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Empowering Africa’s Youth: Strategies for Creating Inclusive and Relevant Education

Discussions about youth have taken various forms in Africa, as this segment of the population grows exponentially, propelling government responses and policy interventions to meet the needs of young people. A coordinated response requires a shared understanding of key components such as youth participation and youth inclusion, which seem to take diverging paths in Africa. Certainly, the interpretation of these concepts

may differ based on country contexts. However, it is imperative that African countries take guidance from the existing standards and codes to which they are signatories. To adequately harness this demographic dividend, no country can run away from fully empowering its youth and creating an enabling environment for young people to be an integral part of development. African countries need to go beyond the narrow definition of participation and inclusion – characterised by the delivery of basic services by the state to young people – to rather empower and elevate youth to decision-making. First, the continent’s response to the needs of its young people is assessed in accordance with its normative and operational frameworks. The paper then measures participation against the central tenets of the participatory governance theory and hones in on Africa’s key good governance assessment and promotion institution – the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) – and its role in fostering participatory approaches. It finds that there is policy incoherence in how frameworks are interpreted and implemented at the policy and programmatic levels. Examples of meaningful youth participation are few and far between in Africa. There are instances where the inclusion of young people is a tokenistic tick-box exercise and not demand driven, and there are limited indicators and targets for measuring progress in terms of youth empowerment.

Snapshot

  • The global population is expected to reach 8 billion by November
  • By 2030, young Africans are expected to constitute 42% of global
  • Africa’s education programmes must be reimagined to nurture

For human development specialists, population growth is no laughing matter. By November 2022, the global population is projected to reach 8 billion, inspiring many analysts across the board to speculate on what the future holds. Whereas industrialized nations are worried about declining fertility, the Global South has been warned about high birth rates. As usual, the tone is more alarmist when it comes to Africa.

For decades, development reports have called out African countries for their unsustainable demographic growth. This growth tends to be viewed as a strain on almost all developmental capabilities. Today, more than 60% of Africa’s population is under the age of

By 2030, young Africans are expected to constitute 42% of global youth. For any policymaker this is obviously seen as a challenge: more mouths to feed, more bodies to keep healthy, millions of jobseekers waiting in line. Importantly, there are concerns about how to equip youth for an increasingly evolving knowledge economy. Now more than ever, universities are front and centre in the continent’s development battle.

Youth equals dynamism

Let’s consider how youth itself is perceived in public narratives. When the United States, Japan, or South Korea register declining birth rates, they mostly register missed potential for active participation in the workforce. On the other hand, Africa’s burgeoning young population keeps being characterized as merely a recipient of human development infrastructure, including higher education.

When it comes to creating value, Africa’s youth is anything but passive. The millennial generation has lived through the continent’s meteoric rise in mobile and internet penetration rates. Today, African youths are increasingly taking an active role in shaping their future. In Accra, Nairobi, Cairo or Benguerir, fully fledged start-up scenes are disrupting how we think about African agriculture, industry, IT and sustainability.

In the majority of cases, these businesses are spearheaded by Africans under the age of 35. In fact, 2021 was a record-breaking year for Africa’s start-up scene, which secured over $2 billion in funding. The African Development Bank (AfDB) attributes this mostly to “large economies and sizeable populations.”

Intersectionality and theories

Africa does not have a common understanding of youth inclusion and participation. It is therefore important to define key terms used in this opinion piece.

The term ‘participation’ refers generally to the process of sharing in decisions that affect one’s life and the life of the community in which one lives. Youth participation therefore is defined as the ways in which young people can be involved in the processes, institutions and decisions that affect their lives. This is particularly significant in Africa, which has the largest youth demographic globally. In 2019, 60% of Africa’s population was under the

age of 25. The UN notes that Africa’s youth (ages 15–24) account for 20% of the global population – this is projected to grow to 42% by 2055. Young people in Africa should therefore be participating in all areas related to social, political and economic life.

While participation and inclusion may be similar in definition, youth inclusion recognises and emphasises the diversity of youth. It pertains to the heterogeneity of youth in terms of age, gender, race, rural–urban divide, sexual orientation and religion. Representation matters. Policies and programmes purposefully need to meet the diverse needs and identities of all young persons. These concepts are particularly significant in the era of Covid-19, which has been a strong global reminder of the significance of equal and inclusive societies where no-one is left behind.

Although relevant policy and operational frameworks such as the African Youth Charter (2006), the Youth Decade Plan of Action (2009–2018), the AU Year of Youth (2017) and the Roadmap for Harnessing the Demographic Dividend (2017) make expansive

pronouncements regarding participatory paradigms for Africa’s youth, there is a disjuncture and lack of cohesiveness in application and implementation.

Africa’s youth refers to all persons between the ages of 15 and 35. Yet the needs, skills and capacity of a 15-year-old and a 30-year-old are not the same. It is crucial to make this distinction and consider age distribution across different African countries, which exemplifies the heterogeneity of youth for policy and programmatic formulation and implementation. African countries are growing at varying levels.

  • The median age in Niger is 15,
  • followed by Uganda at 5.
  • Mali, Malawi, Zambia, South Sudan and Mozambique have a median age of between 15 and 16.
  • Burkina Faso, Burundi and Chad have a median age of
  • Sierra Leone is at 19,
  • Rwanda follows with 20 and
  • South Africa’s and Tunisia’s median age is slightly higher at 26 and 6 years respectively.

These differences in median age underscore the fundamental issue of heterogeneity of young people and their different needs; information that is essential for policy response and programming. It is evident that there cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach when addressing the youth agenda.

