INTERVIEW: “Investment in young people will help Africa benefit from its demographic dividend”

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Kijala Shako, who was at the recently held African Youth SDGs Summit in Accra, is the active citizenship and engagement advisor  for the Pan Africa Programme (PAP); Oxfam’s advocacy, campaigns and influencing agency engaging citizens and institutions in the realization of an Africa that is self-reliant, democratic, peaceful

Kijala Shako, the active citizenship and engagement advisor  for Oxfam's Pan Africa Programme (PAP) speaking at the recently held African Youth SDGs Summit in Accra.
Kijala Shako, the active citizenship and engagement advisor for Oxfam’s Pan Africa Programme (PAP) speaking at the recently held African Youth SDGs Summit in Accra.

Why are you interested in the ongoingAfrican Youth SDGs Summit currently holding in Accra?

We are interested in the African Youth SDGs Summit because we think it is an important developmental framework; we believe it is important that young people are engaged in those processes so that the development process becomes about them and brings them on board. We want to see how possible it is to link up all these normative frameworks that focus on the development agenda for young people.

At the Oxfam Pan Africa Programme, we are convinced that while all the global andcontinental frameworks including the SDGs, Agenda 2063 and the frameworks ofthe respective regional economic communities and national governments forengagement with young people, are important. However, they can only make adifference if ordinary young people and women at community levels are benefittingfrom them. So, that is why we think it is very important that the targetbeneficiaries of the development agendas are actively involved.

If you look at the SDGs and statistics from UNFPA and other global actors on youths, you will find out that they categorize youths as those between the ages 10-14 and 14-24. However, if you look at the African Youth Charter and the different instruments of the African Union, they identify young people as those between the age of 15 and 35 and that is why there is need for synergy and harmony between the different development frameworks.

Now, if you focus only on the SDGs, we will gain youths between the age of 10 and 14 but lose a whole cohort of youths who are between age 24 and 35. One other emerging conversation is on the definition of youth beyond the numeric calendar age; increasingly, there are emerging discussions looking at youth as a social construct which means the definition of youth may vary from one context to another.

 In some communities, adulthood is when breast begins to bud [for girls], in some it is when voice breaks [for boys], in some it is when you begin to see your period [for girls], or get married while in some it is when you are circumcised [for boys]. All these social constructs are in direct conflict with all the development frameworks such as the SDGs, Africa Youth Charter and national constitutions of the respective African countries. So, when we are talking about resourcing the youth agenda, we need to be very clear about how we are defining young people.

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An important issue is also the need to recognize that young people are not homogenous; we have youths who are orphans, youths who have disability. We have youths who were born in the 80s and 90s who were born HIV positive. We have also youths who are identifying with a different sexuality, young women and men in conflict and those emerging out of conflict.

Another interesting issue is the conversation around investment in youth vis-à-vis our gross indebtedness to China and other emerging powers. We also have a lot of corruption and illicit financial flows. So, how do we create structures and processes that reduce this financial spillage so as to harness our resources and invest them appropriately?

Another conversation we need to have as stakeholders has to do with demographic dividend; are we investing enough on our young people economically, socially, and politically? A particular issue of concern for me is the traditional capitalist approach we have taken to the issue of young people, you find people talking about youths as tools towards realizing the demographic dividends: we see young people as raw material.

I wonder if we are not replicating the problems that we are witnessing under the current capitalist system; the question is how we can view it differently by talking about youths as drivers of the demographic dividend which means we see them as people with agency and not tools to be made use of. Another question is who is going to benefit from the demographic dividend? Is it going to be the youths? One of the discussions in this Summit has to do with investing in youths at a level that will enhance their skills.

If we maintain the current levels of investment, we are never going to realize the change we want to see because the current levels of investment will not match up with the exponential increase in the population of young people. We saw how statistics have shown that the percentage of out of school girls [in West and Central Africa] have gone lower but the actual numbers have gone higher. So, if we don’t adopt this demographic approach to the discussion we will never realize the change we want to see.

