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Youth Unemployment Challenges & Opportunities in Economic Development


NAIROBI, Dec 4 – I am delighted to be with you here today in the setting of the famous University of Nairobi.  This is the third and last day of my present visit to Kenya, and I was very keen not to leave the country without visiting the University and speaking on one of the most important issues facing Africa today: the situation of the region’s youth and particularly the issue of employment. 
A few months ago, when the Spring Meetings of the World Bank took place in Washington, I organized a high-level round-table meeting for leaders from all over the world to come together to share views on the nature of the challenges that the youth now face, and especially on possible solutions.  One of the keynote speakers at that event was a Kenyan, the late Kinuthia Murugu.  He did a wonderful job in showcasing the perspective of Kenya and providing all of the participants with a better understanding of the complexity and importance of the issue.  Again, I would like to express my condolences at his passing, but also thanks for the insights and inspiration that he gave to us at that historic meeting.

You may be aware that Africa faces a pressing problem of youth unemployment.  Steadily worsening over the years, youth unemployment on the continent is now assuming crisis proportions, particularly in the wake of the current global economic recession.  But Africa cannot wait; it has to explore potential options and take action now to respond in the short-term to the impact of the global recession, while also putting in place programs to address the structural causes of the problem.

Let me share a few facts that typify the African youth. Young make up 37% of the working-age population in Africa, but 60% of the unemployed. Young people are more likely to work longer hours under insecure work arrangements, characterized by low productivity and meager earnings. Females face particularly strong challenges in entering the labor force, due to early motherhood and lack of education.

The face of Africa’s youth is an eighteen-and-a-half year old female, living in a rural area, with some education and literate, but not attending school.  The main challenge for her is to find and sustain productive employment with a reasonable income.

There are several dimensions to the problem of youth unemployment but let me focus on two. There’s a demographic dimension: Africa’s population profile is shaped like a typical pyramid – it is has a “youth bulge” at the base. Almost half of Africa’s population is under 25; about 75% is under the age of 35.  It is estimated that by 2050, Africa will account for 29% of all people aged 15 to 24.  This is about 348 million of the total 1.2 billion persons globally. 

This raises the question: will the continent be ready to accept the responsibility of managing the lives and future of a majority of the world’s youths?

For Kenya, this means that economic opportunities driven by a high growth rate must outpace the increase in population currently estimated at around 2.9%.  Development literature tells us that that to bend the curve of poverty you need growth of above 7% sustained over several years.

Then there is a labor markets dimension. The rate at which young people find jobs depends on how prepared the labor market is to receive them, and how ready they are for the labor market. Even with high primary school enrolment with an equal number of girls and boys starting school, today primary school completion can no longer be our goal. In Kenya, out of every 100 students who start primary school, only 68 transition to secondary school; and just 6 of this group go to universities or tertiary institutions to learn the skills required to give the country an edge in an increasingly competitive world.

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Experience worldwide has shown that no nation has achieved a technological and socio-political advance where less than 15% of its qualified young citizens have access to tertiary education. The US has achieved over 80% access while in Europe the average is 35%. In emerging economies like South Africa and Brazil—which Kenya seeks to emulate—the percentage of access to tertiary education is 18% and 25% respectively. 

It is not surprising to find, therefore, that potential employers in Kenya as well as elsewhere say that our institutions aren’t graduating people with the skills they need to enhance their success. This means there is need to fundamentally address the skills gap, as well as the skill mismatch. The abilities of job-seekers are falling short of the ambitions of industry.
This Africa-wide problem is also reflected in Kenya. In fact, Kenya’s youth unemployment situation is particularly serious.  For instance, in the period 1998-2005, aggregate unemployment fell from 15% to 12.5%, but the share of the youth in unemployment rose from 60% to 72 %.  And the rate of joblessness is almost 40% of youth, or an estimated 5.2 million young adults. This is double the adult average of 21 percent.

Kenya’s vision 2030 sets an ambitious target to become a middle income country by 2030. This goal not only requires uninterrupted growth of 10% per year, but will also demand citizens with globally-competitive skills.
While I have pointed out the reality of the challenge, let me now turn to the latent opportunity. If effectively managed, this “youth bulge” could become one of Africa’s drivers of economic growth, delivering significant demographic benefits—as it did in some of the Asian tiger economies. 
It was Churchill who said, “The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Which do you want to be?

