Youth in East Africa: Infinite possibility or definite disaster?

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  • October 19, 2015
Article first featured on the Foresight for Develpment website on Saturday, 02 February 2013 17:21
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The Future of Youth

Following a disputed election in 2007, Kenya experienced spontaneous violence in reaction to the election results mainly in opposition areas, organized attacks mainly in Rift Valley Province against certain ethnic groups that supported the incumbent,organised retaliatory attacks as well as opportunistic sexual and gender based violence. Findings of the Commission of Inquiry into the Post-Election Violence enumerated the growing population of poor, unemployed youth, educated and uneducated, who agree to join militias and organized gangs as part of the major root causes of the conflict. According to a youth advocacy organization, Youth Agenda, young were responsible for 7.32% of all incidents of pre-planned violence. 54.88% of those who executed the violence were youth.

It is this phenomenon and the fact that youth bulges (which are large youth cohorts relative to the adult population) are widely becoming recognized as a considerable resource for national development but also as a significant source of challenges that led Ms. Katindi, then working at the Institute of Economic Affairs-Kenya, to begin investigating youth trends in Kenya and their future implication.

This work brings out glaring concerns beyond education and unemployment – the most worrying trend being the risky sexual patterns, abuse of alcohol and drugs. However, general health and reproductive health challenges of young people do not feature in government’s top policy and budget priorities.

A further investigation of the issue in the region led to the following conclusions about the future.

Demographically, nearly all of Sub-Saharan Africa has a child rich population, majority of who are below the age of 15. Two thirds or more are young people under the age of 30, and only three to six percent of the population is above age 60. However, in light of the widespread reductions in fertility and mortality rates, women are giving birth later, to fewer children and spacing them more. As a result, there are changes occurring that will alter the current population structure. In the next two decades, it is anticipated that the 0-14 age cohort will shrink while the 15-29 age cohort will bulge.

This shift presents various opportunities. In countries where most youth and young adults (defined here as those aged 15 to 29 years) have been well educated and where their energy and ingenuity are sought by employers, such a large proportion of young people is seen as an asset. In economies where their numbers, productivity, savings and taxes support smaller subpopulations of children and elderly, they provide a “demographic dividend” to economic growth. However, these large youth populations if relatively well educated but unemployed become a social challenge and a political hazard. Young men in particular are the main perpetrators of conflict as they are frustrated in their search for status and livelihood.

First, a large youthful population will inevitably increase the regional population due to the fact that 15 to 29 year old women are at the peak of their reproductive age. In Kenya, this group is currently responsible for 60% of the 1.5 million Kenyans born every year. Due to high teenage pregnancies, one out of every four children born was not planned for (36% of girls are mothers by age 19) and therefore the reproductive decisions that young people makes will determine their lifetime fertility rates and, subsequently, rate of population growth in the region. It is projected that the region’s population will grow from 139 million to 237 million by 2030. 82 million will reside in Tanzania, 66 million in Kenya, 60 million in Uganda, 18 million in Rwanda and 11 million in Burundi.

Second, this population increase will inevitably increase the population density and without proper planning will result into overcrowding. A high population will also increase the demand for natural resources such as water and land thus aggravating food insecurity and increasing resource conflicts in the region. It also places a bigger demand on social amenities such as education, health care and sanitation infrastructure.

Third, most migrants go to cities as young adults to look for employment and other opportunities. A bulging youth will increase the rate of rural to urban migration in the region. If the development transformation necessary to support urban growth is not occurring at the same speed as the migration rate, the region will witness a faster increase of informal settlements and the challenges that come with slum dwellings.

Fourth, out of the current unemployed working age population, about 70% are under age 30. Female unemployment rate is much higher than that of their male counterparts in the region while unemployment among urban youths is much higher than that of their rural counterparts. Continued exclusion of youth from a productive role in the economy will inevitably exacerbate crime, drug abuse, vandalism and escalate the vicious cycle of poverty if no holistic approach is initiated to alter the situation. With a global financial crisis that only serves to exacerbate this already grim reality, the challenge for the region is to adequately address the increasing demand for employment in an environment where the number of youth joining the job market is faster than the jobs being created.



Fifth, researches conducted on population structures point to the fact that 80% of civil conflicts occurred in countries where 60% of the population or more were under the age of thirty. In another study, demographers argued that countries with more than 40 percent of young adults (aged 15 to 29 years) in the population of adults (aged 15 and older) were typically in the early or middle phases of the demographic transition. These countries are 2.3 times likely to experience an outbreak of civil conflict than countries with smaller proportions. East Africa’s youth are currently about 51.63% of the total adult population. The risk of civil conflict is further aggravated when these large youth cohorts are relatively well educated but unemployed in areas that generally have low levels of development.

Primary Gross Enrolment Rates in the region are currently at 123.6% while secondary schools Gross Enrolment Rates are at 29.6%. This figure though indicative of low transition rates from primary to secondary schools, also shows the mass production of young men and women who have acquired only minimal skills along the way and therefore cannot meaningfully participate in a work environment that requires high skilled individuals and is globalizing.

Sixth, studies also show that 90% of countries with very young population structures had autocratic or weakly democratic governments at the end of the 20th century. As a result, their young people tend to perpetuate cycles of political instability, ethnic wars, revolutions, and anti-regime activities. Low political will and inadequate resources to effectively integrate them into meaningfully participate in decision making also makes them feel excluded thus exhibiting open aggression and conflict through self organization or by being exploited and manipulated mostly by politicians.

Seventh, many of the countries with young and youthful populations also have among the world’s weakest economies. They also have political and institutional constraints that discourage economic activities and private investments needed to generate jobs. Lack of jobs among young people escalates dependency. According to research these countries experienced an average annual economic growth rate of 3.6 percent. This growth can increase if young people are economically empowered to allow greater personal savings and investments. However, continued denial of economic opportunities to them will lead to a shrinking per capita income. Unemployment eventually leads to frustrations that trigger political instability, making it even more difficult for poor countries with large youth populations to generate economic growth and encourage the foreign and domestic investment needed to generate new jobs.

United Nations forecasts that the plight of young people is likely to be one of the main challenges of the century. Owing to the fact that Sub-Saharan Africa will experience a bulging youth population in the next two decades, understanding the region’s population growth, structure and distribution will provide incites that help minimize the challenges of a growing youth population and maximize on the opportunities that youth bulges present.

Katindi Sivi Njonjo
Guest Editor


Katindi Sivi Njonjo, a futurist with joy and passion for foresight
Designation: Programme Director
Organization:Society for International Development

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