Africa's trump card is its young people, but only smart governments will reap the dividend

The window is now open for many economies in Africa to accelerate economic growth as large cohorts of young people enter working age

THE demographic dividend has become a rallying call around the world. It is increasingly recognised by national governments and the international community as a key pathway for countries to realise rapid economic growth and long-term development.

US President Barack Obama, in his recent address to the African Union, underscored how growing youthful populations, with the right skills, can help countries, regions and continents grow faster—“It’s a demographic edge and advantage”. 

As sub-Saharan African countries outline their vision towards an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa by 2063, many leaders are rightly focused on empowering a healthy, educated and skilled population so they reap the greatest economic and social gains of the dividend. 

Estimates show there is a potential to add up to $500 billion per year to the regional economy for as many as 30 years – the equivalent of one-third of Africa’s current GDP.

Executive Chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt reinforces this message when he says that “the demographic dividend in Africa of young people is their greatest hope.”

This week, world leaders have convened at the United Nations to formally adopt a new global agenda to end poverty, promote prosperity and  well-being while protecting the environment by 2030—and for the first time ever in UN history, it includes a political declaration that specifically calls on world leaders to invest in the full realisation of the rights and capabilities of children and young people so countries can reap the dividend.

As we move towards a new universal, transformative and integrated agenda, it is important that the world community recognises the role that young people can play in solving major challenges of development.

Indeed, the window is now open for many young economies of Africa and Asia to accelerate economic growth as large cohorts of young people enter working age, and represent a large proportion of working age people, with lower fertility and fewer dependents.

Yet this hope and optimism must be tempered by the sober reality that young people need tangible investments to transform the economy, and the world is failing far too many young people, especially – but not only – in developing countries.

A look at key population data across sectors gives a glimpse of just how far off we are in meeting the rights and needs of young people.

Starting with health, for otherwise healthy young people the greatest need is often for sexual and reproductive health care, and the preventive services needed to avoid an unwanted pregnancy, an STD such as HIV, or delivering a pregnancy without medical care. 

Even healthy early childbearing removes young women from school, and limits their lifetime earnings. In high fertility countries, lack of access to family planning and health services is pushing off – by decades – the decline in fertility that enables a demographic dividend. And without educated women in the labour force, prospects for accelerating economic growth will not be fulfilled.

Consider education outcomes—while indeed there have been significant gains in primary school enrolment globally, inequalities in educational achievements between developed countries persists, leading to important debates about the relative merits of online courses, investments-per-student, and classroom culture.  Yet fewer than one-third of girls are even enrolled in secondary school in West and Central Africa. 

And as we talk about the returns young workers can bring to the economy, young workers have seen the weakest restoration of jobs since the economic downturn of 2008. And in many countries looking towards a demographic dividend, informal and vulnerable employment remains as high as 70%, and especially high for young people. 

Interviews with young migrants into Europe in the past month have detailed the desperate economic conditions for many youth in areas of conflict and underdevelopment, and the risks young people are prepared to undertake for better chances.

To reap the social and economic benefit of the dividend, we need to confront the challenges before us and national governments need to ensure timely public policies and investments are in place—particularly ones that empower, educate and employ the rapidly growing and young working-age populations.

- Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin  is the Under Secretary General of the United Nations; Chair of the Global Agenda Council on Demographic Dividend, World Economic Forum.

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