15 August 2012

Sierra Leone: As Ban Ki-Moon Warns Against Creating a Lost Generation, Our Youths Face a Crisis of Unemployment


As I write this article, young people around the world would be commemorating the International Youth Day, with the theme "Building a better world: Partnering with youth". In a sombre message, Ban Ki-Moon warns against creating a "lost generation of squandered talents and dreams". Yet, in a country of almost six million people of which 60% are young people, these youths are at risk of becoming a lost generation of squandered talents and dreams because of massive unemployment. Even Pres. Koroma knows that all too well since 2007 when he wrote in his manifesto "To be sure youth employment if not appropriately addressed is a time bomb"

Five years on, in 2012, United Nations figures in Sierra Leone show 70% of our country's youth population is unemployed or underemployed and 50% illiterate or unskilled. In a report posted on the UNDP website "Sierra Leone: Tackling youth employment" it states that there is a shocking estimated 800,000 youth between the ages of 15 and 35 who are actively searching for employment. Yet, the 800,000 figure does not include the thousands I normally regard as the working poor: those in full time activities which generate incomes below the international poverty guidelines of $1 a day. Yes, I am talking about those young people hawking the streets selling "plastic water", "cakes", "cigarettes" etc.

Five years on President Koroma, a leading UK based humanitarian organisation, Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), which supports local partners to provide training for young people, warned earlier this year that "mass youth employment poses a threat to the existing peace and stability in the country". In the report, VSO interviewed a 29 year old Abdulai who received training in cassava production at Binkolo Growth Centre. In the interview, Abdulai told VSO, "I spent four years in Freetown where I lived in the streets. The only way I found money to survive was to do odd jobs carrying things, doing work for anyone who would pay...we would sometimes steal bags, money or things that were worth money that we could sell just to survive. We did not feel good about ourselves; a man without job does not feel good. We were trying hard to find work." The most significant indictment for Pres. Koroma was when Abdulai said to VSO "Since 2007, I have not really been doing anything. It is very rough for young people here - so many are unemployed..." Despite Abdulai had been helped by the training programme, his story represents five years of frustration and despondency for hundreds of thousands of young people. For the 70% of young people who are unemployed, they remember in 2007 when Pres. Koroma said he was going to run the country like a business but five years on that business has spectacularly failed to provide jobs for young people in the "Ataya Bases", "Ghettos", "Texas", "King Jimmy", "Sweissy" etc.

Even graduates have been caught in this crisis of youth unemployment, as every year they go through the horror of walking around with brown envelops with their degrees and certificates for jobs which either do not exist or if they do graduates have to produce APC party cards as additional criterion. In fact just last year a close friend who completed his Masters of Science in Global Security from Cranfield University (U.K) went back to Sierra Leone to look for job in the security sector. Whilst staying in Freetown, he applied for a job that was advertised by the Strategic Policy Unit, Office of the President, State House. After his application, he was not even short listed for an examination before the interview because my friend was told nobody recommended him from the APC Party. As I write, my friend is back in London deprived of the opportunity to serve his country just because nobody recommended him from the APC party.

Most times, what makes me more sadden about this mass unemployment is the fact that our international partners and donor agencies since 2007 have been pouring millions and millions of dollars on Pres. Koroma's government to tackle this youth unemployment. Yet, the hundreds of thousands of young people who are meant to be beneficiaries are ironically the victims of donor funding mismanagement. So, how much money has Pres. Koroma's government received for the past five years just on youth employment?

Since 2007, the APC government has produced two strategic plans for youth employment implemented as a coordinated programme - the National Youth Employment Scheme (Basket Fund) and the Youth Enterprise Development (PBF) for which Pres. Korom's government received US $8 million. Then, there has been the Employment Projects based microfinance or with environment protection focus for which Pres. Koroma's government received US $2 million.

In 2010, there was the single biggest youth employment project since independence - The Joint Response to Youth Employment (2010 - 2012) - supported by United Nations Family (US $9 million), German Technical Cooperation (US $13million) and the World Bank (US $24 million) for which Pres. Koroma's government has been supported with a total budget of US $46 million to create a total of 106,000 jobs.

Then, since March 2011, World Bank has also been supporting Pres. Koroma's government with US $20 million for a Youth Employment Support Project which has three components: cash-for-work (US $10 million), skills development and employment support (US $8 million) and institutional support, policy development and impact evaluation (US $2 million). Yet, the question young people ask is: with all the millions and millions of dollars received by Pres. Koroma's government since 2007, how many jobs have been created?

In fact, just last year in a detailed study for UNDP in Freetown by the Consultant Professor Weeks of the University of London, on "Youth Employment and Empowerment Programme: Macroeconomic Policy and Employment", this was how Prof. John Weeks described Pres. Koroma's youth employment initiatives in his report "the current youth employment initiatives are 'GEOGRAPHICALLY SCATTERED' and have insufficient coordination, and deliver skills which while necessary are not directly job creating". Even Pres. Koroma seemed to accept such a verdict from the UNDP Consultant as in his speech to launch the National Youth Commission on 25th November 2011, the President said "I will now make a commitment to use the good offices of my government to work on the CONSTRAINTS that currently slow down implementation of youth employment initiatives". The problem is Mr. President young people just don't have faith in all the initiatives anymore because with all the millions of dollars the APC government have received, youths still bear the brunt of unemployment.

And for the National Youth Commission which is still less than 10 months old, Pres. Koroma's government is even failing to provide proper funding for the Youth Commission as the 2012 government budgetary allocation was only 0.2%. For this, the Rt. Brig. Julius Maada Bio in his recent speech on "Youth Empowerment for National Development" at Njala University, took a swipe at Pres. Koroma when he said "For example in 2012, the APC government allocated a little over a billion to the national Youth Commission. This compares unfavourably with nearly Le20 billion for the importation of arms and ammunition and nearly Le 80 billion for the expansion and rehabilitation of Wilkinson Road in West of Freetown". Mr. President, how can you say you care about young people and then you are even failing to give proper funding to the Youth Commission?

Well, at least on November 17th, every young person will have the chance to use their vote to make a difference in their lives. And, I may remind young people that in Rt. Brig. Julius Maada Bio's speech on "Youth Empowerment for National Development" at Njala University, he laid out his vision for young people which will focus on six objectives

· Providing technical skills in areas relevant for Sierra Leone job market

· Providing support services to agricultural graduates

· Establishing a National Youth Service Scheme and promote internships

· Establishing a Special Youth Empowerment Fund to provide for youth capacity building and supporting their entrepreneurial efforts

· Providing youth engagement in agriculture; and

· Investing in tertiary education to train youths in employable skills

These are the six central focus areas of a Rt. Brig. Julius Maada Bio Presidency which will make a REAL difference in the lives of young people who are now victims of this unemployment scandal whether they are unskilled and unemployed, skilled but unemployed, uneducated and unemployed or educated but unemployed. We cannot re-elect a President who has the irony that the more his government has received millions of dollars to address youth unemployment the more thousands of young people become unemployed. So the question is: who have been benefitting from ALL the millions of dollars by donors to tackle youth unemployment? As young people your votes have the answer and a vote for Rt. Brig Julius Maada Bio and Dr. Kadie Sesay will be a vote for jobs for young people.

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