A seat at the table

There is a curious trend in motion on the African continent. While the rest of the world is aging rapidly, Africa’s population is getting younger. By 2100, it is estimated that almost half of the world’s youth will be African. Over the next decade, the number of young people in the African labor market will increase to 375 million. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the current trend in population growth on the continent means that by 2035, there will be more young people entering Africa’s workforce each year than in the rest of the world combined. However, despite this growth, the continent is struggling to address the crucial issue of youth employment.

Africa’s Youth Unemployment Challenge

A 2017 International Labor Organization (ILO) report shows that the youth unemployment rate in sub-Saharan Africa stands at 12 percent. Although slightly less than the global youth unemployment rate of 12.4 percent, Africa has the world’s highest rate of working poverty — people who are employed but earn less than US$2 a day. Despite being Africa’s most educated generation to emerge from schools and universities and enjoying easier access to information, consumer goods and services, African youth are twice as likely to be unemployed when they become adults. There is a significant gap between the number of young people seeking work and the limited employment opportunities available to them. Almost half of the 10 million students graduating yearly from African universities are unable to find jobs.

Of the 50 percent who are employed, only 16 percent work in the formal salaried sector. This means that 4.2 million African university graduates are either underemployed, i.e., entering non-graduate jobs that do not match their academic qualifications, or they are self-employed, i.e., creating their own forms of employment where the public and private sectors have failed to create such opportunities.

In this midst of this, another alarming trend is at play — a rise in brain drain on the African continent. According to a 2014 World Bank report, there was a 100 percent increase in the number of African migrants between 1980 and 2010, reaching 30 million or roughly 3 percent of the continent’s total population. While many African migrants do stay within Africa, the number of migrants leaving the continent has steadily increased over the last decade. What’s more, a 2013 United Nations report shows that there are close to 3 million Africans with tertiary degrees living in developed countries in Europe, North America and elsewhere. This is a 50 percent growth in the past 10 years, more than any other region in the world.

Africa’s Youth Need Stronger Job Creation Mechanisms

The numbers don’t lie. Youth unemployment may be the biggest challenge facing Africa today. If unchecked, the negative social and economic impact for Africa could be dire. What is the way forward? According to the African Development Bank’s chief economist, Professor Ncube, “stronger job creation mechanisms grounded in a deliberate strategy for inclusive growth and social development is needed.” As the private sector and governments of African states explore opportunities for collaboration to address the youth employment challenge, there is another actor that has a vital contribution to make: the International Development sector.

A sizeable employer on the continent, the International Development sector, from bilateral and multilateral organizations to foundations and non-profit organizations, if well-positioned, could contribute significantly to stemming the rising tide of African youth unemployment while simultaneously working toward achieving the continent’s Sustainable Development Goals. Irrespective of what side of the “aid effectiveness” debate one falls on, the reality is that official development assistance (ODA) or “aid” plays a significant role in driving the economies and development agendas of many African countries. In 2016, the net ODA to Africa was US$ 27 billion. It is almost impossible to estimate the number of organizations working in the International Development sector in Africa through which ODA is channeled in hopes of tackling some of the toughest and most persistent challenges, including youth unemployment.

Going Local — the Future of Jobs in International Development

As the sector works to address development issues, an opportunity exists to help address the youth unemployment issue from within by hiring more local talent. For a long time, it seems that the top and “best” positions in the sector were reserved for foreign aid workers or development professionals. When asked why it was particularly challenging to source local talent, organizations typically provided a variety of answers ranging from “we just can’t afford it” to “it’s not an option” to there are good reasons for the way it is.” But things are changing. A recent Devex article on the future of jobs in International Development noted that there is a growing trend of “localization” as international organizations, NGOs, and donors are all looking to decentralize operations to local organizations and communities, leveraging their knowledge of what’s most needed and employing people locally to implement it.

Given the size of Africa’s youth population and the fact that the impact of decisions made today by the International Development community will most likely be felt by the youth in the future, it only seems logical that they should be invited into the discussion and given an opportunity to play a greater role in shaping and driving Africa’s development agenda.

But is this generation of African graduates ready to accept the challenge? A recent survey of recent young graduates from Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa revealed a strong commitment to social justice and the desire to use their knowledge to make a broader contribution to society. This generation of African graduates is educated, they have a deep sense of pride in and commitment to their continent and when it comes to solving Africa’s problems, they know the context and are well-suited to help create the innovative and sustainable solutions the continent needs.

What’s the way forward? Young African graduates, on and off the continent, should be given a seat at the table. African governments and the International Development sector should advocate for and work towards creating an enabling environment in which an increasing number of young African graduates can access and attain positions at various levels and within different fields in the International Development sector. The employment of more young Africans in the sector could be just the win that Africa needs: a reduction in the youth unemployment rate while simultaneously tapping fresh talent and creativity to shape policies and campaigns and implement development programs.



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