African Union (AU) Heads of State decided at their meeting in January 2014 to review their commitments to employment as enshrined in the Ouagadougou declaration and plan of action by holding an extraordinary summit this September. One hopes that youth employment will be central to the discussions during the review process. This is important because as many acknowledge, youth unemployment rate, at over 50 per cent in some countries, could be a major threat to stability if not effectively addressed. Events in recent history, particularly the Arab spring uprisings, support this position. Moreover, Africa’s potential to reap the so-called demographic dividend is, at least in part, contingent upon its ability to invest adequately in young people’s human capital.
In 2004, African Union leaders endorsed the Ouagadougou declaration on employment and poverty alleviation and its plan of action through which they committed themselves to ‘developing and implementing strategies that give young people in Africa a real chance to find decent and productive work.’ The African Union also adopted the African Youth Charter in 2006 which has a clear focus on youth livelihood, education and skills development. Further to this is the declaration of the 8th session of the meeting of Labour and Social Affairs Ministers held in Yaoundé in 2011, which set a target of reducing youth unemployment by 2 per cent annually. The Malabo Decision adopted by the African Heads of State and Government in mid-2011 also includes a declaration on creating employment for accelerating youth development and empowerment.
In order to accelerate youth employment and address attendant challenges on the continent, a number of new initiatives were also launched by the African Union, with its partners, including: the Joint Initiative on Youth Employment (involving a number of partners like the ILO, UNECA and AfDB) and the AU Youth and Women Pact for Africa (YWEP-A). Furthermore, the AU has launched a number of education related initiatives including its own strategy for technical and vocational education and training (TVET), and a Pan-African University. In addition to these is a youth volunteer programme which affords young people the chance to gain hands-on experience, particularly in development related initiatives, through work opportunities in AU member countries. These all serve to illustrate that the African Union recognises the centrality of addressing the challenge of youth unemployment on the continent.
In the light of these various previous commitments and actions, the decision, this January, by the Heads of State and Government to revisit the question of employment may be considered a smart move. First because current ILO figures estimate that youth unemployment rate on the continent stands at 11.8 per cent, well over the 5.9 per cent adult unemployment rate. In some countries, youth unemployment rate is as high as 50 per cent or more (for example in countries such as Ethiopia, South Africa, Swaziland and Uganda).
Many studies have argued that Africa’s rising demographic fortunes could trigger an era of growth and unprecedented productivity – akin to the kind witnessed in Southeast Asia. However, many also recognise that without the right investments, the growing population of youth may in fact become Africa’s greatest nightmare. While it is recognised that today’s young people are Africa’s most educated generation ever, with a far greater number of them gaining access to primary, secondary and tertiary education than any previous generation of their age cohort, it is also known that there are far more tertiary level graduates in Africa who have no jobs or are underemployed due to various reasons. As a 2013 AfDB briefing document aptly describes the situation, ‘What the world has recently witnessed is an educated youth, suffering from humiliation, hopelessness and resentment and mass unemployment.’
Some of the reasons adduced for these challenges are strictly economic. While much of Africa is touted to be growing, at an average of 5 per cent for the continent, some economies are growing at rates that are less than desirable. Also, some African economies are simply uncompetitive, contributing to lower levels of foreign direct investment (FDI) and consequently fewer jobs. The governance and regulatory climate in many countries remains complex. As a case in point, it takes as many as 40 days or more and several complicated processes in some countries to register a business. In many of these countries officials are likely to ask for a bribe. This situation is particularly more problematic for young people who, likely, have limited capital and a higher likelihood of being discouraged.
The other challenge is the question of skills mismatch. While many African countries have ambitious long-term development strategies, many have not invested sufficiently in skills development, and in particular TVET as well as secondary and tertiary education. Related to this is the challenge regarding the compatibility of skills produced through the education system and those required by the labour market. It would appear that the trend is similar across the continent. Increasingly, there have been calls for curriculum reform with the active involvement of the private sector, as a key avenue to ensure that higher education institutions provide training that is relevant to the labour market thereby increasing young people’s chances of landing jobs when they complete higher education.