An Agenda for Action

We clearly need an agenda for action to address these challenges and let me propose some of its possible components. First, policy makers have a duty to build capable states with the clear purpose of not only expanding economic opportunities but also effectively and efficiently delivering basic services to citizens.  This means every Kenyan shilling spent on education, health and other basic services must deliver commensurate value. 

Growth is best sustained by creating policy predictability as well as a political and investment climate that encourages investors to make long-term commitments, even across election cycles. These investments must be targeted at improving the human skills base of Kenya as well as providing the basic infrastructure that citizens need to thrive. Leaders must clearly communicate in word and deed that public probity will be rewarded and impunity or misuse of office, predictably, will be sanctioned.

We must focus on developing micro, small and medium enterprises as a credible springboard from which to canvas for Foreign Direct Investment. International investors follow the lead of local entrepreneurs. In Kenya, as much as 20% of the value of sales is lost due to crime, insecurity, power outages, bribes and inadequate transport.  These costs are higher than in other East African countries, and 6 times the comparable cost in South Africa.

In addition, it is the duty of policy makers to modernize the curriculum, sponsor programs to assess and re-equip youth, so they have the skills the market will be looking for tomorrow. They must also aim for expansion of tertiary and university education, explore public private partnerships, and take advantage of technology to innovate and expand education beyond their walls.

The foundation of all of this is the commitment of government to build consensus on how to tackle what I have been told are the two chief enemies facing the country’s development:  poverty and corruption.  In this regard, the ongoing discussions under “Agenda IV” of the Kenya National Dialogue and Reconciliation Framework that looks at long-term issues including national cohesion, land and institutional reform, a new constitution, and youth unemployment, provides a veritable platform for building this common understanding.

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While there are challenges, Kenya also has proven potentials.  It has a dynamic private sector, a vibrant civil society; it is making its mark on the global stage in mobile technology innovation and it is strong in the service sector.  The ingredients for a rebound are in place.  But success will also require managing the risks and establishing strong systems of social accountability.

Second, our communities must get involved. Our schools and colleges are fertile soils: we can choose to sow the seeds of our future success or let them become swamps of neglect. We all need to be part of the solution; this is not just the government’s problem; if we bury our heads in the sand, it will soon become our problem.

It was Margaret Meade who said, “The solutions to adult problems tomorrow depend, in large measure, on how children grow up today.  There is no greater insight into the future than recognizing that when we save our children, we save ourselves”

Third, I have a message to the youth. Your generation must realize you are living on the cusp of a revolution. Just like those who saw the dawn of the agricultural or industrial revolution, you who are living in this unique moment of history must learn how to leverage ICT. Use this platform not just to update your Facebook page but to close the knowledge gap since access to ICT equalizes people of all cultures.

The biggest change that you need to make is in your mindset; shifting from that of job seekers to job creators; from writing good bios to writing great business plans. It also means transitioning from being provincial to thinking regionally and yes, even globally; from waiting for change to becoming the drivers of change. 

We must all aim for nobility of character and eschew ignoble wealth acquired by dishonest means.  Theodore Roosevelt once said “I wish to preach not the doctrine of ignoble ease but the doctrine of the strenuous life; the life of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not from the man who desires mere easy peace, but the man who does not shrink from danger, hardship or bitter toil and who, out of these wills the splendid ultimate triumph. We admire the man who embodies victorious effort.” 

Roosevelt equated a life of ignoble ease to that of “peace that springs merely from the lack either of desire or of power to strive after great things”. 

And you do not have to look far to see Kenyan models like Ory Okolloh a young Kenyan lawyer and blogger, who founded “Ushahidi” – an ICT platform that uses members of the public to provide information from areas too remote or turbulent for official sources to get to quickly. For Ory, the power of technology can enable ordinary people to demand accountability

As you strive towards bringing about change, your citizenship of Kenya should be a constant reminder of the divine call you all must have to sacrificial service to your nation. It must also be a reminder that character is after all the destiny of individuals, families, communities, firms, organizations, and nations; and service that prioritizes personal benefit above the common good is contemptible and ignoble.

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It was Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, who said, “Everyone wants to be successful, but I want to be looked back on as being very innovative, very trusted and ethical and ultimately making a big difference in the world.”

You have all you need within you to create the Kenya of your dreams. A new Kenya – known for its world class citizens. That, my dear young people of Kenya, is your destiny.  And remember, Character is Destiny.

(EZEKWESILI is the Vice President, Africa Region – The World Bank)

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