There are good ways and bad ways to confront youth unemployment in Africa.
My friend Adewale owns a viewing center in Nigeria where he showcases soccer matches involving European teams. While the business has on and off seasons, the on seasons provide a commendable financial yield—especially when they involve elite teams with large followings in Africa (such as Manchester United, Arsenal FC, and Real Madrid). During football season in Europe, Adewale smiles on his way to the bank every Monday after the weekend fixtures, especially when they involve those elite teams.
Adewale, who used to be one of the several million unemployed youths in Africa, is an innovator. He has managed to create a source of income to pay his way through college, take care of his siblings, and provide a means of employment for youths—all while providing entertainment for his community.
With an estimated 200 million young people in Africa, 60 percent of this youth population forms an army of unemployed on the continent. With discussion and data showing a steadily improving African economy, it can be argued it is not yet time to beat the celebratory drums. We must consider the number of vulnerable youths without any daily means of making ends meet. With only 37 percent actively involved in the labor force—and a projection of the unemployed class to expand more rapidly than that in any other region in the world, according to the OECD—jobless youth represent both promise and peril.
Hence the big question: How can the unemployed youths of Africa be empowered, made productive, and contribute to economic growth?
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of preparing African youth for the future. As the social, economic, and political leaders of the next generation, African youth must somehow be included in Africa’s economic development. But without a private sector that is independent, competitive, and integrated into global markets, unemployed African youth will likely stay at the margins. (Consider “The Economics of the Arab Spring” by Malik and Awadallah, which focuses on North Africa and the Arab World.)
The productivity of young Africans benefits society at large, as Adewale’s job-creating small business shows. The failure to identify the proper role of government, however, has always clogged African economies, holding back youth employment and frustrating efforts to catalyze a robust African economy.
Typical government attempts to provide jobs tend to center on make-work projects and similar means designed primarily to garner political points for authorities. That means a lot of public-sector jobs, for one thing. Of course, the sustainability of public-sector jobs is dubious in terms of actual growth, but even public-sector jobs carry tremendous uncertainty as new governments in Africa may sack people appointed by prior regimes. Such is the case in a newly inaugurated state government in Nigeria, which ended up laying off 2,000 employees (the bulk of whom were appointed by the outgoing state executive). Whatever their merits otherwise, these programs have a negligible effect on African mass unemployment. Programs like the Nigerian government’s YOUWIN! program, which builds in a systematic digression toward a welfare state by awarding prizes (purportedly to women “entrepreneurs”) will scarcely make a dent in youth unemployment. Indeed, if these few chosen young people truly are entrepreneurs, shouldn’t they be rewarded by their customers rather than the Nigerian government?
Government reform efforts to improve youth employment carry two very important responsibilities: (1) Enable private enterprise to thrive by limiting predation and restrictions, and (2) focus public-sector activities solely on the provision of public infrastructure, such as good roads.
Otherwise, for the African tigers truly to emerge, leaders will have to limit bad policies. Here are some examples:
- Regulations create a forced marriage between the employer and employee. (These are highly counterproductive, according to Magatte Wade, a Senegalese serial entrepreneur.)
- Bureaucratic bottlenecks encountered by entrepreneurs—such as the difficulty of registering a business in many African countries—impede development.
- Sound technical and vocational education are scare, as more elitist, culturally dominant academic courses receive resources and privilege despite their questionable value in the market.
- High customs fees on export and import activities retard the gains from trade between and among nations.
- A lack of credit facilities limits access to business capital.
- Multiple taxation systems sap resources without even public infrastructure to show for them.
In Adewale’s case it has been costly—but necessary—to supply energy independently. This lack of a stable, reliable power supply (public or private) limits the ability of creative destroyers to produce goods and services that will require hiring unemployed youth. In other words, growth should be the goal in Africa. The jobs will follow.
Numerous entrepreneurs like Adewale and Magatte Wade are scattered throughout Africa. They have a commendable, energetic spirit. But they are held back by government policies a lack of infrastructure. And they are, therefore, unable to bring their entrepreneurial energies to full fruition.
A recently published Forbes list, “30 Under 30: Africa's Best Young Entrepreneurs,” showcases only a select few young African entrepreneurs who have been able to navigate their way around these obstacles. Still, hundreds of millions of potential entrants to such lists are operating within government-imposed restrictions.
Foreign-sponsored initiatives produce resources such as the African Economic Outlook on Youth Employment, which offer viable insights to understanding the challenges of mass youth employment for Africa.
But Alejandro Chafuen—president of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation—outlines a viable framework for the development of productive engagement. Chafuen references the activities of PovertyCure, an international coalition of organizations and individuals committed to entrepreneurial solutions to poverty. PovertyCure challenges the status quo and champions the creative potential of the individual.
The coalition's activities around the world answer the question of how people in the developing world create prosperity for their families and communities. They also spearhead efforts in the movement from aid to enterprise and from paternalism to partnerships through affiliations around the world. Initiatives such as these provide the competent foreign intervention that will help empower African young people with employment opportunities.
While the issue of so-called “brain drain” is logically associated with emigration, my personal view is that brain drain can also be defined as the misapplication of the intelligent and enterprising energy of African young people who remain in Africa to activities that endanger the future of the continent. Consider the appeal of crime. In a society whose population consists largely of young persons, most of whom are unemployed, the temptation to embrace criminal and predatory activities is often irresistible.
However, capitalizing on the renewed awareness about governance issues—as seen in the Arab Spring and other protests such as those in Nigeria (January 2012) and the Ivory Coast (December 2011)—it is important to suggest healthy channels for these awakenings. That is: can African youths become more productive? Move toward self-empowerment? And become full contributors to a peaceful, prosperous society?
In view of such questions, unless there is a framework for proper institutional restructuring that propels the growth of free enterprise—allowing more African youth to engage in entrepreneurship, voluntary exchange, and mutual benefit—the effort to empower African youths might as well be condemned as a tall dream. Still, young people are vital to a peaceful and prosperous African continent. Africa’s future political and economic leaders should reprioritize in favor of policies that lead to productive engagement and properly orient Africans to the workings of the private sector. An idle hand, as it is said, is indeed the devil’s workshop.