Our ability to reap a ‘demographic dividend’ depends on the existence of a youth bulge as well as productive economic activities that make use of that bulge for development. Economic growth in African countries has often been resource intensive and failed to increase employment opportunities. In a workshop held on 15 May 2017, over 60 academics, students, business people and development practitioners discussed the challenge that African societies face in reimagining their economies and social policies in light of demographic pressure. Two main conclusions can be drawn from the discussion:
Development is destabilizing – Development is often a political promise about the future for certain groups. However, if development only exists in the distant future, populism and political violence can emerge. Hence, what we are witnessing might not be due to a lack of growth, but a reaction to forms of growth deemed morally reprehensible or corrupt. Development is not about the presence or absence of growth, but reflects a power struggle over who gets to determine what is legitimate and what is not.
We need to connect youth employment programmes with broader strategies for economic transformation. The demand side of the labour market needs more attention. Private firms should be confronted to engage in the kinds of (risky) economic activities that would require a certain level of skills. In addition, we should consider the complexity of formal entrepreneurship as related to access to markets and services and the role of useful connections, instead of losing sight of broader strategies for economic development by promoting entrepreneurship as the only answer. Job creation programmes that focus merely on training or self-employment among youth close down the space for structural economic transformation and individualize the structural failure of neo-liberalism on the African continent. Attention should be shifted away from ‘supply side’ programmes towards an approach that examines the interplay between skills and broader economic strategies to absorb those skills.
Policymakers should see economic development as a holistic process which can result in social dislocation and be honest about the distribution of benefits and harm across society – otherwise, they will not be able to manage the demographic and economic pressures facing African societies.