Half full or half empty?

Inclusive Economy12 May 2014Arthur Muliro

What are the challenges, what are the options regarding youth unemployment in Africa?

Everyone is now familiar with the refrain that the burgeoning youth population in Africa is either ‘a boon or a disaster’. Many look on the negative side of the balance sheet and pronounce this unprecedented situation an apocalypse in the making. The apparent ease with which young people are recruited into radical causes or end up in rag-tag militias is all the evidence they need that disaster is imminent.

There is a strong and growing risk that, unmanaged, the growing numbers of youth joining the ranks of the jobless could become destabilizing. Many African governments, too long oblivious of the implications of growing populations are now scrambling for schemes that will create jobs for young people and hopefully assuage their anger. Sadly, many of these schemes are ‘too little, too late’. They barely make a dent and often find their lofty targets tied up in red tape or other legal tangles. So what should be done? What can be done? Three ideas are worth considering.

First, African governments should be less doctrinaire and find ways of deepening the vertical integration of their economies by boosting local production and consumption. In practical terms, extending value chains out of primary production could provide opportunities for young people to join the workforce in meaningful ways. Local processing, marketing and distribution can create many jobs for youth. Granted, many of these jobs created will require new skills and technologies but young people should be able to absorb these new techniques.

Second, there is a need to reintroduce apprenticeships back into the education system and to promote real partnerships with industry to facilitate young people’s induction and training. An education system that is obsessed with the production of hordes of white-collar workers has led to misplaced expectations and misaligned priorities. Industry needs to be more aggressive in demanding the curricula that can support their activities. Whilst such programmes may not address the current stock of jobless youth, they could recalibrate the thinking and practice of the education sector to become rather more relevant to contemporary needs.

Third, governments must find a way to listen to young people and truly hear what they have to say. Clearly today’s youth are mostly savvy, well informed and have good ideas about how they could engage in the labour force. Without their input, many ideas are doomed to failure. Take the numerous credit schemes that are launched to help them get funding for business. These need not necessarily be ‘micro’ or ‘macro’. Many young people often find their ideas too big for microcredit and too small for larger credit schemes. Consultation with young people needs to be genuine and the response needs to be calibrated according to the results sought.

Utopia? Perhaps. There is only so much that cynicism about the youth situation can do and self-fulfilling prophecies in the final analysis, do not help. The reality is that we must start somewhere, and it is only through generating small wins that we might have the possibility to begin to understand how to rethink our systems and structures to support the goals we seek. The situation that many African countries face today with their surfeit of unemployed youth is unprecedented in our history. To expect that there can be instant blueprints to resolve this situation is equally unrealistic. There are opportunities that can be harnessed if the region’s leadership decides that this is a problem that deserves its full attention and appropriate actions are taken. However, it is unlikely, given the current macroeconomic policy straitjacket, that there will be lasting solutions found within the current structural framework. Some significant risks and ‘out of the box’ thinking will need to be applied in order to come up with workable solutions. The big question is: what do Africa’s leaders fear more? The seemingly distant threat from the hordes of their unemployed citizens or the supposedly immediate threat from the guardians of current macroeconomic orthodoxy? Either way, a choice has to be made and choices have consequences.