No Vacancy – Unemployment could be Africa’s biggest political threat
On December 17, 2010, a Tunisian street vendor called Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight in front of a government building after his wares were confiscated as he was selling without a permit.
He died from his burns on January 4, 2011 – some 18 days after the self-immolation.
Ten days after his death, Tunisia’s President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali stepped down from office and fled to Saudi Arabia as massive protests rocked the country.
According to the family, Bouazizi did not kill himself because of poverty.
His mother is on record saying: “It got to him deep inside, it hurt his pride,” in reference to the police harassment.
The family withdrew a case against the policewoman said to have been the straw that broke Bouazizi’s back saying there was no need to brew enmity over the incident.
The policewoman had maintained her innocence, with her lawyer saying the matter had become “purely a political affair”: something that media reports at the time indicated the crowds at the trial agreed with.
The family and the community did not want the suicide politicised, but that did not change anything and soon a mass anti-government movement had been born on the platform of unemployment.
But what lessons has Africa learnt since that suicide and the ensuing Algerian uprising within the context of youth unemployment and how the issue can be manipulated to foment social and political instability?
The International Labour Organisation says unemployed workers are those who are currently not working but are willing and able to work for pay, currently available to work, and have actively searched for work without success.
Despite being one of the regions with the fastest-growing economies in the world, Africa’s economic growth is not creating jobs for the millions of young, eager professionals with high productive rates on the job market, analysts at the African Development Bank (AfDB) have said.
The continent’s “jobless growth” presents an immense challenge to African governments and dents progress, the AfDB said in findings produced in collaboration with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the UN Economic Commission for Africa and the UNDP.
Africa’s economic growth is forecast to average 4.5 percent in 2012 and 4.8 percent in 2013.
Despite these statistics, it will not make a dent in the number of unemployed.
The AfDB said existing private and public sector capacity to absorb the millions of unemployed youths across the continent is “simply too small”.
• Jobless Growth
Young people represent 60 percent of Africa’sunemployed and of these 40 million youths, 22 million have given up on hopes of ever finding a job.
“The continent is experiencing jobless growth. That is an unacceptable reality on a continent with such an impressive pool of youth, talent and creativity,” Professor Mthuli Ncube, AfDB vice president said.
African economies registered robust growth between 2000 and 2008 but AfDB’s findings show that only 16 million jobs were created for the 15-24 age group.
Between 10 million and 12 million young people are entering the job market annually.
Between 2000 and 2007, the working age population grew by 96 million but the number of jobs only grew by 63 million across the continent.
Analysts further warned that the role of public sector as an employer will continue to shrink.
“Taking into account rapid population growth, African governments would have to create 29 million new public sector jobs (1.9 million a year) – an unlikely prospect,” AfDB said.
“For most of the young, working as a salaried employee in the formal sector remains a distant dream, especially in countries where the public sector has been shedding labour over the last two decades.”
Part of Africa’s unemployment problem stems from lack of education and skills mismatch.
The analysts added that higher education was linked to higher unemployment amongst the young but lower unemployment amongst adults.
But even though there is high unemployment, many companies struggle to fill open positions.
In Egypt, there are about 1.5 million young people who are unemployed and yet companies have about 600 000 openings.
In South Africa, there are an estimated three million unemployed youths – of which 600 000 have degrees – versus 800 000 available jobs.
“A survey among recruitment and temporary work agencies conducted for this report in nine African countries shows that such agencies have a greater struggle to find suitable candidates with tertiary education in South Africa and Tunisia than in countries with much lower incomes such as Kenya, Ghana and Niger,” AfDB said.
The skills mismatch, it was noted, was a result of poor quality of education and lack of linkages between curricula and industry needs.
There is no targeted education and a shortage of technical and mechanical employees or electricians co-exists with a surplus of workers in audits, sales and communication.
Some jobs in sectors such as manufacturing require technical skills to maintain equipment and supervise unskilled workers and do not require tertiary education.
Tertiary education has been traditionally geared towards meeting the needs of public sector with no attention to specific skills.
This is made worse by the fact that tertiary education in technical skills is usually prohibitively expensive as compared to social sciences and consequently African universities are churning out graduates who do not match the continent’s developmental needs. More damning is that social sciences and humanities have higher enrolment and higher unemployment, while disciplines such as agriculture, which have the most job potential, attract fewer candidates.
The fact that enrolment levels at secondary schools across the continent are still as low as 35 percent and are a miniscule six percent at tertiary level compounds the problem of tackling unemployment.
• The Informal Solution
Though the enrolment trend is changing for the better, analysts emphasise quality of education rather than the quantity of those educated.
“Most general secondary education in Africa has long-followed the ideal of providing the prerequisites for an academic education or a white collar (office) job in the formal (and urban) sector.
“Yet, only a small minority of young people has access to these options,” AfDB said.
Technical and vocational skills development affords young people better chances on the labour market and governments should also embrace the importance of the informal sector as a means of employment creation, it was noted.
Instead of excluding informal sector training, governments should introduce skills certification systems that attest to competencies and thereby facilitate recognition and comparison in the labour market. The AfDB analysts said youth employment in the informal sector should not be treated as nuisance, but an opportunity.
“Informality and vulnerable employment are the norm for many young Africans and provide an alternative to unemployment and inactivity. Given quantity constraints on formal sector employment, the informal sector will continue to play an important role in absorbing young entrants to the job market and has to be part of any policy that addresses youth employment.”
Their findings corroborate previous research which has highlighted significant potential for growth among micro-entrepreneurs.
Moreover, rural economies also show strong potential for economic growth and poverty reduction.
Studies in Uganda have shown that growth of farm household enterprises in the informal sector drove household livelihood transformation and that ownership of a non-farm enterprise is a significant predictor of welfare.
Rural youths are heavily disadvantaged as most government programmes are aimed at their urban counterparts. AfDB advised that to realise their full potential, young people in informal work in rural and urban areas required targeted support and an environment which allowed them to develop professionally.
“Young people struggling with their own businesses, but showing potential in the form of managerial skills, can benefit greatly from targeted support.” The AfDB highlighted the dire political consequences of the youth, who constitute the majority, remained jobless for long.
“Grievances among the young are most likely to be expressed violently, if non-violent political channels are not adequate or responsive, and these grievances revolve around unemployment, involving considerations of both income and social cohesion.
“Given Africa’s strong population growth and the necessary downsizing of the public sector in many countries, a vigorous private sector is the most important source of jobs for the young.
“Yet this analysis of 53 countries in Africa reveals that a lack of sufficient job creation is by far the biggest hurdle young Africans face today.”