Opportunity seized or squandered: The African Union’s 2017 theme on harnessing the demographic dividend
4 June 2018
Author: Eunice Mueni
Youth technology training in South Africa. Photo courtesy of Beyond/Flickr

Africa, in general, is a very young continent. About 40 percent of the population is below 15 years of age, and an additional 30 percent fall between 15-24 years. This demographic profile presents a unique opportunity to achieve massive socio-economic transformation through harnessing the Demographic Dividend (DD). The Demographic Dividend is the economic benefit that arises following a significant increase in the ratio of the working-age population relative to dependents (children and the elderly), in the workforce.

The African Union (AU) and its partners recognize the opportunity presented by the demographic dividend and have embarked on various initiatives to operationalize the demographic dividend paradigm as the central framework for accelerating socio-economic development on the continent. As such, the continent’s Agenda 2063 endorsed the demographic dividend as a key framework for achievement. Agenda 2063 seeks to transform Africa into an “integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the global arena.” The agenda recognizes the role of population dynamics in this transformation and specifically seeks to unleash the full potential of youth and women to help boost socio-economic development. Key among the AU’s initiatives is the 2013 African Regional Conference on Population and Development, under the theme “Harnessing the Demographic Dividend:The Future We Want for Africa,” which focused on the role of population dynamics in the socio-economic transformation of the continent. Several other meetings and events were organized in furtherance of the African demographic dividend agenda, including an African Demographic Dividend Leadership Seminar in Abuja in 2016, the Accra conference on “Realizing the Demographic Dividend,” and a high-level symposium on Demographic Dividend and Africa’s Development in Dakar in 2016.

These efforts culminated into African heads of states and governments declaring the 2017 AU theme”””Harnessing the Demographic Dividend through Investments in the Youth.” The AU and its partners in 2016 launched a roadmap for harnessing the demographic dividend. The roadmap contained key deliverables and milestones to guide the member states and the Regional Economic Communities (RECs) on concrete actions that can be undertaken in order to achieve the bold aspirations of Agenda 2063.

Designating the “harnessing the demographic dividend through investments in youth,” as the 2017 theme for the African Union meant that countries should have critically reviewed and analyzed the diverse opportunities and challenges presented by the youthful populations under the four roadmap pillars. These include access to health particularly sexual and reproductive health, education and skills training, employment and entrepreneurship opportunities, and their role in advocacy, governance, and political spheres. Countries were then expected to design, review, and update strategies (where they exist) in addition to judicious implementation in order to translate the current highly dependent youthful population into a skilled and economically productive workforce. Ultimately working towards transforming the continent into an economic powerhouse.

Did African countries benefit from the momentous opportunity presented by the demographic dividend as the theme for 2017?

Although it is still too early to make a call on whether the opportunity presented by the 2017 theme was seized or squandered, it is crucial to acknowledge the achievements made and challenges that lie ahead.

Several countries have undertaken studies to estimate the magnitude of the demographic dividend. Developing demographic dividend profiles is an important step in identifying country-specific opportunities and challenges in harnessing the demographic dividend. Further, a few of these countries developed roadmaps to domesticate the AU roadmap, including Kenya, Ghana, and Nigeria among others. Ugandaand Zambia have integrated the demographic dividend principles into national development plans, while Kenya has gone as far as estimating the cost of implementing the roadmap. Several other events and high-level meetings have been held to share country level and continent-wide progress, including the 29thAU Summit in July 2017, which affirmed its commitments to the theme of the year.

Despite these efforts, there is no available evidence of tangible actions that translate these commitments and roadmaps into implementation programs. Thus to a large extent, harnessing the DD still remains a mirage, with many challenges curtailing its implementation. Many countries are still grappling with how to roll out the roadmaps, the best approaches to integrate roadmap and national development plan/strategy priorities, as well funding sources for the roadmap activities. These challenges are partly related to limited capacity in policy prioritization analysis among government agencies on what they can do immediately, in the medium, and long-term; and a silo approach that has crowded out multi-sectoral planning and implementation culture. Adopting a systems thinking and integrated planning; approaches that help tackle complex issues while at the same time offering opportunities for scale and sustainability will help bring out the inherent linkages, relationships, interactions, behaviors and synergy between population and development. Another challenge is limited political will, particularly in supporting access to sexual and reproductive health services among young people, specifically contraceptives and comprehensive sexuality education (CSE). Limited access to sexual and reproductive health services contributes to high teenage fertility, leading to high school drop-out rates among girls. This has resulted in large disparities in education enrolment rates and formal labor employment rates between men and women.

However, these challenges are not insurmountable. Concerted efforts and coordination among multi-sectoral stakeholders to marshal up resources, both human and financial, will set the tone for achieving the demographic dividend. Governments will require a lot of technical assistance in policy prioritization and integrated planning. Thus the private sector, experts, and development partners should consider supporting the development of planning, implementation and monitoring tools, and work on engineering economic performance and job creation. This is because the private sector plays an important role in creating adequate and decent jobs for the huge youthful workforce which eventually translate to high income, better living standards and more investments in human capital development. To increase political support for young people accessing sexual and reproductive health information and services, there is a need for continuous advocacy on investments and policy implementation and engagement of young people in the formulation and implementation of policies and programs. This will ensure that young people have access to information and services to live healthy lives and avoid unwanted pregnancies which derail them from achieving full economic potential. Although financing demographic dividend roadmaps appears to be a huge task, it could be mitigated by reorganizing national investment priorities, addressing rampant corruption, and ensuring effectiveness, efficiency, and accountability for the usage of public resources and the delivery of services. Doing so can help free finances that can go a long way to help with funding top priorities.

It is not too late, we can salvage the opportunity to harness the demographic dividend. Stakeholders in this field have a lot of work ahead of them. More crucially, it is time to not talk the talk but walk the walk on rooting out rampant corruption and holding leaders accountable for use of public resources. Unless African countries begin to shun corruption, the demographic dividend will remain an elusive dream, as many resources that could go a long way in addressing development challenges remain unaccounted for.

Eunice Mueni is a Demography and Public Health researcher with over six years’ experience in research, conducting population and development-based analysis. She has worked with governments in several African countries to estimate the potential of harnessing the demographic dividend.  Eunice has a Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing, Master in Public Health, and a Master of Arts in Population Studies. She was a Southern Voices Network Scholar for peacebuilding in 2016. Eunice is currently a Knowledge translation Officer at the African Institute for Development Policy (AFIDEP).

This blog was originally posted on Africa Up Close, a blog of the Africa Program at the Wilson Center.

Related To: