Youth hold key to beating poverty

Zambia is one of the countries that have introduced tax incentives for hiring young people, as well as low-interest loans for budding entrepreneurs. (Gianluigi Guercia, AFP)

Zambia is one of the countries that have introduced tax incentives for hiring young people, as well as low-interest loans for budding entrepreneurs. (Gianluigi Guercia, AFP)

Nelson Mandela described poverty and inequality as terrible curses of our time: “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right: the right to dignity and a decent life. While poverty exists, there is no true freedom.”

Africa is the richest continent in natural resources in the world. It also has the youngest population, with more than 65% of its people younger than 30 and 200-million of them aged between 15 and 24. By 2045, this figure is forecast to double and Africa will have the largest workforce in the world, surpassing both China and India.

Yet it is this burgeoning, youthful population that is crippled by poverty. While Africa’s young people constitute about 40% of the continent’s working-age population, they make up 60% of the total unemployed population.

It is estimated that more than 70% of young Africans live on less than $2 a day. Youth is defined as those between the ages of 15 and 34, many are neither studying nor in training, and capable of working. The numbers show the reality for Southern Africa’s young unemployed: Zimbabwe: 15%, Zambia: 25%, South Africa: 45% (male) and 54% (female), Malawi: 13.5%, Lesotho: 33.2%, Botswana: 34.1% and Namibia: 39.2%. These are scary figures, particularly considering that the young people of today are the adults and leaders of tomorrow.

Dalfino Guila, vice-president of the Pan African Youth Union in Mozambique, believes investing in young people is important. “Youth present to us a plentiful resource whose energies, if not correctly harnessed, can turn into a liability for that society,” says Guila.

The question has long been asked why Africa, particularly Southern Africa, has such a high incidence of poverty among its young people. The answers are not disputed, but the solutions are complex.

Mienke Mari Steytler, head of media and public affairs for the Institute of Race Relations, argues that Southern Africa is fortunate to have a growing young population – who she says have the potential, given the right opportunities, to become the middle class of their respective countries and thereby help to drive the economy of the entire region.

But, says Steytler, this will require a serious analysis of the education and employment environment, and the economy as a whole.

Data supplied by the basic education department shows that only 28.5% of young black South Africans who wrote matric-level maths in 2014 passed the subject. “This is indicative not of the capability of this group, but of an education system that is still not serving the poor. This despite the fact that the number of people over 20 who cannot read and write has halved since 1994, and the number of young, black South Africans enrolled at universities has grown by 105%. Yet just 49% of those students have completed their degrees. Without a qualification, getting a decent job becomes extremely difficult,” says Steytler.

About 50% of South Africa’s young population is unemployed. Of that figure, 63% are aged 15 to 24, and 40% are aged 25 to 34.

“With two-thirds of our population under the age of 35, this is an enormous concern,” she says. “While Europe is worried about its ageing population, Southern Africa has a rich bulk of young people, most of whom are healthy and capable but who simply do not have the opportunity or means to work.”

Steytler’s third area of analysis is the economy. In 2014 South Africa’s finance sector was at its largest, contributing 20.5% of the country’s gross domestic product, compared with manufacturing (13.3%), mining (8.4%), construction (4.1%) and agriculture (2.5%).

“These figures show it is in the high-tech service sectors that the decent jobs are found, and even more so in the future,” she says. “But young people cannot hope to fill these positions without the right passes and qualifications, particularly in matric-level maths. They will become, or remain, unemployed or underemployed.

“Poverty alleviation lies in getting young people into jobs. This requires policy changes on many levels – a good start is in education, with the stimulation of the teaching of maths and sciences,” says Steytler.

Macroeconomic policies
Mzwanele Mfunwa, the spokesperson for the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa’s subregional office in Lusaka, maintains employment creation should be made the pivot of macroeconomic policies in Southern Africa, so that employment is seen not as a residual of growth but as its driver. In an environment of high poverty, decent and productive jobs are the best form of social protection.

Mfunwa highlights young people’s limited education as the main inhibiting factor. “Most youths are not employable because of a skills mismatch between the quality of skills they possess and those employers need. We need to focus on skills development so that youths can painlessly transition from school to employment. We need to bridge the gap between education systems and the needs of labour markets,” he says.

