With almost 60% of its population under the age of 25, Africa is the world’s youngest region. Yet young people are often left behind. They face inadequate economic opportunities and may be socially or politically excluded. Unless this is addressed, achieving many of the United Nations sustainable development goals will be impossible.
When young people are active in their societies, economies and politics, they are not only more productive, they also contribute to stability and development. This is all the more true on a continent where there will be more than 830-million young people by 2050.
And yet, the median age of African leaders is 62, older than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development median. In South Africa’s general election, held in May, 46% of the nine million eligible voters who did not register to vote were aged 20 to 29, according to the Electoral Commission of South Africa.
Young people account for 60% of Africa’s unemployed. In North Africa, the rate of youth unemployment averages 25%. The rate is lower in sub-Saharan Africa because it does not include the large number of young workers in vulnerable employment or who are underemployed in informal sectors.
The United Nations Development Programme’s Africa Centre wants to help change this, thereby enabling the world to advance the core sustainable development goals’ mission to leave no one behind. That is why we have been developing a youth socioeconomic and political disengagement index made up of 10 equally weighted indicators, from education status and cash income to voting in elections or even participating in protests or demonstrations.
The index, which uses merged data from the Afrobarometer surveys, covers 12 countries: Botswana, Ghana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mali, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. It also offers at least three broad messages that should guide policymaking.
The first is that the expansion of economic, social, and political freedoms can be a boon for youth engagement. From 2001 to 2016, the proportion of disengaged youth across the 12 countries fell from 12% to 6%, on average — and the number of indicators on which they were disengaged fell from four to three. These gains are strongly correlated with improvements in freedom.
In Mali, for example, youth engagement spiked in 2001, 2005 and 2008 — during a 12-year period when United States-based watchdog organisation Freedom House classified the country as “free,” in terms of political rights and civil liberties. In 2012, when Freedom House downgraded Mali to “not free,” engagement declined by 7%. The country recaptured that lost 7% in 2016, three years after it was categorised as “partly free”.
But limited freedom is not the only impediment to political and socioeconomic engagement among young people. African countries’ enduring failure to build robust, diversified economies that are insulated against commodity-price volatility is also hampering progress.
This is the second message of the socioeconomic and political disengagement index.
After Malawi launched its first commercial mining operations, the proportion of disengaged youth fell from 68% in 2008 to 45% in 2012. But, in 2014, mining operations were suspended in response to declining global uranium prices. Youth disengagement skyrocketed, reaching 65% in 2016.
Overall — and this is the socioeconomic and political disengagement index’s third message — while progress is being made in boosting political and socioeconomic engagement among young people, it is not happening nearly fast enough. The share of Africa’s young people who were not in employment, education or training — so-called NEETs — fell by only 7% from 2005 to 2016, at which point nearly half (47%) remained idle. At this rate, it will take at least 40 years for the 12 socioeconomic and political disengagement index countries merely to halve the proportion of NEETs.
This would effectively torpedo sustainable development goal eight: “To promote sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all.”
That failure would hamper progress toward other goals, from the first one (“end poverty in all its forms everywhere”) to the 16th (“promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all, and build effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions at all levels”).
Moreover, limited youth engagement is likely to fuel social and political instability. According to the World Bank, 40% of people who join rebel movements are motivated by too few economic opportunities.
For African governments — and their international partners — boosting political and socioeconomic engagement among young people is crucial. The socioeconomic and political disengagement index can help to guide action, by showing who exactly is being left behind, and by enabling relevant actors to monitor progress and adjust their strategies accordingly.
So far, the socioeconomic and political disengagement index’s message is stark. Although Africa is headed in the right direction, it is moving much too slowly. If the continent is to harness its youth bulge, rather than be engulfed by it, barriers to progress on youth engagement — from excessive dependence on commodities to weak civil liberties — must be dismantled. — © Project Syndicate
George Lwanda, a regional programme and policy adviser with the United Nations Development Programme’s Africa Centre, is a 2018 Asia global fellow at Hong Kong University’s Asia Global Institute and an alumnus of the Mo Ibrahim-SOAS University of London Governance for Development in Africa Initiative