The African Economic Outlook, a cooperation of various international organizations, has a section on Promoting Youth Development. Why do they have this section? Well, “With almost 200 million people aged between 15 and 24, Africa has the youngest population in the world. And it keeps growing rapidly.” I posted a graph a while back that showed how the continent would soon have an enormous proportion of young people compared to non-working age people.
This is very important. As the African Economic Outlook points out, there is a lot of potential there. Immense economic growth and wealth creation if there are jobs for this younger demographic, but also potential for social unrest and instability (it cites widespread youth unemployment as being a major factor in precipitating the Arab spring, an opinion which is widely shared).
Right now, the situation isn’t all that great.
Of Africa’s unemployed, 60% are young people and youth unemployment rates are double those of adult unemployment in most African countries. The problem is particularly acute in middle-income countries (MICs). In 2009 in North Africa youth unemployment was 23.4%, and the ratio of youth-to-adult unemployment rates was estimated at 3.8. In South Africa, youth unemployment was 48% and the ratio of youth-to-adult unemployment rates was estimated at 2.5.
But, they write, things are looking up because education is increasing. That’s where the above graph comes in. It’s clear to see: There will be many more educated young Africans twenty years from now. Two problems with that graph though:
1. We know more are getting a secondary education, but how good is it? The reason we like to see higher levels of education is because skilled workers can do more productive work, and economies can do higher value-added work that in turn benefits just about everyone. We use “primary school” and “secondary school” as shorthand for levels of skills, but we can’t know that the certificate really represents skills. In namibia, about half of Grade 10s regularly fail. South Africa doesn’t do much better. People whose qualifications are only theoretical can’t really do higher-skilled labor.
2. Look at that graph. Much of the projected growth is happening in the area of secondary education. This is very important, clearly there is catching up to do on that level. But almost no growth in tertiary education is something no country on the continent can afford. African countries are bleeding engineers, doctors, nurses and lawyers. While the brain drain has slowed to some degrees and has even reversed for some, the fact of the matter remains that even now, there is an acute shortage of highly skilled professionals. South Africa alone could provide jobs for around 800 000 skilled professionals, but they aren’t being produced, or leave.
The report points out rightly that more educated people by itself won’t help matters much. They need to have jobs, otherwise they’ll become very discontented. As the proportion of young Africans rises, educated and not, there needs to be a corresponding increase in capital to enable growth in economies that can accommodate this large demographic group.