Will African leaders in 2017 seize the golden opportunity to curb poverty through youth investment?

In January this year, during the 29th African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I hosted a partners’ strategy meeting that brought together African experts, youth partners, and policymakers to discuss how best partners can work unanimously to influence the AU road map on achieving the demographic dividend.

During the summit, African leaders declared the theme for 2017, ‘Harnessing the Demographic Dividend through Investments in Youth” . This theme comes with a detailed road map to achieving this objective. A demographic dividend occurs when falling fertility rates lead to a large working-age population with fewer dependents and, therefore, more money in the household. Demographic dividends played a major role in the economic ascension of Asian countries like the Republic of Korea and India.

For ONE, this theme is a great opportunity for us and our partners to address our core mission to end extreme poverty in Africa by 2030 through promoting major education, employment and empowerment initiatives for youth. At the meeting, I learnt that the former AU Chairperson and President of Chad Idriss Derby, and presidents of Malawi, Rwanda, and Kenya are already championing the need for bold action to seize the dividend. The extent of the political will expressed by these heads of states on this opportunity is unprecedented. They have already made a commitment to ensure that the continent’s framework is in place to achieve the dividend. In addition, deliberations and planning on this theme will run for two years and will completely change how the AU conducts business with each department playing a critical role in delivering the objectives of the continent’s framework.

From the year 2010, until the last couple of years, the African rising mantra took hold globally, with the top 10 fastest growing economies in the world being in Africa. This made a good number of African nations including my homeland Zambia, prime foreign investment destinations. High GDP growth rates that slam dunked the global average accounted for what became the Africa rising narrative. These high growth rates were largely driven by investments made in Africa’s natural resource sector that fed China’s increased demand for natural resources. Although this growth changed the narrative of the continent, many citizens did not benefit from it. As Chinese demand for African commodities decreased, these growth rates nosedived and Africa’s largest economy Nigeria slumped into a recession. Despite this downturn, Africa still has a chance to revive its growth rate by harnessing another key underutilised resource; its massive youth population. Today, Africa is home to the youngest population with over 30% of its population aged between 10 and 24 years and this is likely to remain for another 20 years. This large and mostly unemployed youth population if not positively channeled could be a threat to peace and stability on the continent.This is s Africa’s greatest untapped resource to harness its demographic dividend.

Realising this dividend in African countries will require political leadership and strategic human capital investments that address the unique challenges currently faced by African youth. In some countries, some young people are targeted for recruitment by extremist ideological and violent groups. The state of African young women is worse, life prospects of millions of African girls are destroyed by early child marriage and teenage pregnancy. They also are less likely to complete school and gain viable employment compared to boys. Targeted policies and investments to achieve their empowerment can unlock this vicious poverty circle and would be catalytic in harnessing half the promise of this dividend.

In Tanzania, Human Rights Watch has criticised schools for widespread sexual abuse, corporal punishment and a policy for kicking out pregnant girls. The 98-page report, ‘I Had a Dream to Finish School’: Barriers to Secondary Education in Tanzania,” examines obstacles, including some rooted in outmoded government policies, that prevent more than 1.5 million adolescents from attending secondary school. HRW says that more than 40% of young people in the country are left out of lower-secondary education, which President Magufuli made free after coming into office.

Towards the July 2017 and January 2018 AU summits, ONE will work with its partners such as Restless Development to ensure that African heads of states implement a minimum package of policies and strategic investments focused on facilitating education, empowerment, and employment of its burgeoning youth population. All partners should back investments in Africa’s youth and certainly not curtail on programs focusing on the development of the continent. Making health, family planning and education accessible will change the trajectory of the continent for good.

As the Germany G20 focuses on Africa, ONE will turn also its advocacy to encourage the G20 to ensure they support country-level demographic dividend action plans. The Africa/G20 partnerships would create great opportunities for mutual benefits for both parties. Seizing this opportunity for African young people will lead to the rise of the entire African population.


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