The Power of Youth Engagement

‘’Convinced that Africa’s greatest resource is its youthful population and that through their active and full participation, Africans can surmount the difficulties that lie ahead,’’ the Preamble of the African Youth Charter adopted by the African Union in July 2006 reads in part.

This aspirational statement is emphatic that the youth are an asset that should be tapped and made the focus of the continent’s development journey, going forward.

2017 was dedicated as the ‘Year of the Youth’ under the theme ‘Harnessing the Demographic Dividend through investment in the Youth’, reinforcing member states’ commitment to Aspiration 6 of the African Union Agenda 2063: ‘’An Africa where development is people-driven, unleashing the potential of its women and youth,’’ with emphasis that young people are engaged and empowered.

Africa stands out as the youngest continent with 60 percent of its 1.4 billion population falling under the age of 25 years. This represents a population that is primed to provide a steady workforce and innovations that can spur increased GDP for the continent’s 54 countries.

However, most young people are facing serious social and economic challenges and are excluded from policy decisions that affect them in the present and have implications for their future.

According to the African Development Bank (AfDB), a third of the African youth are unemployed and disillusioned, a third are vulnerably unemployed and only one in six are in wage employment. Governments, therefore, must play a pivotal role in coordinating interventions and creating enabling policies and incentives to encourage all actors to develop a more systematic and sustainable, enabling environment for youth development in Africa.

For Africa to reap benefits from the agility and dynamism of its youth, it is imperative that they are supported in entrepreneurial endeavours by various stakeholders collaborating effectively and efficiently.

The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) says by 2050, the teeming numbers of young Africans are forecast to form over a quarter of the world’s labour force. Unfortunately, the youth who should give momentum to the continent’s transformation are largely alienated and marginalised.

Although past decades have seen advances in terms of policy commitments to youth development, both nationally and regionally, such gains have not always been matched by action on the ground.

‘’Far too many young people are still jobless and struggle to access public resources and quality social services. They are barely involved in policy formulation and programme design as their participation in political and decision-making is limited and often ad hoc,’’ the UN observes.   

It is heartening to note that the majority of African countries have developed or are drafting youth policies in recognition of the relevance of young people to the future of the continent. These policies must be enshrined into national development plans and specific programmes for young people, if they are to be meaningful and tenable. This should include a conscious and consistent effort to integrate youth issues in these plans and their corresponding budgets, which must involve young people.

‘’The yardstick for success of African countries will be adequately measured by future generations if policies are weighted against action to foster transformative and inclusive development. For youth policies to be effective and sustainable, there is need for monitoring and evaluation,’’ UNECA adds.

There is an urgent need to ensure greater opportunities for youth to secure decent work and income, to contribute to a virtuous cycle of poverty reduction, sustainable development and social inclusion.

Strategies to promote youth employment should articulate the mix and interaction of macroeconomic policies, labour and employment policies and other interventions, specifically targeting young people.

As the MasterCard Foundation highlights, generating viable employment for young people remains a challenge with many still not having access to quality and reliable economic opportunities, either through formal employment or self-employment.

‘’The challenges of youth underemployment and low productivity self-employment are multi-faceted. Solutions require a holistic approach – at the level of individual young people, at the level of collaborating organisations and at the level of government leadership, so as to create enabling environments and remove obstacles to youth employment, entrepreneurship and productivity,’’ the MasterCard Foundation elaborated.

In Zambia, the government rode on the pedestal of youth engagement which propelled them into power at the last poll. The ruling United Party for National Development (UPND) intends to use the demographic dividend of the youth bulge to catapult the country forward, putting a number of young people in some leading positions both in government and on the corporate horizon.

The Zambian government, through the Ministry of Youth, Sport and Child Development, has launched the Youth Empowerment Scheme targeting 2,000 youths across the country. It is a drop in the ocean but it is a good starting point.

The needs, interests, challenges and potential of Africa’s youth ought to be put in their proper perspective if success is to be minted on this front. Now is the time for all organisations concerned with youth empowerment – in business, government, philanthropy, development, civil society and education – to step forward and do more. Undoubtedly, the youth hold the key to Africa’s development in the 21st Century.

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