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DENMARK – Meeting the Job Aspirations of African Youth

Ulla Tørnaes

Minister for Development CooperationDenmark


The job aspirations of African youth must be met

– in order to create sustainable development

On the 8th  floor of an industrial building off Ngong Rd in Nairobi, Kenya, I visited a fantastic co-working space for tech entrepreneurs called “Nairobi Garage”. The huge open, bright space and the scent of freshly brewed Kenyan espresso coffee confirmed for me the presence of dynamic, young, successful entrepreneurs – entrepreneurs who genuinely impressed me with their energy, drive and innovative ideas.

These young people have managed to create their own jobs through their own entrepreneurial spirit with the help of investors and their communities. They inspired me,  and demonstrated to me the potential of African youth. Unfortunately, these young people only represent a fraction. Many young people in Africa are facing high under-employment and unemployment – a problem that will only increase under the inevitable pressure of demographics: by 2030, around 380 million young Africans will enter the labor market. However, less than a third of these will be able to find jobs in the formal waged sector. More productive and better employment opportunities need to be created to reap the full potential of this demographic youth bulge. Only then will African youth be able to realise their dreams and build a future in their home countries.

Need for action on youth employment in Africa

The need for action on youth employment in Africa has never been greater. The world is home to the largest youth generation to date and Africa’s youth population is expected to double to by 2050. This means that a third of the world’s young people will be living in Africa by mid-century. Depending on how we approach it, this can be either a critical challenge or a unique opportunity: with creative policies, the youth bulge can be an unprecedented opportunity for accelerated growth, poverty reduction and better living conditions. Young people are valuable agents and can be a huge resource for finding today’s solutions to tomorrow’s problems. If, however, the aspirations of young people are not met – if they are not given opportunities, not meaningfully engaged and if sufficient resources are not brought into play – then youth can become a source of instability and conflict. Further, if the conditions at home do not fulfill their most basic aspirations, many more youth may opt for perilous migrant journeys to places that do give them the opportunity to achieve their aspirations. Many of these involve risking their lives crossing the desert or wide, dangerous seas.

A focus on youth job creation has been one of Denmark’s top priorities for years. Last time I was development minister, in 2008, Denmark launched an Africa Commission,  which had the key objective of realising the potential of Africa’s youth. The Commission focused on ways to create employment for young people through private sector-led growth and improving the competitiveness of African economies. The Commission discussed how to create decent jobs, promote entrepreneurship, and expand the provision of opportunities for young African women and men through education, skills development and access to finance.

Unleash the potential of young people

Still today, it is a key priority for me to unleash the potential of young people and make the unprecedented opportunity implicit in the demographic dividend a reality. This is why Denmark, and my agency, have a strong focus on creating jobs for youth. One example is our support for the African Development Bank’s Jobs for Youth initiative which aims to create 25 million jobs for youth by 2030. In 2018, Denmark supported the initiative with a little over USD $4,100,000. The Jobs for Youth Initiative seeks to increase inclusive employment and entrepreneurship. Theinitiative focuses especially on young women entrepreneurs who face particular constraints and barriers to accessing finance and creating income-generating opportunities.

What needs to be done? FOUR things:

Although job creation initiatives like the ADB’s Jobs for Youth programme are needed, four other related aspects are equally important:

ONE:  it is essential to focus on promoting inclusive, sustainable growth ensuring that there is a business and regulatory environment that facilitates access to key resources such as credit, infrastructure and markets. An example of how Denmark supports the access to financial credit is through the African Guarantee Fund.  This Fund is a non-bank financial institution that provides partial loan guarantees to banks and other financial institutions to facilitate their lending to African SMEs (Small and Medium- sized Enterprises.)  It came into operation in 2012 and has already facilitated loan disbursements to almost 8,000 SMEs worth USD $800 million. Of these, about 60% are owned or led by young people. This makes the African Guarantee Fund a substantial and important partner not only in enabling SMEs to play their expected role in fostering African economic development but also in ensuring funding and support for young entrepreneurs. The African Guarantee Fund has launched an ambitious capital mobilization process to address increasing market demand and in 2018, Denmark intends to provide additional share capital.

TWO: it is crucial to offer young people opportunities outside the informal economy. Currently, 80% of young people in Africa are working in the informal economy without regular, or regulated, payments. These precarious employment conditions result in many young people joining the ranks of the working poor: their limited income is not enough to give them a decent standard of living. The informal sector not only diminishes the productive potential of young people, it also hampers the ability of governments to strengthen the productive environment of their countries in a sustainable way.  It is a permanent constraint on their tax revenue and fiscal base. To enable a shift from jobs in the informal to jobs in the formal economy, we need a renewed focus on education, training and skills. We need to learn from previous endeavours and think creatively. Including youth in fostering the enabling environment for new, disruptive approaches is one of the paths we must take if we are to turn this challenge into an opportunity.  We must ensure that young people have the right skills to flourish in existing, and emerging, job markets. Education in information and communication technology (ICT) is needed as 90% of future jobs will require ICT skills. To meet this need, Denmark supports the African Girls Can Code, a new initiative, in collaboration with UN Women and the International Telecommunications Union, that seeks to educate girls aged 17-20 in ICT and coding.  As these are skills essential in future labour markets, it is crucial to bridge the gender gap in these sectors and ensure that more girls have the necessary tools and knowledge to succeed. Denmark supports the initiative with approximately USD $1,650,000.

A paradigm shift towards development byand withnot merely for youth, is central to Denmark’s strategy for Development Cooperation

THREE: it is important to engage young people meaningfully in the discussions on how to address the youth unemployment and underemployment challenge. Listening to young people’s aspirations and hearing how they imagine the future for themselves and their peers, is vital if we are to increase the effectiveness of the policies and programmes we develop to target youth employment. Youth are experts in their own aspirations. Fostering an intergenerational dialogue can help unleash these aspirations, and translate them into viable and realizable achievements.

FOUR: Last but not least, the importance of gender equality and sexual and reproductive health and human rights cannot be stressed enough. Girls and young women have to be able to decide freely over their own body and their own life.If girls and young women are to get to where they want, and deserve, to be in the labour market when they wish, they must have access to sexual and reproductive health services. Sexual and reproductive health and rights are not only a human rights imperative:  they are a smart economic policy for society at large. Global GDP would increase by 25% if women were given the same opportunities in the sphere of work as men. Everyone stands to gain.

We have come far and there have been many advances. But much still needs to be done. At the World Economic Forum this year, a Gender Gap report told us that if we continue to do “business as usual” in relation to gender, we will wait 217 years to reach gender equality. That is simply too long. We must accelerate the change now.

And we must work together, all of us – governments, multilateral organizations, the private sector and civil society – to create jobs for youth. I know young people are resourceful, innovative and crucial agents of change. This is why a paradigm shift towards development by and with youth, not merely for youth, is central to Denmark’s strategy for Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Assistance.

We owe it to young people to create an enabling environment in which they can all realize their potential. Only then will my vision be realised that that every young African woman and man has the opportunity to become an entrepreneur like the ones I met in Nairobi.

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