• Thursday, May 23, 2024
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BusinessDay

Tackling the youth unemployment challenge

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The right to work is a fundamental human right. Karl Marx was wrong about several things. But he was dead right about labour as a crucial factor in human self-realisation. There is indeed an inherent dignity in all human labour. It is through work that human beings best express themselves, generating value and earning the wherewithal to raise a family and live a decent life. Deprived of a means of livelihood, people get demoralised and eventually begin to wilt. The brain literally starts to decay. Some give up hope on life altogether. Others get angry enough to take it out on the rest of society.

A recent survey by the ILO reveals that over 290 million young people within the cohort of 15-24 years of age are without jobs. An estimated 26 million among the advanced industrial countries are said to be NEETS (not in employment, education or training). The figures are particularly grim for the nations of southern Europe, in particular Spain, Portugal and Greece, where youth unemployment, exacerbated by the Eurozone financial crisis, now exceeds the 20 percent mark.

Youth unemployment in Africa is becoming a nightmare for our governments and political authorities. Africa is the youngest continent in the world. An estimated 70 percent of our people are below the age of 30 years. Young people in Africa account for 37 percent of the labour force but make up over 60 percent of the unemployed. From Dakar to Niamey, Lusaka, Harare, Kinshasa and Lagos, the majority of Africa’s young are without jobs and without hope. The situation is worsened in our continent by the fact that a sizeable proportion of our young people – an estimated 25 percent – are illiterates. Of those that are considered ‘educated’, majority do not have the cutting-edge skills needed to flourish in our twenty-first century digital economy.

According to the National Bureau of Statistics, Nigeria’s employment figures have worsened from 19.7 percent in 2009 to 23 percent in 2012. Today, over 16 million Nigerians, most of them young people, are without jobs. The paradox is that ours is a resource-rich country with a growth rate that has hovered around the 7 percent mark for nearly a decade. When disaggregated by region, Lagos and the Western axis register the lowest unemployment figures, averaging less than 10 percent. The worst affected regions are the North East and the North West, where extremes of 39 percent unemployment have been recorded.

Much of the problem has to do with the exponential growth in population without the accompanying expansion of job opportunities; the massive influx of school leavers moving from the rural countryside to the sprawling urban agglomerations; poor physical infrastructures and supply-side constraints that inhibit growth and job-creation; the inadequacies of the educational curriculum; mismatch between openings and available skills; and, of course, poor manpower planning, absence of vocational training and lack of institutional support for job placements.

A recent phenomenon is also the fact that youth unemployment is increasingly becoming more of an urban rather than a rural problem, with all that this means in terms of urban social maladies such as crime, prostitution and other forms of deviant social behaviour.

Much of the unemployment data are familiar to the relevant stakeholders. There is no shortage of well-reasoned analysis. What is lacking is concrete, effective policy action.

More than a year ago, President Goodluck Jonathan held a stakeholder consultation on youth unemployment in the presidency. During the course of last year the Youth Enterprise With New Innovation in Nigeria (YOUWIN) initiative was launched in collaboration with the World Bank and the Federal Ministry of Finance. This is in addition to existing programmes run by the National Directorate for Employment (NDE) and the National Poverty Eradication Programme (NAPEP). It is my humble opinion that these agencies are yet to justify their existence and to demonstrate that they are achieving results that are commensurate with the volume of investments in them.

We need a more holistic approach anchored on accelerated growth, structural diversification of the economy, reform of the education curriculum, emphasis on engineering and the technical fields, vocational and skills training and mainstreaming youth and development into the heart of our national development strategies.

Consider the case of a young man from the backwoods of Adamawa. Let’s call him Shehu Umar. He is a 2007 History graduate of the University of Maiduguri; earning what British undergraduates would term a ‘Desmond’ (2:2). It took him six years to graduate instead of four because of the strikes by university teachers. His poor parents invested everything they had to see him through college in the hope that he will be able to help his five siblings when he settles down to a job. After national service and more than 200 applications, he is yet to secure a job. He has moved to Abuja and is squatting with a distant cousin in the suburbs. He recalls a classmate with a third class who has taken up a well-paying post with a prestigious federal agency on the recommendation of an uncle who happened to be a senator. In the banks, in the public service and in private firms, who you know is more important than what you know. Shehu Umar is getting so frustrated that he is thinking of joining the underground.

The young people of this country are tired of corrupt politicians making empty promises that everybody knows they never intend to make good. They want jobs and they want them now. The Arab Spring was triggered off in Tunisia in 2011 by an unlikely event involving an unemployed youth, Mohammed Bouazizi. It soon spread to Egypt, Libya and Syria. Anything can trigger a similar conflagration in Nigeria, where the culture of impunity remains the defining character of the power elites; where young people are feeling more dispossessed than was the case in Muammar Kaddafi’s Libya and the Tunisia of Zine el-Abidin Ben Ali. It’s a time bomb.

OBADIAH MAILAFIA

Chef de Cabinet, African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States.