10 January 2018

Liberia: Powerful Youth Demographic Dividends Not to Be Taken for Granted

Recent presidential election in Liberia confirms the powerful role of youth, particularly in post conflict democratization. The youth remain critical stakeholders in Statebuilding and Peacebuilding and it would be naive to think that decades of rhetorics, manipulations and systematic lack of commitments by out- going and previous governments in addressing critical issues confronting the youths could go free. Indeed, the youths are 'powerful in number but vulnerable by position' yet capable of engendering change.

Liberia is extremely endowed with enormous resources with a high proportion of youths that can be harnessed to exploit the resources and drive the country's development. But successive leaders in Liberia do not prioritize activities that are capable of training, preparing and transforming youths to become productive. Services that are supposed to improve the well-being of youths are not given adequate national priority. Example, in the 2016/2017 budget (US$555.9 million), social services received relatively better chuck compared to previous years with health getting US$ 77million while US$83 million was allocated to education. However the recent go slow by teachers at MVTC, one of Liberia's biggest vocational training centers, which is providing professional technical services to help transform some of our vulnerable youths to become productive citizens, shows that these allocations are made but are eventually not utilized for the intended beneficiaries resulting to low human capital in the citizens with attendant low productivity.

Prolong neglect or underfunding of Liberia's 'messy educational system' -- by the Ellen-led government, a government that prides itself as having the country's most educated minds, was capitalized on by President elect Weah in his campaign message when he said " a CDC Government would consider paying exam fees and using a sector-wide review to bolster Liberia's weak education system".

What an irony for somebody who is considered less educated and therefore not equipped to lead the country. The importance of youth demographic dividends, understood as real or potential window of opportunity that can be harnessed as a result of boost in economic productivity that occurs when there are growing numbers of people in the workforce compared to the number of dependents during period of demographic transition, continues to attract attention around the world because demographic dividend lens offers a strategic basis for focusing and prioritizing investments in people in general and youth in particular, in order to achieve sustainable development, inclusive economic growth and to build "an integrated, prosperous and peaceful nation" driven mainly by its own citizens. However, if identified dividends are not effectively harnessed and utilized, they can lead to chaos, upheavals and radical change of governments as we have seen around the world. Example, the popular Arab spring that caused radical changes of several governments and leaderships in the Middle East. Until the Arab Spring outburst, nobody could easily predict the change of political leadership in such a Conservative Arab world. But suddenly youth demographic dividends turned to demographic time bombs as expressed through widespread discontent over youth unemployment, low living standards, rampant corruption, aging dictatorships, etc. What is more fascinating about the Arab political upheaval was the role of the social media in mobilizing and sending out mass appeal to jobless and marginalized citizens to take back their country away from the corrupt elites, a perfect mixture of patriotism and social message.

Throughout Liberia's political history, the political elites often use the youth as the means to achieving political power and loyalty but abandon their electoral commitments to these electorates after elections and comfortably view them while sitting behind tinted S.U.V. windows. Different surveys show that Liberian youths really do not demand much but simply wish for a normal life- basically the kind of life that comes with access to food, shelter, education, health care and the prospect of someday earning an income, even a modest one. In fact one USAID study noted that many youth expressed their frustrations with activities that lead to certificates but not jobs; with meetings that sensitize them or counsel them but do not give them a way to feed themselves and with well-meaning people, who enter their lives, ask questions, sympathize and then disappear. Indeed, Liberian youths resent unfair and exploitative treatments from all angles. The youthful population want to earn for themselves but are often hindered by 'structural impediments' designed and entrenched by unpatriotic leaders. There is a growing perception amongst the youths that traditional Liberian politicians only need them to ascend to power. The recent election of Ambassador George M. Weah indicates that the young people are tired of being used by the same people. Senator Weah who comes from a marginalized background as football player from one of Monrovia slums (Gibraltar) and vociferously opposed by the educated elites is seen as the best choice and alternative to the corrupt educated elites evident in their iconic slogan " your leave us oo da Weah we want".

In what is gradually seen as a protest vote and a knee-jerk reaction to decades of failed elites rule in Liberia, the youths of Liberia overwhelming demonstrated that they have the power to provoke violent or peacefully change any regime, if they are not satisfied with its policy and performance. Like the Arab spring, Liberian youths action demonstrates that they are agents of change, if those that they elect fail to deliver their promises. President elect George Weah never availed himself to any national debate to argue or 'speak big book' but the youth electorates nevertheless massively elected him to change the country political leadership. Even though Senator Weah himself never did anything remarkable for the youths of this country, like building sport academy, establishing businesses to employ young people, helping talented young people to achieve their dreams in and outside Liberia, yet compared to other presidential candidates, his campaign naturally appealed to the sentiments and plights of the underclass and marginalized population who are in the majority. This is the first time in the history of Liberia that youths were not used through the brushes and barriers of the guns to bring about regime change. They instead used their voting rights to peacefully vote out the 'rascals'. Does this mean that President elect, Ambassador George Weah, will have an easy task? Certainly not as he is expected to have even much complicated and challenging work.

