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African Youth Bear Brunt of Global Economic Crisis

Young people in Africa are among the groups hurt most by the current economic downturn. Global financial problems usually have the greatest effect on the most vulnerable sectors of society and, given their limited access to resources, youth are among the vulnerable.

The problem is magnified by the fact that almost two-thirds of Africa’s population is under 25 years old, according to a report by the Africa Commission -- a body created in 2008 that wrapped up its work in 2009.

The Danish-led commission consisted of heads of state and government, politicians, experts and representatives of international and regional organizations. It looked at ways that African countries can create decent jobs, foster entrepreneurship and provide greater opportunities for young Africans through education, skills development and access to finance.

As has been the case in other parts of the world, in Africa the global financial crisis threatens the employment prospects of millions of young people trying to enter the job market. The Africa Commission estimated that figure at nine million each year.

Youth are finding it difficult to find employment and that stops them from “achieving autonomy and being able to be fully included in society,” it says.

In many African countries, the job market was bad enough before the global recession. But in the past two years it has become worse. Many Africans graduate from college with little hope of finding work. Both the public and private sectors are downsizing their existing workforce. That means fewer prospects for employment for young people.

Over 50 percent of businesses in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Katanga province have closed and about 300,000 people have been laid off, according to a report by Jeroen Cuvelier of the Institute for Anthropological Research on Africa.

The same thing has happened in South Africa, with statistics showing that thousands of migrant laborers come from neighboring countries like Lesotho and Swaziland. They are mainly young men who leave families behind to seek for work and become part of the ongoing cycle of rural-urban migration.

The money they make from jobs in the city helps them support their families back home. But with jobs scarce, many return home empty handed.

Government cuts jobs

In most African countries, the biggest employer is the government, now facing stiff budget cuts because of low foreign aid and fewer remittances from the West. Direct foreign investment, a source of employment in many of these countries, has declined. So has domestic investment, a victim of high interest rates, depreciation of national currencies and other factors.

Self Employment

A few young people seek non-traditional options, like starting a business, but it’s difficult for them to get loans because banks usually lend to established business people or require security that the young often don’t have. The global financial crisis has made it harder for commercial banks to lend to the well-established businesses, much less start-ups.

Nevertheless, some young people have managed to launch their own businesses. One of them, Lameck Gadala of Blantyre, Malawi, says it is more viable, given the volatility of the local job market.

“When you are employed and the company is affected by the global economic crisis, you will not receive any salary increment and, worse still, you will be retrenched,” he says.

Lost potential?

“African governments need to realize the potential of such a large (young) workforce,” says Robert Kayinamura, a young Rwandan lawyer in Washington, DC. Indeed, African economists agree that as African governments seek economic development, they need to engage young people.

“Youth can be a formidable force to steer and contribute to the development process of any country,” says a report from the United Nations Development Program.

But this is not a new issue, and efforts to address it have been underway for a couple of years. In fact, a paper presented at the fifth African Development Forum in 2006, entitled Youth and Leadership in Africa, said, “African governments and international partners needed to focus policy initiatives and resources on improving the leadership role of African youth.”

“The success of such efforts, it says, depends on the participation of young people in all aspects of the public policy process.” Robert Kayinamura agrees, saying “youth must be part of any development agenda and poverty-reduction strategy.”