A stark choice: Young people driving growth or fuelling violence?

21/05/2014
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What is the best way to achieve an appropriate demographic transition, deliver a skilled workforce and create jobs for young people while securing a technology dividend?

This equation was discussed on the second day of the African Development Bank's Annual Meetings in Kigali, at a high-level panel on the theme "Cashing in on the Demographic Dividend".

Any attempt to solve this equation must begin with the following observation: "It is not sensible, or even possible, to invest without properly trained human capital.”

It is an observation that is especially important for the future of Africa, which has a current population of one billion young people under 35, rising to 2.5 billion by 2050. As such, the continent has no option but tackle the root cause of youth under-employment – a lack of basic formal education.

According to a joint statement by Agnès Soucat, Director for Human Development, AfDB, and Mthuli Ncube, the Bank's Chief Economist and Vice-President, these figures mean that "Africa has one billion opportunities to transform the continent's human capital landscape.”

Africa should set its sights on a demographic dividend that involves "additional growth obtained through better organisation of the population, focusing on aspects such as demographic transition" (based on the number of children per woman), while also ensuring that the mortality rate is brought down to compensate for the falling birth rate.

Once this has been achieved, the next step is to look beyond family planning and address other policies, with a particular focus on education. One possible measure in this area is to introduce free schooling for girls. This would help to raise educational standards among women and reduce the number of young pregnancies by keeping girls in school. Several participants stated that "an unwillingness to invest in girls is tantamount to the renunciation of development.”

One of the ways to achieve this goal is to provide high-quality education. The participants stressed the need to "adopt a holistic approach by identifying priorities on the basis of each country's needs in the fields of engineering, social sciences and technology.”

Technical training must not, therefore, be devalued. Instead, it must be overhauled on the basis of experience and feedback, as has been the case in benchmark countries in this area. By doing so, Africa will avoid the pitfall into which other nations have fallen, namely the devaluation of technical training and the over-valuation of academic education. This trend explains the decline of certain craft trades that have the potential to deliver growth.

Africa has therefore reached an important crossroads: either it views its vast population of young people as an asset, provides them with jobs and reaps the growth rewards, or it views them as a liability, excludes them from society and employment, and suffers the inevitable violence that this entails.

The need for awareness and action can be summarised in two statistics: US $64 billion of illegal capital outflow and US $4 billion of investment in recruiting foreign professionals. While Africa needs foreign expertise, it is alarming to see so many young Africans leaving the continent, many packed into small boats washed up on the shores of Europe.