Will the African economy ever flourish?

Africa's youth need opportunities in Africa

Africa has the youngest population in the world. And from 226 million in 2015, it is expected to more than double by 2055. But for young people the continent remains a chronically unpleasant place - politically, economically and socially. That is the greatest challenge for African governments.

If you continue as before, the likely consequences would be an economic crisis, brain drain, crime, unrest and armed conflict. However, Africa may very well flourish if its governments act now to harness the energy and dynamism of the young population.

This will be no small task, not least because of the massive age difference between the young majority of the population in Africa and the rulers: the average age of African presidents is 62 years, the median age of the population is 19.5 years. It is questionable how well these decision-makers know about the needs and expectations of their youth. In addition, a tradition of gerontocracy prevails in many countries, which politically excludes young people for cultural reasons and limits their political participation. Youth quotas in political parties, parliaments and other institutions could help to overcome this obstacle.

There is still a lot to do in the economy. According to the African Development Bank, 12 million people of working age were added in 2015, but only 3.1 million jobs were created. Millions of young people are left without economic prospects.

In the short and medium term, it will be virtually impossible to create enough jobs to meet the needs of the unemployed and precariously employed. Africa does not have a large manufacturing sector in which many young workers can find jobs. But there are programs that can help - for example the Youth Connect Africa initiative launched by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the Rwandan government, which promotes youth-friendly policies, such as access to finance and the acquisition of skills, that are actually needed in the labor market of the respective countries.

No work visas for Africans

Given the poor prospects at home, many young Africans see migration as their opportunity for social mobility. However, the head of a large corporation based in Africa recently complained about the difficulties in obtaining work visas for Africans. It is often easier to get a visa for a UK citizen than for an equally qualified Ghanaian citizen. The vision of economic integration outlined in the African Union's Agenda 2063 cannot be implemented without intra-African labor migration, which enables young people to pursue careers on the continent.

It is telling that so many Africans are more likely to risk drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, living in appalling detention camps in North Africa, or sleeping in public parks in European cities than staying in Africa. But contrary to what is often claimed, young Africans do not only emigrate for economic reasons. Rather, they are motivated by the prospect of freedom to decide who they want to be and how they want to live. These are certainly the reasons that prompted me to leave Africa for Europe at a young age.

In fact, the desire to improve one's own situation through migration is a central endeavor in human history - and no desert, sea or artificial barrier has been able to stop it. Political and cultural exclusion intensify this desire. For this reason, any strategy that does not address this wider environment of marginalization is a bridge to nowhere.

Hope through the EU-Africa summit

So far, Africa seems to be stumbling into a future of lost opportunity and potentially serious instability. And European states remain preoccupied with curbing migration from the continent rather than addressing the underlying causes.

But there might be cause for hope. The fifth EU-Africa summit, which will take place at the end of this year, will focus directly on young people in Africa. Likewise, the motto of the African Union for 2017 is: "Use the demographic dividend by investing in the youth".

Hopefully this will lead to effective initiatives to improve the future prospects of young people on the continent rather than erecting barriers to keep them from leaving their homes. To paraphrase Martin Luther King: Africa faces the relentless urgency of the now. You can also be late. (Mohamed Yahya, August 8, 2017)

Mohamed Yahya is coordinator of the Regional Program for Africa of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

©: Project Syndicate. Translation from English: Helga Klinger-Groier.