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The Optimist

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The demographic dividend and youth in sub-Saharan Africa

2018 marks the final year of the African Youth Decade. If the vision and mission of the African Union are to be realized, Africa needs deliberate efforts to accelerate social development that give high priority to youth empowerment and development. That’s why I am pleased to see that Bill and Melinda Gates decided this year’s Goalkeepers central theme focus on the role of young people in making change possible. We need the world to prioritize investments in health and education for our youth, while keeping a sharp focus on gender equality.

Africa’s population is young and growing. The 225 million young people aged 15-24 living on the continent today is expected to increase by 42 percent by 2030. African countries have the potential for accelerated economic growth when the proportion of the population that is of working age exceeds the proportion of the population that doesn’t work (e.g., children and the elderly), a phenomenon called “the demographic dividend.”

African governments and the African Union have put in place national policies and action plans to harness young people’s potential for economic growth. The African Youth Charter, ratified by 29 member states and signed by 40, is a comprehensive framework that addresses the rights and obligations of young people. It serves as a strategic framework for the promotion of youth at national, regional, and continental levels. However, budgetary allocations are insufficient to support and scale up effective and evidence-informed youth programs. Young people are full of promise and are a driving force for innovation and the development of industry and technology in Africa. Although Africa’s youth are getting better educated, the level and quality of education need to be improved. Africa’s educational system needs to catch up with those of other regions in terms of technology and current labor market needs.

Many African countries have made tremendous strides towards achieving universal primary education, but challenges remain. The net enrolment rate in sub-Saharan Africa was 77 percent in 2016; however, the quality of education is poor. Many children are unable to read for their grade level and there are persistent rural-urban and gender inequalities in education. There is also a need to invest in quality tertiary education as it plays a central role in economic and political development and is vital to competitiveness in an increasingly globalizing information world. The highest returns to higher education in the world occur in sub-Saharan Africa—about 21 percent—yet sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest tertiary gross enrolment ratio in the world (about 6%). A one-year increase in average tertiary education levels in sub-Saharan Africa is projected to eventually yield up to a 12 percent increase in GDP. It is critically important for current educational systems to adapt quickly to the range of skills needed for business, technology, and other professions as the economy grows and diversifies.

In addition to education, to achieve their full potential for economic growth, African countries must invest in stronger health systems. The fight against poverty requires countries to maintain a healthy workforce and reduce the burden of disease and violence. Sub-Saharan Africa has achieved tremendous health gains in the past 20 years. The maternal mortality ratio dropped by 41% from 1990-2010 but the region accounted for two-thirds of global maternal deaths in 2015. Sub-Saharan Africa has seen more than a 30-percent reduction in infant mortality over the past 20 years, but it has a large share of the global burden of under-five mortality. While the chances for newborn survival have increased remarkably, sub-Saharan Africa accounted for 42% of global neonatal deaths in 2016. While programs that address specific health issues are critical, there is a need to strengthen health systems so that facilities offer the right combination of services, providers are appropriately trained, supplies are available, and health workers are retained.

If Africa is to optimize the potential capital gains from its demographic dividend then it must work to improve the education, subsequent work opportunities, and earning prospects of young girls. To this list, I would also add breaking down the barriers to women’s, especially young women’s, access to and use of family planning.

Historically, the demographic transition has occurred earlier and faster in places that exhibit greater gender equality. To benefit from a demographic dividend, government policies should place greater emphasis on gender equality. Fertility decline will not be accelerated if African families and African governments do not invest in girls’ education, especially beyond lower secondary school. Better-educated women can obtain higher-paying jobs and use their earnings to improve their children’s education and health. Providing girls with just one extra year of education beyond the average can boost their eventual wages by 10 to 20 percent.

Access to family planning and a life free from child marriage and forced marriage will further allow women to make a choice between pursuing their educational and professional goals, and having many children, delaying having them, or forgoing having them. While progress has been made in reducing unmet need for contraception among young married women, levels remain substantial in West and Central Africa (29.3%) and are even higher among unmarried women (41.7%). Almost a quarter of girls in the region drop out of school because of unintended pregnancies.

The youth bulge is not a guarantee for economic growth. Youth employment and underemployment in Africa must be addressed now. Youth is a period of physical, cognitive, emotional and social development that should involve a transition to higher education and training and gainful employment. Unfortunately, many young people in sub-Saharan Africa are unemployed and lack meaningful work that benefits them, their families, and society. Wage disparities between urban and rural areas, which expands the pool of young urban job seekers, and between high-income and low-income countries are triggering huge migration flows of Africa’s youth within and between countries. Increasing long-term joblessness among youth will undermine peace, security, and economic progress throughout the African continent.

Enhancing the quality of jobs for youth is a national and regional imperative. Young entrepreneurship programs and business start-up schemes that provide technical skills for new businesses are of paramount importance. Equally important is the provision of incentives to firms for the hiring of young people. Such efforts have yielded some positive results as in Tanzania, where 1.27 million jobs were created over the last three years through these programs. Manufacturing jobs that can absorb low-skilled labor, a more dynamic private agribusiness sector that promotes profitable linkages between producers and markets, and improvements in rural standards of living are critical. So is the integration of rural youth into agriculture and other economic activities to increase labor productivity (e.g., innovative, eco-friendly planting practices, and post-harvest methods). The window of opportunity presented by the demographic dividend is time-sensitive and will close over the next 10 to 20 years.

Strong investments in youth employment, quality education, family planning, gender equality and good governance can help create the conditions needed to reap the economic benefits of a demographic dividend in sub-Saharan Africa.

About the Author

Anastasia J. Gage
Dr. Anastasia J. Gage is a professor at Tulane University in the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. Her current research focuses on adolescent health, gender-based violence, and maternal and reproductive health in sub-Saharan Africa and Haiti.

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