10 February 2014

West Africa: Breaking the Cycle of Youth Unemployment, Poverty

Dakar — Youth unemployment and underemployment are among the main barriers to development in West Africa, say experts. Not only does the exclusion of young people from the labour force perpetuate generational cycles of poverty, it also breaks down social cohesion and can be associated with higher levels of crime and violence among idle youth.

"A decent and productive job [not only] contributes to attaining fundamental individual and family well-being, but also spills over, contributing to society's broader objectives, such as poverty reduction, economy-wide productivity growth and social cohesion," said Diego Rei, the International Labour Organization's (ILO) senior regional adviser on youth employment in Africa.

Worldwide, an estimated 73 million youths - defined as those between the ages of 15 and 24 - were unable to secure work in 2013, according to the ILO.

The rate of underemployment is difficult to measure, but experts say that it is likely that millions more were either working jobs for which they are overqualified or else receiving below-average wages.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the youth unemployment rate hovers around 12 percent. While this is slightly lower than the global youth unemployment rate of 12.4 percent, the African region has the world's highest rate of working poverty - people who are employed but earning less than US$2 a day.

Despite being Africa's most educated generation to emerge from schools and universities, a youth in Africa is twice as likely to be unemployed when he or she becomes an adult, according to the ILO.

"Here in Africa, we have this idea that if I'm learning, I'm supposed to work in the future," said 22-year-old Mamadou Diene, an English major at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar who wants to become a translator. "But instead. we only have a very small number of them who are employed. It's a real problem."

A form of social exclusion

In a late 2013 report on social inclusion, the World Bank considers youth unemployment to be a form of social exclusion, particularly in developing countries: it hinders and degrades the role of young people in society and the development of their countries, and it reduces their personal well-being and future opportunities.

Not being able to find good, quality work early on is stressful and discouraging for youths, say the World Bank and ILO. When youths do not find work, their risk of unemployment as an adult increases, as does their chance of receiving low wages later in life, according to a 2014 World Bank report on youth employment.

There is no specific link between unemployment and violence or crime, note World Bank researchers, but unemployed youth are disproportionately more likely to commit crimes when a number of other factors, such as weak support networks, are also present.

Young women in sub-Saharan Africa are at a particular disadvantage in finding jobs, as they usually have less access to quality education and healthcare compared to their male peers.

Millions of productive jobs will need to be created to include the estimated 11 million African youths who are expected to join the labour market each year over the next 10 years, says the World Bank in its report.

Growth versus jobs

Many African countries have registered high rates of economic growth in recent years, but this has not translated into new jobs.

This is partly because much of the growth in sub-Saharan African countries over the past decade has been driven by the extractive industries - oil, gas and minerals - says Deon Filmer, a lead economist in the Research Group of the World Bank and co-author of the organization's report. "While these industries generate output and revenues that are reflected in GDP growth, they're not particularly big job creators."

The number of jobs created in these sectors, relative to outputs and revenues, is much lower than in export-oriented manufacturing, he added.

Further, the pace of growth for wage-employment cannot keep up with the growing population: Africa has the largest "youth bulge" in the world, and the number of youths is expected to grow by 42.5 million between 2010 and 2020, says the World Bank.

Even in countries such as Ghana and Tanzania, where the number of wage jobs has grown by around 10 percent, the increase is not enough to absorb all the new entrants to the workforce.

And with nearly half of the current African population under the age of 14, the problem is only expected to get worse.

Agriculture not international relations

The director of the Economic Policy Analysis Unit for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Commission, Felix Fofana N'Zue, told IRIN one of the reasons so many young people are being excluded from the labour market is a mismatch between their skills and the market's demands.

"Africa has failed to train people for its needs," he said. "Instead, it has been training young Africans to satisfy or meet the needs of other people."

In Senegal, for example, he explained that the agricultural sector employs nearly 80 percent of the workforce, but that the majority of university graduates study subjects such as economics, the humanities and international relations.

N'Zue said that, while these fields are important, such degrees leave young people either living in Africa unemployed or underemployed or migrating to places like the US or Europe.

"Once we start training people with the skills they need for jobs we need to create and fill, that's when young people will become a valuable asset to the workforce," he said.

Flaubert Mbiekop, the programme officer for social and economic policy at the International Development and Research Centre (IDRC), agreed.

"With regards to youth unemployment, one of the issues we have been looking at is the apparent mismatch between the qualifications the youth have and the expectations of the employers in the labour market," he said.

But it will be difficult to convince the small minority of youth who attend university to forgo study in fields thought to lead to more lucrative professions - such as finance, management, law and medicine - in favour of studying farming and agriculture.

"We see many young people coming from rural areas, hoping they will enjoy a better life, better work in the city, but that is not necessarily the case," Mbiekop said.

"So the question is: how can we make the agricultural sector attractive to the youth? How can we get them interested in a sector that is not yet well developed in many African countries, but has so many opportunities?" he asked.

Students need credit

"Youth unemployment isn't a one-dimensional problem.We have to look at both the human capital dimension - what young people bring to their work, their abilities, and so on, as well the business environment that's conducive to productive work or not, conducive to competitive firms starting up or not," said Filmer.

But it is not enough for governments and the private sector to create more jobs geared towards young people - whether in agriculture, manufacturing or the natural resource industries. Access to quality education also needs to improve, alongside a focus on skills-building with apprenticeships and internship opportunities.

Youth also need more access to credit, he said.

"If we look at the issue of financial inclusion, there are many [young] workers operating their own business, but access to credit, to be able to purchase inputs, is lacking," Filmer said. "So we need reforms to enable youth to access financial markets."

Support could come in many forms, from setting up savings groups at the village level to using new financial technologies, like mobile money. Both approaches have engaged young people, pulling them into financial markets and allowing them to start their own businesses.

Access to work space and land is also important, especially for women, who are often denied land rights.

"We see that access to land for youth in rural areas, for example, and space to operate a business in urban areas are real constraints, and youth are really shut out of those markets," Filmer said.

The ILO's Rei said labour market interventions, such as creating incentives for the private sectors to hire young people, providing youth with information about job vacancies and career prospects, and ensuring that recruitment processes are transparent and non-discriminatory, will also go a long way in helping ensure more young people are included in the labour force.

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]

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