According to the World Bank 2013 Liberia Vulnerable Youth Profile; youth constitute nearly half of the total labor force in Liberia and of the urban labor force. The labor force participation rate for the 15-24 youth cohort is 35.1%, substantially lower than the national average of 63.5%. This may in part be explained by the prevalence of over-age students enrolled in school coupled with a strong informal job market. The participation rate for the 25-34 age-groups is 72.3%, much higher than the national average though issues of decent employment come into play with known facts that majority of these are under employed as pen pen riders, wheel barrow traders etc, and they have no access to health, better standard of living and human security. President elect Weah is indeed taking over a government that is broke, he is presently accommodating most of the very actors that are responsible for the failure of current and previous governments to address the needs of Liberian youth; he will also be paying back those financial giants who assisted him, providing jobs for friends and sympathizers both local and from the diaspora and obviously some, if not most of the JJCs, have parochial mindset to enrich themselves in the soonest possible time.

In addition, the country is currently struggling with what one human rights advocate referred to as the "New youth". These are individuals who are either above the recognized youth age group or those who consider themselves youths because they have missed out on important aspects of their youthful life due to war, example the 'zogoes'. The term also refers to youth who have their own household but unable to provide basic services for their family, drug addicts, street children, youthful sex workers, etc. It is important to point out that President Weah presidency will be taking place in an environment characterized by social and political polarization, learning curve for the President elect, UNMIL final drawdown and most importantly during a difficult economic period.

These perplexing scenarios imply that we are not completely out of the demographic town bomb and this provoke more questions than the ostensible remedies that the traditional change of political leaders often offer. President elect Weah administration will therefore be grappling with a plethora of deep-seated and multi-layered problems that could potentially cause him to overshadow some of the major social problems, including high levels of unemployment, lack of skill training, poverty, GBV, drug abuse, crime, illiteracy, violence, and HIV/AIDS that are confronting our youthful population. Our elites and politicians often deliberately downplay these problems in order to put the youths in a subaltern and vulnerable position, which these politicians ultimately exploit and misuse to entrench their power, authority and status quo.

While President elect had convincingly benefited from the positive aspect of youthful dividends, it should not be forgotten that these dividends are like pendulum and therefore should not be taken for granted. Reaping the dividends depends on several aspects such as the capacity to sincerely reach out and reconcile the country, invest and build vibrant youth projects with measurable impacts, encourage sound economic, institutional conditions of state, engage in transparent operation of the financial sector and involve Civil Society institutions in the decision making processes, among others. The 2018 Presidential election results demonstrate that when young people collectively engage, any regime, even authoritarian ones, will fall and the country's' political trajectories can shift.

Liberia's political landscape is replete with issues that influence political and even violence change and these vices are still widespread. Local and national politicians in Liberia often use economic drivers like unemployment and ethnic identities to entice youths in perpetrating violence. Furthermore, the exuberance and adventurist pathogen in youth DNA can even lead to perceptions of exclusion thus resulting to young people seeking alternative ways to engender change. In such a fragile state as projected earlier, when frustration reaches high levels, especially in a transitional environment, it is possible that these exuberant youth that give President Weah the mandate to rule could turn to civil disobedience and violence.

Therefore, rather than taking things for granted, it is important for the new government to hit the ground running by investing and prioritizing the youthful population and including them in the political process, if Liberia is to enjoy long term peace and stability. One of the key drivers to reaping the dividend through employment is the ability to unleash the potential and power of women. When you invest in changing the status quo of girls and our adolescents, you can expect positive trigger down effect in the households and the communities. Just like many African countries, gender inequality is still prevalent in Liberia. Hence inequality and GBV issues should claim urgent attention in the new development agenda. Changing leaders and constitutions do not necessarily lead to stable and effective governments but the ability for elected government to deliver basic social and economic services as well as policies that are put in place to protect and promote the rights of its citizenry both at the social, political and at the economic level.

Compounding some of the challenges of the new leadership is the visible presence of political gurus and kleptomaniac business individuals who evade state taxes, mismanage resources given by the international community to improve the conditions of young people, skillfully align themselves with every regime to protect their ill- gotten wealth and the presence of so many opportunists who are barriers to any good plan because they have one motive- 'wealth accumulation'. This obviously has tremendous implication for national development because these pseudo political loyalists mentality is about 'me and only me' and demographic dividends is not automatic, but contingent on specific actions that takes into consideration the collective interest of the whole nation.

But with wealth seeking individuals on board that are notoriously responsible for plundering Liberia's resources, even if the newly elected president has a good team of technocrats, these 'money eaters' will unleash what they know best, ie, take lucrative positions to help them sustain their status quo and continue to mismanage and misallocate the nation's natural resources, for their own benefits. Thus, as Liberian often say, 'cassava leafs is not for goat along'. Today the tide has turned without a single death. Thanks for the peaceful revolt by CDC and let me join the choir to say MUYAM, MUYAM. Yet let me hasten to eagerly remind our new leader that dividends are the result of your investments and if you invest well, you get good results but if you do not, the result is anybody guess.

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