In sub-Saharan Africa, the youth unemployment rate is double the total unemployment rate of the region. Photo: UNHCR/ACNUR Américas via Flickr Commons

Harnessing the potential of young people to contribute to national development

The World Health Organization defines young people as between 10 and 24 years old. Out of approximately 1.1 billion people in Africa, 3 out of 10 (350 million) are young people aged 10-24 years and this population is projected to almost triple (906 million) by 2100. This youthful age structure, which characterizes the African region, presents a serious demographic challenge. However, it also presents an opportunity for rapid economic growth and development in the region if fertility declines rapidly, resulting in a lower child dependency burden and a large population at working age. This phenomenon is known as the demographic dividend. The demographic dividend is not a guarantee and can only be attained if the potential working age population is appropriately skilled, healthy and has the opportunity to be gainfully employed.  For this to be achieved, early measures must be taken and placed at the center of African governments’ development goals.

Status of education, youth friendly health services and employment opportunities in Africa and implications for development

Education

Education is one of the key pillars of development and, given the incremental realization of the benefits of improved education, investments in education are necessary from an early age in order to secure a skilled and productive population in the future.

Since signing onto the 1990 Education for All, a global commitment to universalize primary education and massively reduce illiteracy through expanding access to quality basic education for all children, youth and adults, many African governments have made some progress towards the achievement of this commitment. The gross primary and secondary school enrollment ratios have increased substantially and literacy rates have shown modest improvement as well. However, primary school dropout rates remain high and while the out-of-school population has declined it is estimated that 20 million adolescents are not enrolled in primary or secondary school in 2012, the majority of whom are girls.  There is need to emphasize increasing secondary school enrollment, which provides skills that can be used in the job market.

Inadequate quality of education is also a major challenge in Africa which is characterized by shortage of teachers, educational resources and classroom space, high school dropout rates, the existence of multi-grade classes and inadequate access to basic services such as clean water, adequate sanitation facilities or electricity. A recent projects indicated that more than 2 million new primary teachers will need to be recruited in the region between 2009 and 2015.

While enrollment in tertiary education grew faster in sub-Saharan Africa than any other region in the world over the last four decades, education systems are not adequate to absorb the growing demand. The region’s gross enrollment rate for the upper secondary level was almost five times the ratio for tertiary education. In contrast, globally, the gross enrollment rate for upper secondary education is just twice that of the tertiary level. This means that there are many students completing upper secondary education who are eligible for higher education but do not have access to it. Therefore there is an urgent need to expand the tertiary education system and increase investments in vocational training and opportunities for post-school skill development.

Another problem with the tertiary education system is the discrepancy between university curricula and job market demands, which consequently reduces the employability of graduates. To address this, the education curriculum should be developed together with the production sector In order to ensure congruency.

The consequences of not addressing these challenges are already translating to increased youth unemployment and related civil unrest and instability.

Health

General good health is necessary for youth to live longer and be productive members of society. While typically considered healthy, young people in Africa are at risk of various health problems but in this article we focus on their risk of poor sexual and reproductive health outcomes.

Young people in Africa are at a higher risk of sexually transmitted diseases, HIV, unintended pregnancy and illness or death associated with unsafe abortion than in other parts of the world mainly because of limited access to youth friendly sexual and reproductive health information and services. The adolescent birth rate in Africa is two times higher than the global level putting them at high risk of maternal death.  Additionally, despite gains in preventing new HIV infections, young women and adolescent girls are disproportionately affected and young women 15–24 years old in sub-Saharan Africa are twice as likely as young men to be living with the disease. These poor sexual and reproductive health outcomes have far reaching consequences. For instance, early childbearing is linked to high fertility, high maternal mortality and rapid population growth which exerts an enormous burden on the economy and undermines the capacity of families and governments to invest in human capital development.

Many African governments acknowledge the importance of expanding access to youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health information and services and have established national policies and programmes focused on this issue. However, reviews of the status of youth friendly sexual and reproductive health policies and programmes show that implementation of the policies and programmes has been curtailed by a number of factors including resource constraints due to other competing health and development priorities and competing socio-cultural and religious beliefs and practices.

Youth employment

In sub-Saharan Africa, the youth unemployment rate is double the total unemployment rate of the region (14% relative to 8% in 2012). Skills shortages (not enough graduates at a particular level of education or in the right field of study) and skills mismatch (young people lack the skills to fill the position) have been cited as the main causes of the high unemployment rate. Youth unemployment is associated with increased crime, mental health problems, violence, and drug use. It also carries great costs, because unemployed citizens do not contribute to the economic welfare of the country, to production, savings and aggregate demand. Many unemployed youth have to be supported by their family, reducing the economic resources available for spending and investments. It also reduces the Governments’ receipt of contributions to social security systems from young workers, while Governments have to increase spending on remedial services. All this undermines the growth potential of national economies.

In order to ensure that young people are gainfully employed, governments need to create economic policies which promote job creation and entrepreneurship, investing in sectors that have high job multiplier effects including agriculture, manufacturing, tourism and transport. A starting point could be modernization of the agricultural sector, which employs majority of the working population in Africa.

But the opportunity to turn this around exists. The opportunity for improvement exists. Indeed, the continent is home to seven of the world’s fastest growing economies and has abundant natural resources and a largely untapped financial services industry, manufacturing and communications and IT.

The way forward

For Africa’s development to accelerate and for the region to benefit from the demographic dividend, investments in creating an enabling environment for the region’s young population is inevitable and must be a central strategy in the region’s development plans.

Violet Ibukayo Murunga and Eunice Mueni Williams are Southern Voices African Research Scholars with the Africa Program at The Wilson Center and work with the African Institute for Development Policy.

This article first appeared on http://africaupclose.wilsoncenter.org/

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