a substantial amount when median educational attainment is only seven years—and they were twice as likely to be illiterate.


Gauri citizenship figure 2 Individuals abducted during later youth fared worse than those abducted as children (Figure 2). Still, many if not most young people are able to enjoy a reasonably healthy post-conflict life; the reasons why some youth are able to do so, and others not, remains unclear.[3]





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The findings, interpretations, and conclusions expressed in this brief are entirely those of the authors. They do not necessarily represent the view of the World Bank, its Executive Directors, or the countries they represent.



VARUN GAURI is a Senior Economist in the Development Research Group (Human Development and Public Services Team). His research interests include the enforcement and impact of legally codified social and economic rights, the political economy of government responses to HIV/AIDS, the governance of NGOs in developing countries, the impact of AIDS treatment, the use of vouchers for basic education, and immunization in developing countries.


MATTIAS LUNDBERG is a consultant to the Development Research Group (the Human Development and Public Services Team and the Infrastructure and Environment Team).  His recent research includes the impact of HIV/AIDS and other shocks on households, the delivery of primary health care and the provision of public services to the poor, impact evaluation and the measurement of efficiency in public services, and the relationship between economic growth and inequality.


Related Resources

  • World Development Report 2007: Development and the Next Generation. With 1.3 billion young people now living in the developing world-the largest---ever youth group in history---the report says there has never been a better time to invest in youth because they are healthier and better educated than previous generations, and they will join the workforce with fewer dependents because of changing demographics.
  • Research on the economics of conflict studies the economics of civil war and post-conflict transitions to advise policymakers on avoiding conflict and conflict recurrence as well as improve the prospects of post-conflict development.
  • Participation and Civic Engagement Group – This World Bank website provides resources on the participation of people and their organizations to influence institutions, policies and processes for equitable and sustainable development.
  • Social Development – This World Bank topic website provides resources about transforming societies by understanding the social context of the country as well as the needs and priorities of poor people.
  • Law & Justice Institutions – This World Bank topic website provide resources on law and justice reform in developing and transition countries.
  • Survey of War-Affected Youth in Uganda – The survey of war-affected youth project is an ongoing project to  document and reverse youth’s risk of abduction and exposure to violence, the consequences for youth of association with armed groups and war violence; and youth’s experiences in the armed group.   

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[1] Abhijit Banerjee and Rohini Somanathan, “The political economy of public goods: Some evidence from India,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology, processed, April 2006.

Alberto Alesina, Reza Baqir, William Easterly, “Public Goods and Ethnic Divisions,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper W6009, Cambridge, Mass., 1997.

Ashutosh Varshney, Ethnic Conflict and Civil Life: Hindus and Muslims in India, Yale University Press, 2003.

Timothy Besley, Rohini Pande, Lupin Rahman, and Vijayendra Rao, “The Politics of Public Good Provision: Evidence from Indian Local Governments,” Journal of the European Economic Association 2 (2-3): 416-426, 2004.

Varun Gaui and Evan Lieberman, “Boundary Institutions and HIV/AIDS Policy in Brazil and South Africa,” Studies in Comparative International Development 41(3): 47-73, 2006.

World Bank, World Development Report 2007: Development and the Next Generation, 2006. Chapter 7: Exercising Leadership

[2] M. Keith Chen and Jesse M. Shapiro, “Does Prison Harden Inmates? A Discontinuity-based Approach,” University of Chicago and National Bureau of Economic Research, processed, December 4, 2006.

[3] Bellows, John and Edward Miguel, "War and Local Institutions in Sierra Leone," Department of Economics, University of California, Berkeley, processed, April 2006. back-to-top gif

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