The Best Story out of Africa: Its Youth

April 19, 2017

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The great foundation started by our friend and supporter, Mo Ibrahim, recently released a powerful report called ‘Africa at the Tipping Point.’ Its main message echoes one Mercy Corps is shouting from the rooftops: Africa’s young people can be either a demographic time bomb — alienated, excluded, poor and vulnerable to the siren call of violent extremism — or seeds of growth, good governance and stability across the continent.

Here at Mercy Corps, we believe strongly that youth are among the most powerful change agents in fragile places like Nigeria, South Sudan and Liberia. They are resilient in the face of the toughest challenges. And the bottom line is that they are the future: Africa is already the world’s youngest continent and by 2050, young people below 25 years of age will make up half a population of more than 2.4 billion.

Despite all the corruption, war and violence we hear about, much of Africa is booming. Of the top 25 countries with the fastest growth, 10 are African. In two years, Africa will be the world’s second fastest expanding regional economy. Yet this impressive growth is largely jobless — it’s been a boom in extractive commodities that hasn’t dented high youth unemployment levels.

How do we change that? As the Ibrahim Foundation’s report highlights, agriculture is going to be key not only to African growth but to better lives for young people. This is supported by recent Mercy Corps research in Liberia. Young people there see agricultural livelihoods as a route to status and dignity as well as something that could underpin survival and earn them an income.

There is growing acknowledgment that youth employment is more dynamic than rigid definitions offer, and that youth have multiple means of earning an income. For many, this means straddling the formal, informal and agricultural sectors. It is no longer a given that placement in a formal job increases income. We need to be willing to accept more complex metrics of success, which rely less on jobs created and more on improved portfolios of work (or mixed livelihoods). This mixed livelihood approach is not purely a coping strategy but increasingly a proactive employment strategy in the absence of a strong formal jobs sector.

Naturally, there are many challenges in the way of youth realizing successful careers. Lack of education and market-led skills development, bad infrastructure, restrictive land tenure, the lure of ‘quick money’ and heightened risks for girls and young women — all figure strongly. There are ways forward to address all these — none easy but all doable if we have the will and the smarts to invest.

For any of this to really have an impact, young people themselves must be in the driving seat. We need to listen to them — and then act on what they tell us. The same goes for national governments across the continent.

Putting youth voices at the heart of any assistance isn’t just the key to having a big economic impact. Our research across the continent — from Nigeria to Somalia to South Sudan — shows that it’s not necessarily unemployment that leads young people to support, or get involved in, political violence or extremist groups. It’s a burning sense of injustice, a feeling of exclusion and a sense that their voices aren’t heard in the big decisions that shape their lives. Those are the real recruiting sergeants for groups like Boko Haram or Al Shabaab.

So — this isn’t about having some young people whisked on and off a stage at some big international development jamboree. It’s about fundamentally changing the way humanitarian aid and development assistance are delivered, so that the capacities, needs and aspirations of young people really shape it. That’s a tall order — but we are already taking big steps toward it. You can read how Mercy Corps is already doing it here.

We know we can do it because young people themselves believe it can be done. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but the diversity of young people’s needs and potential is itself a strength. Let’s join them in making the next decade one where the main news we hear from Africa is one about growth, opportunity and good governance.