While the traditional state–citizen relationship remains crucial for service delivery, Africa’s youth should no longer be seen just as beneficiaries but rather as stakeholders who should be empowered to participate at the level of agenda setting and decision-making for Africa’s development. In other words, this relationship needs to transcend viewing youth as mere recipients of state services (such as education, health and employment) and instead ensure that young people participate meaningfully in social, political and economic life and are included in decision-making.

Participatory paradigms for youth: Africa’s strengths and shortcomings

Africa’s youth are a key yet neglected constituent in governance processes.

Although there are sufficient frameworks guiding participation, policy remains focused on a rights-based approach without specifications regarding political and civic participation, levels of participation and capacity building. As a result, there is insufficient monitoring of and reporting on youth participation.

This opinion piece uses the Participatory Governance Theory to challenge the lack of meaningful youth inclusion by highlighting the central tenets of participation in governance and drawing parallels with the provisions set out by the African Youth Charter (AYC).

Participatory governance is derived from the theoretical lens of good governance and is concerned with creating favourable conditions for inclusivity and collective action.

Participatory governance is therefore rooted in democratic systems of rule and practices. This paradigm has rapidly become an important requirement for democratic political systems and civic engagement. The central tenets of participatory governance are transparency, accountability, inclusivity, citizen participation and collaborative partnerships.

Typically, citizen participation in governmental processes focuses on measures designed to support and facilitate increased public access to information about governmental activities and initiatives. In some contexts, it is fashioned by efforts to extend consultative processes by including citizens in matters of interest to them. The participatory governance approach challenges those assumptions and practices that hinder meaningful participatory democracy. By challenging the idea that participation is limited to consultations and information sharing, it demonstrates that participation is sustained engagement and some distribution of power.

Why is this approach relevant for Africa’s youth?

In the African context, contrary to countries’ reported achievements on the protection of children’s rights, their interventions do not lend themselves to the participatory governance approaches and stipulations of the AYC. Article 12 of the charter calls for deeper youth participation. It makes the following provisions:

  • Every young person shall have the right to participate in all spheres of
  • States parties shall take the following measures to promote active youth participation in society:
    1. guarantee the participation of youth in Parliament and other decision- making bodies in accordance with the prescribed laws;
    2. facilitate the creation or strengthening of platforms for youth participation in decision-making at local, national, regional and continental levels of governance;
    3. ensure equal access to young men and young women to participate in decision- making and in fulfilling civic duties;
    4. provide access to information and services that will empower youth to become aware of their rights and responsibilities; and
    5. include youth representatives as part of delegations to ordinary sessions and other relevant meetings to broaden channels of communication and enhance the discussion of youth related issues.

Conclusion

Definitions and implementation of youth policies should go beyond employment, basic services and promotion of entrepreneurship. There is a great need for leaders to integrate participation and inclusion into policies and programmes. Furthermore, it is crucial to measure the impact of empowerment initiatives born out of national policies domesticated from Africa’s normative frameworks.

It is evident that there are strong linkages between the AYC, which is the major AU framework on youth, and participatory governance paradigms. The divergence is found in the implementation of these provisions. There is a fragmentation in Africa’s frameworks on youth and how they are formulated into policy at national level. AU member states are not effectively translating the frameworks they adopted in Banjul into national policies and programmes. This affects the indicators used to measure progress, which this opinion piece shows not to be in sync with all the articles of the AYC.

This disjuncture between youth frameworks, policies and programmes suggests that issues pertaining to youth are not demand driven and/or Africa does not have a common and shared understanding of youth inclusion and participation. The AYC was adopted on 2006 but the DPoA only came into existence in 2009. It was not until 2017 that the AU dedicated a year to youth, prompting conversations and agenda-setting, and finally encouraging real dialogue on the youth discourse, albeit still fragmented. As African countries and institutions immerse themselves in the concept of youth inclusion, young people should increasingly be front of mind rather than an afterthought. To date there has been no progress report on the achievements of the DPoA, but it appears that we have already moved to a fresh initiative, namely APAYE, which encouragingly aims to consolidate and maximise gains based on lessons learnt.

There is a tendency to perceive meaningful youth participation as the creation of youth bodies or the invitation of young people to meetings only, but it is, in fact, characterised by shared dialogue and decision-making between adults and youth.

This opinion piece makes the following recommendations:

  • African leaders, governments and institutions urgently need to reach a common understanding on the protocols on youth and how expansive they are in terms of inclusion and participation. This must be clearly translated into policies and programmes and By 2025, which marks the 10th anniversary of the adoption of Agenda 2063, this should be reflected in the youth policies of AU member states.
  • The APRM Continental Secretariat has to lead by example regarding inclusion and participation of young people. It should consolidate its youth activities and integrate youth into its tools and processes, which should be clearly highlighted in the APRM’s subsequent strategy running from 2021–2024. The APRM Interim Youth Network needs to participate at a strategic level on youth issues and responses, as opposed to operating in a silo.
  • The APRM should immediately facilitate youth representation in all country review missions to ensure that the views and perspectives of young people are adequately
  • The APRM should encourage both its new and its long-standing member states to sign, ratify and domesticate the AYC, offering support where it can, to capacitate youth on governance issues and processes in Africa. All African countries should formulate policies that allow and encourage young people to participate in governance processes.
  • Lastly, by 2025 all APRM NGCs must commit to established quotas for youth representation to guarantee youth inclusion in the national structures of the

This is how Africa can build a demographic of engaged young people who contribute to the continent’s development and attainment of the aspirations set out in Agenda 2063.

 

H.E. Prof. Ambassador Tal Edgars
Author is a Special Envoy and GBSH Consult Group Executive Chairman Worldwide.
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