ADDIS ABABA – Africa has the youngest population in the world, and it’s growing fast. By 2055, the continent’s youth population (aged 15-24), is expected to be more than double the 2015 total of 226 million. Yet the continent remains stubbornly inhospitable – politically, economically, and socially – to young people. The success of African governments’ efforts to address this will be the single most important factor determining whether the continent prospers or suffers in the coming decades.
A business-as-usual approach would risk exposing Africa not only to economic underperformance and a brain drain, but also to criminality, political and social unrest, and even armed conflict. But Africa can thrive if its governments act now to tap the energy and dynamism of the burgeoning youth population. What is needed is a comprehensive policy agenda, comprising demographically informed measures that address political, cultural, and economic exclusion in a synchronized manner.
This will be no small feat, not least because of the massive age gap between Africa’s young majority and their leaders: the average age of an African president is 62, while the median age of Africa’s population is 19.5. That is the world’s largest age gap between governors and the governed, and it raises concerns about how well decision-makers understand the needs and aspirations of young people.
It does not help that a tradition of gerontocracy prevails in many countries, meaning that young people’s political participation and influence is restricted on cultural grounds. To help overcome this barrier, governments should treat generational inequality with the same sense of urgency as other forms of inequality, accelerating efforts to introduce youth quotas for political parties, parliaments, and other decision-making institutions.
Much work also remains to be done on the economic front. According to the African Development Bank, 12 million young people entered Africa’s labor force in 2015, but only 3.1 million jobs were created. That means that millions of young people were left without a stake in the economy.
In the short and medium term, it will be virtually impossible to create enough jobs to meet the needs of the unemployed and vulnerably employed. Africa does not have a large labor-intensive manufacturing sector to absorb its mushrooming young population. But there are programs that can help. For example, YouthConnekt Africa, launched by the United Nations Development Programme and the government of Rwanda, encourages youth-friendly policies, such as access to finance and skills development, that match the needs of the market in particular countries.
Still, given the dearth of opportunities at home, many young Africans view migration as a chance for social mobility. Yet, as the CEO of a major company based in Sub-Saharan Africa recently lamented to me, acquiring work visas for Africans is extremely difficult.
In fact, it can be easier to get a work visa for a British citizen than for, say, a Ghanaian with the same skills. Africa’s vision for economic integration, as set out in the African Union’s Agenda 2063, cannot be realized without labor migration that creates African careers paths for young people.
It is telling that so many Africans are willing to risk drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, living in appalling detention centers in North Africa, or sleeping in public parks in European cities, rather than remaining in Africa. Yet, contrary to popular belief, young people are not migrating from Africa exclusively for economic reasons. Rather, they are motivated by the promise of opportunities for genuine self-improvement and the freedom to decide who to be and how to live. That is certainly what led me to leave Africa and head to Europe at a young age.
In fact, the desire for self-improvement through migration is a key element of the human story – one that no desert, sea, or artificial barrier has been able to quell. Political and cultural exclusion intensifies it. Given this, any strategy that does not address the broader environment of marginalization is a bridge to nowhere.
So far, Africa seems to be sleepwalking into a future of lost opportunity and, potentially, serious instability. And Africa’s international partners have remained preoccupied with containing migration from the continent, rather than addressing its underlying causes.
But there may be reason for hope. The fifth European Union-Africa Summit, to be held later this year, will focus squarely on the continent’s young people. Likewise, the African Union’s theme for 2017 is “Harnessing the Demographic Dividend Through Investments in Youth.”
One hopes that the growing recognition of the need to create opportunities for young people leads to effective, solidarity-based initiatives that address the barriers to youth empowerment on the continent, instead of erecting barriers to prevent young people from leaving. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, Africa confronts the fierce urgency of now. There is such a thing as being too late. Mohamed Yahya is the Africa Regional Programme Coordinator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
By Mohamed Yahya