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.
Africa’s youthful age structure presents challenges but also opportunities for accelerating rapid economic growth and development in the region. If the age structure remains the way it is, the continent will continue to bear high child dependency burden that will make it difficult for the continent to improve the quality of its human capital and have adequate savings to enhance its economic productivity and job creation.
If fertility declines rapidly resulting in a lower child dependency burden and a large population at working age adults, families will be able to save more money to invest in education and health of their children and for future investments. This phenomenon is known as the Demographic Dividend.
However, the Demographic Dividend is not a guaranteed and can only be attained if the bigger working age population relative to dependents is appropriately skilled, healthy and has jobs to be gainfully employed.
For Africa countries to harness a sizeable demographic dividend, governments must intensify their investments in education, skill development, sexual and reproductive health, and job creation for young people. The region has recorded some progress but much more remains to be done.
Status of education, youth friendly health services and employment opportunities in Africa and implications for development
Education is one of the key pillars of development and, given the incremental realisation 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 universalise 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.
Educational attainment is a major determinant of the quality of human capital of a country. Hence, African governments must increase access to all levels of education. In addition to increasing access to primary and secondary education, especially for girls, there is need to improve the quality of education which is a major concern in the region.
Furthermore, there is need to expand access to tertiary education to meet the growing demand for this level of education as well as to address the discrepancy between university curricula and job market demands, which consequently reduces the employability of graduates.
While typically considered healthy, young people are at an increased risk of poor sexual and reproductive health outcomes including sexually transmitted diseases, HIV, unintended pregnancy and illness or death associated with unsafe abortion.
Poor sexual and reproductive health outcomes have far reaching implications on young people’s development and wellbeing and their contribution to national development. For instance, early childbearing is linked to high fertility, high maternal mortality and high child mortality.
High fertility and associated high child dependency burdens exert an enormous burden on the economy and undermines the capacity of families and governments to invest in human capital development.
Numerous policy documents in the regional highlight the need to address young people’s sexual and reproductive health challenges. However, the statements are not matched with adequate resources.
Furthermore, there are persistent sociocultural and religious beliefs and practices that curtail efforts to expand access to sexual and reproductive health information and services to young people. Addressing these challenges is a matter of urgency if the region is to realise its development prospects and benefit from a sizeable demographic dividend.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the youth unemployment rate is double the total unemployment rate of the region (14% relative to 8% in 2012). Even for those who are employed, there are high levels of underemployment among young people. Youth unemployment creates a sense of idleness among youth that can lead to increased crime, mental health problems, violence, and drug use.
Youth unemployment undermines economic productivity and innovation since young people can be instrumental agents of socioeconomic change and technological innovation.
In order to ensure that young people are gainfully employed, governments need to put in place economic policies that promote job creation and entrepreneurship. There is need to identify and invest in sectors that have high job multiplier effect, including agriculture, manufacturing, tourism and transport.
The good news is that numerous opportunities exists. 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
Africa’s big youthful population is both a potential challenge and opportunity for enhancing the continent’s socioeconomic transformation and development. If the continent does not consciously invest in education, skill development, sexual and reproductive health, and job creation for young people, the continent’s big youthful population will be wasted and the continent is likely to experience social unrest by having too many young people who are not economically engaged as experienced with the Arab Spring.
The continent’s development prospects can be hugely enhanced if smart investments are made to turn the big youthful population into quality human capital made of well educated, skilled, innovative, healthy and gainfully employed young people.