Hopes and Dreams for Youth in Kenya: An Interview with Associate Professor Elisabeth King

Boys on a mountainside, Byumba, Rwanda.

Elisabeth King, an associate professor of international education, explores issues related to conflict and peace building in sub-Saharan Africa.  King’s book, From Classrooms to Conflict in Rwanda (Cambridge University Press, 2014), has been awarded the Outstanding Canadians Leadership Award from the Ontario History and Social Science Teachers Association. She has received grants from the United States Institute for Peace, the United Nations Development Program, the Folke Bernadotte Academy, and Columbia University’s Earth Clinic.

You work on issues related to conflict resolution and peace-building in Sub-Saharan Africa.  What draws you to this part of the world?

I have always had a passion for issues of conflict resolution and peace-building.  While violent conflict has been common the world over, and in fact, a number of convincing studies show that conflict as a whole has been declining worldwide,  as a continent, Africa has known continuous war for upwards of 50 years.  It remains the part of the world with the most state-based conflicts.  Sub-Saharan Africa also faces the most remaining challenges for sustainable social development.

At the same time, despite the challenges, when I have the privilege to work in places like Rwanda and Liberia, I am always reminded about the strength of human spirit. As clichéd as it might sound, there is something very special about the places I have the chance to work in Africa that makes me want to go back time and time again.

Elisabeth King

Can you talk a little about your work in Kenya?

I am just back from Nairobi where I wrapped up data collection on a project that I began in the summer of 2013.  This project questions widely-held assumptions about highly youthful populations – in Kenya the median age is 19; it’s 37 in the US; youth’s aspirations for education and life – delving into issues like hope, expectations, and role models; and youth’s involvement in violence and peace-building.  One of the dimensions that is so exciting about this project is that I have gotten to speak with youth themselves, both in school and out-of-school, about what they want and hope for their lives. I have also spoken with non-governmental organizations and government involved in youth programming. The next part is to further explore the consequences – potentially positive and negative – of aspirations that are likely to remain unmet.

What is perhaps even more exciting is how this project is rooted in collaboration here at Steinhardt and the learning we can leverage from that collaboration. My terrific colleague, Dana Burde, is exploring these same issues, using the same research design and instruments, in Karachi, Pakistan. We can then come together and examine the similarities and differences in our findings between these two contexts with, on the one hand, hugely youthful populations, similar diversity of violence, much international education and youth programming, ranked side by side on the Human Development Index, and on the other, very different cultures.

Liberia, May 2009.

What can a researcher bring to the table that can help children and youth in developing countries?

I am always interested in research that answers questions that are not only important for scholarship but that have significant and realistic links to policy and practice.  The common thread throughout my research agenda is asking if and how theories of peace-building and development really work, or not, for people on the ground.

In this particular project, we have been speaking with NGOs involved in youth programming in Kenya and Pakistan.  We plan to work with one such organization to refine its programming, or even develop a new intervention, based on the findings from our qualitative work on youth aspirations. We then plan to rigorously evaluate the program.  It’s a dream for a researcher in terms of making the most of the opportunity we have to conduct this research, taking what youth themselves have to say, using that to craft a program that will help other youth, then testing it to see if it is indeed having the hoped-for impacts.