Reducing the number of youth who are unemployed should include investment in youth entrepreneurship. It would appear that countries are more fixated with the notion of FDI, while not sufficiently targeting the domestic market. As a consequence, incentives are largely provided, and processes simplified, for potential foreign investors while many potential local entrepreneurs will have to navigate their way through the relevant processes, even though they are more likely to be unable to afford the cost of hiring someone competent to support them through the processes. This is even more so for young entrepreneurs. It is important that national initiatives not only provide grants or loans to young people. National initiatives need to be holistic, including offerings that include business management training and support through the legal processes including business and tax registration. This is also an important avenue to close the divide between the formal and informal economic sectors.
The AU’s review of its progress in addressing the challenge of employment on the continent is therefore a critical opportunity to take a holistic view of AU wide initiatives and more importantly focus on those that specifically address youth employment and skills development. Some of these initiatives include: the AU Youth Volunteer programme, the Pan-African University, AU TVET Initiatives across several countries (within the framework of the Strategy to revitalise TVET in the African Union), its education division’s curriculum initiative launched in 2009, its joint initiative on youth employment with partners, education management information systems (EMIS) and labour markets information systems (LMIS), and the youth and women employment pact.
At the centre of their deliberations should be the key question: how do the AU’s initiatives help member governments deliver on providing decent jobs to young people as envisaged in the African Youth Charter, the Ouagadougou plan and the Millennium Development Goals? The aforementioned frameworks are not only central to youth employment but are also critical to the ways in which countries’ development programmes are framed. In addition, the meeting needs to seek ways to facilitate the coordination of the AU’s various programmes which differently contribute towards youth employment.
Furthermore, the review process should provide the basis for member states to share and strengthen their own agendas for youth employment. This is one avenue through which lessons learnt can be shared and, an effective follow-up plan and country level action could take place. It is known that in many countries, several initiatives are taking place. For example, Nigeria (and likely South Africa in the current year) is implementing a wage subsidy programme known as the ‘graduate internship scheme,’ (GIS) which subsidises work placements for youth who have completed University, in order to enable them gain relevant experience, mentorship and hands-on skills to make them more competitive in the labour market. Further, if implemented, South Africa’s approach to wage subsidy will provide a tax incentive to encourage employers to recruit young people. In addition, several countries have launched various funds for youth entrepreneurship through which young people can access loans and grants. What can be learnt from the approaches adopted in these programmes? What’s missing from these approaches? Is there evidence that validates or negates these approaches on the continent?
In the final analysis, the review needs to serve as a basis to pursue a political agenda which centralises youth empowerment in general and youth employment specifically, on the continent’s development agenda. One way of achieving this is the promotion of a stand-alone youth development goal in the broader development discourse, particularly in the post-2015 development agenda. Most countries recognise the importance of addressing youth unemployment. If anything, an MDG – type global level endorsement will provide the needed incentive to compel governments to take action, provide justification for higher flow of donor funds, and also enhance the work of the AU Commission and national governments to collect valuable data on youth employment. For example, while youth employment is a target in the current MDGs, many countries simply report on the targets related to international development assistance (IDA), and do not report on youth. Therefore, the review process needs to strongly endorse and support the adoption of a youth specific goal as part of the post 2015 negotiation process.
As the African Union and its commission works towards setting a strategic outlook on its ‘Africa 2063’ development framework, a key element of this should be youth empowerment, education and skills development. The 2014 review of its youth employment initiatives, in addition to its fifth ordinary session of the African Union Conference of Ministers in charge of youth, therefore provides it an opportunity not only to set an agenda for youth employment on the continent, but also to set a global agenda for positioning youth empowerment as a major development goal of its own accord within the post-2015 development agenda. In 2009, Africa set the agenda which led to the declaration of the second international year of youth in the year 2010/11. Africa can set another global agenda which positions youth empowerment as a key issue in the next phase of the world’s major development framework. I hope that the opportunity will not be missed.