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And when we talk about resourcing the youth agenda, we need to talk about leveraging resources (technical and financial) and working in strategic partnerships with different stakeholders like the media, because one of the things we continue to realize as we discuss youths and demographic dividend is who is controlling the narrative. So, we need to partner the African media and media personalities who will be able to tell our stories, factually and verifiably.

We also need to partner civil society, grassroots movements and academia because it has now emerged that one of the areas we need to invest on young people is education and skills development, and I think the skills development should go beyond hard skills by including soft skills such as people and financial management.

Another thing we have realized with young people on the continent is they are very innovative; they are exporting technology, fashion, music, culture, and drama. So, how do we invest in ensuring their intellectual properties are secured? Such that if youths invent something they will have it patented; if anybody use their picture, design or music they should pay them for it.

I think of late we have seen North African countries taking fabrics like Ghana’s Kente and copyrighting it. The Kenyan woven basket Kikoy is patented elsewhere; the Maasai sugar is also patented elsewhere. All these are original African technologies. So, I think another critical issue is how do we safeguard, secure and protect our intellectual properties because these are part of the resources that are draining away.

The world is now talking about the fourth industrial revolution, a lot of our countries are not even in the first and second industrial revolutions, yet; they are still battling challenges like access to electricity and water. However, there are other opportunities we have on the continent and which we can leverage. Looking at these opportunities and challenges it becomes very clear that investing in the youth agenda has to be multidimensional and so partnership become more and more critical.

So, for me, we should invest in training youths around ideology, to make them Pan African, since we know they are now divided along our ethnic and religious fault lines. We need to work with them around behavioral change communication, attitude change and identity issues. If you listen to young people who are involved with Boko Haram and Al Shabab, you will realize they are in pursuit of identity, belonging, recognition, and adventure. How can we provide these things in a safe way?

Initiatives like sport and music should be seen from beyond the prism of entertainment but also as a source of livelihood for youths. In different countries, there are youth funds but we also need such a fund at the continental level; in partnership with venture capitalists who are willing to invest in startups to give youths the necessary resources to test their ideas. Access to information is also an issue, you heard young people [at the Summit] saying they don’t know how to engage the AU, they didn’t know about the SDGs.

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In some countries, there are policies within government ministries that say up to 30% of procurement should benefit young people but young people don’t know about it. So, how do we create a knowledge hub where a lot of this information can be accessed easily by young people; information on budgeting and electoral processes, conferences and trainings, sexual and reproductive health services and information about financing opportunities for their initiatives?

How huge is the potential in Africa’s youthful population in terms of taking the continent to where it should be: achieving the Africa We Want?

The potential is huge because if you look at the population structure of many regions of the world, you will realize that they have fewer children and young people and a huge aging population. This means the burden of providing labour vis-à-vis their population is huge. In Africa, the situation is different; we have sufficient numbers of children, a humongous youth population and a small aging population. Imagine the opportunities in terms of market, labour, technology and innovation. It’s amazing!

We have something that no one else has in the world so the potential is huge but this is also a cause for fear because if we don’t manage this well; we don’t invest in the youths they will turn to criminality by joining groups such as Boko Haram or Al Shabab. They will cross the Mediterranean to migrate to Europe. Therefore, I think the challenge for all of us on the continent is to see how we can support this young people because they are not only the future of the continent but also the future of the world; the world is now looking up to Africa.

There is now the concept of Africa Rising which is aimed at changing narratives about Africa – from that of conflicts and famine to that of technology and innovation. Africa’s youths are innovative and resilient; however, their major challenge is access to capital and enabling environment in terms of policy frameworks. What do you have to say about this?

The story of Africa is a story of young people and the story of young people is the story of Africa, so Africa will not rise without the contribution of its young people. Frameworks like Agenda 2063 are very long term in nature; with them you realize we are running a marathon, and not a sprint; may be a sprint in some ways because some issues are more urgent than others but we need to have a very long term view in terms of the resourcing and the capacity required otherwise Africa will not be able to rise.

We must also be careful of being duped into a false sense of security; we need to be very vigilant to ensure that Africa is truly rising. Africa will not rise if we are mortgaging our future to different foreign and emerging powers. It will not rise if we don’t address the issues of climate change, gender inequality, food security, bad governance and inequality continues to widen.

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