Mfunwa says interventions should include revising training curricula to respond to the needs of labour markets and working with training institutions to develop appropriate skills.

Christabel Mwango, regional co-ordinator for the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Youth Network, notes that poverty leads to a number of social ills, including drug abuse, organised crime, HIV and other diseases. She also highlights other social problems that poverty creates for unemployed young people in Zambia.

‘The school dropout rate increases because young people feel it’s worth more to be out in the world trying to make money than to be ‘wasting time’ in school. Teenage pregnancies and underage marriages are often a result of poverty, with parents in rural areas resorting to marrying off their children for money and to lessen the burden of taking care of them,” says Mwango.

“Unemployed youth feel disenfranchised from society, so tend to have more interest in social than civic participation. Most of the poverty alleviation projects and programmes are located in places where there is easy access to facilities, leaving rural areas sidelined and marginalised.”

According to Mfunwa, organisations in the SADC region have implemented numerous projects over the years aimed at alleviating poverty, particularly among young people.

Last year Zambia launched its youth policy and a youth empowerment and employment action plan. It also introduced tax incentives for hiring young people, and low-interest credit facilities to help spur entrepreneurship.

Similarly, in Malawi, the government is implementing a skills development project to increase access to market-relevant skills, particularly through tertiary and vocational education. The Malawian government’s Greenbelt initiative is also focused on creating jobs for young people through agriculture, among other sectors.

“Projects have led to the creation of over 10 000 jobs and more projects are planned. The Malawi Enterprise Development Fund aims to provide credit to poor and medium-sized farmers, and the youth in the country,” says Mfunwa.

In South Africa, the national youth policy includes proposals to increase economic participation and transformation through works programmes, tax incentives, and educational and training opportunities.

The government is targeting youth participation of more than 50% in its expanded public works programme, among other employment schemes.

The public service internship programme will be scaled up and measures to increase private sector exposure are also proposed. Low-interest credit as well as business development services to support young entrepreneurs are part of the strategy.

Mthuli Ncube, professor of public policy with the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, maintains that not enough is being done to impart business entrepreneurship skills to young people to enable them to not only work for themselves, but employ others too.

“In what we call the entrepreneurship ecosystem, the teaching of entrepreneurial skills is followed by mentoring, the drawing up of business plans, accessing capital and finally, working with business incubators,” says Ncube.

In his paper Can Dreams Come True? Poverty Profiling in Africa 2014, Ncube notes that inequality has a considerable influence on poverty.

“Inequality is essentially the inability to access. If there is a disparity in access to opportunity, those without access remain trapped in poverty – left out, ignored, marginalised, because someone else controls the rules of the economic game.

“The big challenge for policymakers in governments is to come up with programmes for poverty alleviation that are financially sustainable,” says Ncube.

African Bank partnerships
One of the prominent players and enablers in the fight against poverty in Africa is the African Development Bank, with many of its financial initiatives aimed at empowering young people on the continent. Through partnerships with the public and private sectors, the bank focuses on increasing business and employment opportunities.

Its various youth employment programmes focus on skills training and aim to stimulate entrepreneurship and innovation.

The bank’s senior rural infrastructure engineer, Raymond Besong, agrees that lack of education is the biggest cause of poverty among young people in Southern Africa, because it automatically leads to their exclusion from industrial and economic opportunities.

“The overall poverty level in Africa is reducing, but the number of young people is growing faster than economic opportunities are being put into place in each country. Economic opportunities provide 300-million jobs across Africa every year, but there are 12?million youths entering the job market annually.

“This shows the problem: if economic opportunities are not generated, then only 25% of youths are entering into the job market, leaving the other 75% without economic opportunities,” says Besong.

An imminent African Development Bank project starting at the end of 2016 will involve strategies focusing on jobs for Africa’s young people. Primarily aimed at integrating youth employment and job creation skills, the initiative will support innovation in the agricultural and the information and communications technology sectors, and stimulate industry as a whole.

By means of private-public partnerships, the bank will set up a $4-billion fund for the project, targeting the creation of 25-million jobs between 2016 and 2025. The effect of poverty on young people in Southern Africa is an issue that needs to be at the forefront of economic policies in the region, for the future economic stability of the continent.

As Franklin D Roosevelt said: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

This page forms part of a Mail & Guardian partnership with the Southern Africa Trust to highlight issues of poverty in the region.

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