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Youth Employment – Key to Conflict Prevention, Poverty Reduction

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  • Africa’s 200 million people between the ages of 15 and 24 make up 60 percent of the region’s unemployed
  • Investing in agriculture and in non-farm activities can help create short-term employment opportunities for youth
  • An integrated approach is needed to create jobs for youth in urban and rural areas

WASHINGTON, December 4, 2008 - Governments seek and often win power on campaign promises to create jobs and expand employment programs, especially those benefiting youth. Yet, the promise of jobs is more easily made than honored. Dire consequences have followed this failure of promises with youth taking up employment in the industries of crime and armed conflict.

Singularly in countries emerging from conflicts, helping young people to realize their full potential by gaining access to employment should form a key component of any peace-building process. In countries that have been spared violent conflict, youth employment is a precondition for poverty eradication, sustainable development, and lasting peace.

Such is the argument laid out in an essay titled “Youth and Employment in Africa: The Potential, The Problem, The Promise”.

Over 200 millions Africans are now officially designated as youth (i.e. aged 15 to 24 years). Youth make up 40 percent of Africa’s working age population, but 60 percent of total unemployed. The share of unemployed youth among the total unemployed can be as high as 83% in Uganda, 68 percent in Zimbabwe, and 56 percent in Burkina Faso. In all, 72 percent of African youth live on less than $2 a day.

The essay draws from some of the data in the 2008-2009 edition of Africa Development Indicators (ADI 2008-2009) -- undoubtedly, the World Bank’s best book of numbers on Africa -- released today in Johannesburg (South Africa). ADI 2008-2009, its accompanying Little Data Book and CD-ROM, as well as ADI Online, cover more than 1,400 indicators on economy, human development, private sector development, governance, environment, and aid to Africa, with a series of indicators dating back to 1965.

The essay in this year’s ADI – the first to combine two years in one volume – attempts a portrait of the typical African youth, as given by medians.

She… (yes, it is a she) is 18.5 years old. She lives in a rural area. She has dropped out of school. She is single, but is about to be married or be given in marriage to a man approximately twice her age. She will be the mother of six or seven kids in another 20 years.

You get the picture… Jobless mother marries poor rural dweller. They have many children. They live happily… in poverty forever after.

The Problem…

School drop out rates and early motherhood issues are serious problems for youth across Africa, with substantial impact on skills development, the labor market and career development. They compromise the likelihood of young mothers investing in education and finding good jobs… they make a bad situation worse.

Young women in rural areas, even more than young men, already have less capital in the form of skills, knowledge and experience, savings and credit. They also have more difficulty accessing business networks and sources of information.

Joblessness is a major problem in rural areas, but so, too, in urban areas. The latter have attracted the rural poor like bees to a hive but continue to be very slow to create the job opportunities that most migrants from rural areas come in search of in the city. Result? In absolute numbers, youth unemployment is more prevalent in urban areas than in rural areas.

Education, once seen as the surest, undisputed gateway to employment, no longer looks so certain. Unemployment, the data shows, is higher among those with higher education attainment and those in wealthy households. And for the lucky few who find work, they are more likely to work longer hours under intermittent and insecure work arrangements.

Unskilled youth are more vulnerable to economic shocks, less likely to find work, more likely to get stuck in low quality jobs and more vulnerable to early marriage and parenthood. They are also more likely than adults to be in the informal sector. In many countries, interventions so far have focused on programs that are narrow in scope, limited in time and too narrowly focused on urban areas.

For most African countries, the many challenges of youth employment are further amplified by conflicts and discrimination based on sex, ethnicity, race, religion culture, health, or family status. The young African woman is more likely to be underemployed, and more likely to be out of the labor force than a young African man. Paradoxically, young women also work more hours than males, especially on household chores.

Unattended, the problem can only get worse. Africa’s population is growing fast and is experiencing a slow demographic transition not expected to stabilize before 2050. This transition will continue to have serious fiscal, political, and social implications, ranging from increased education and health costs, to risks of social unrest.

The Potential…

Notwithstanding the risks, Africa’s demographic transition makes youth the most abundant asset that the continent can claim, thus making what, at first view could be considered a disadvantage, a window of opportunity. Indeed, argues the essay, East Asia was able to reap the demographic dividend from a large work force with fewer dependents by putting the right policies and institutions in place. Part of the Asian Miracle is, in fact, often attributed to that demographic dividend.

Not surprisingly, agriculture is listed as one of the most promising sectors for youth employment. Additional investments are needed in irrigation, water resource management, and research and extension, in increased use of improved seeds, fertilizers and better agricultural practices that enable young African farmers to go beyond subsistence farming.

The essay warns, however, that the demand for youth labor will not increase without a dynamic rural economy in both the agriculture and non-farm sectors.

Making well balanced choices for employment-intensive investments in not only agriculture but other rural non-farm activities can create immediate, short-term employment opportunities which can be more easily tapped by young people. Agriculture may still be the largest source of rural income in Africa – it accounts for 65 percent of total youth employment – but the shares of incomes from non-farm, rural activities in total income are already relatively high and increasing.

In most countries, the fastest-growing form of employment is the non-agricultural household enterprise, the study finds. This sector already accounts for 24 percent of the labor force in Uganda, and 30 percent in Senegal and although this employment is mostly urban, there is an important rural non-farm sector as well.

The essay sounds authoritative in its prescription that any development agenda must recognize that in the short-term only rural activities, farm or non-farm, can effectively create occupation for most new job seekers.

The Promise…

How efficiently young people find jobs is dependent on how well the labor market is prepared to receive them, and how well youth are prepared for the labor market. The essay argues that the most needed and well-rounded approaches should include policies to expand job and education alternatives – including through second–chance education programs in the rural areas – where around 70 percent of youth live. It also makes the case for an expansion of public training opportunities to provide better access to disadvantaged urban and rural youth, the less educated, and girls.

To expand rural job opportunities, the essay makes five key recommendations. (i) Make agriculture an attractive enough option for youth to engage in, including moving away from subsistence agriculture; (ii) introduce commercialization and productive improvements, infrastructure support and rural diversification; (iii) increase investments in irrigation, water resources management, and research and extension; (iv) increase rural public services, including through investing more in human capacity there; and, (v) explore the immense potential of the non-farm sector for job and wealth creation.

The creative genius of youngsters and their entrepreneurship are perhaps some of the least-tapped resources of African youth. Given proper training, access to credit and the most business-friendly environment, youth entrepreneurship across Africa can unleash the economic potential of young people and provide living alternatives for many job creators waiting to be discovered.

Increasingly, the political priority attached to youth employment has brought African policy-makers to recognize that achieving productive employment and work for young people entails long-term action covering a range of economic and social policies focusing on labor demand and supply, and addressing both quantitative and qualitative dimensions of youth employment.

By and large, the essay recommends, an integrated, coherent approach is needed in which policies to create jobs for youth in urban areas are closely connected with policies for youth in rural areas, as well as targeted interventions to help young people overcome the specific barriers they face in entering and remaining in the labor market.




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