Youth at Work: Building Economic Opportunities for Young People in Africa
Generating viable employment for young people remains a serious global problem. This situation is particularly acute in Sub-Saharan Africa, where some 600 million people are currently under the age of 25. Many still do not have access to quality and reliable economic opportunities, either through self- or formal employment. The economic and social costs of this challenge are too high. It is time for the global youth jobs movement to take its work to a new level—a level that will create new economic opportunity for millions of young people.
The challenges of youth underemployment and low productivity self-employment are multi-faceted. Solutions require a holistic approach—at the level of individual young people, at the level of collaborating organizations and at the level of government leadership, so as to create enabling environments and remove obstacles to youth employment, entrepreneurship and productivity.
The Foundation’s Economic Opportunities for Youth programs provide instructive examples of how holistic approaches can be designed and implemented in Sub-Saharan Africa. These programs are guided by three principles:
• There is a need to improve training, skills development and education by developing and testing models that deliver the foundational skills, experiential learning and non-cognitive skills young people need.
• There is a need to link young people to real opportunities that exist in the market in developing countries.
• There is an opportunity to explore the role that financial services and education can play in helping young people make a successful transition into their working years.
While data on many aspects of this work are still emerging, a review of the Foundation’s programs and the broader literature reveals a number of important themes, principles and points of evidence that can help further guide practices in this field. The following are particularly important to note:
• There are not enough formal jobs for youth. This means that young people will have to pursue a mixed livelihoods approach to income generation, which means they will work in a variety of formal and informal working arrangements. In working with economically disadvantaged youth, then, there must be greater emphasis on the reality of selfemployment—especially in the informal sector—as a possible pathway out of poverty.
• An understanding of growth sectors and market demand is essential to any strategies that prepare youth for and link them to the most promising economic opportunities. Employment readiness and training programs should integrate both technical and foundational skills development. Market assessments and employer engagement can help calibrate the balance between market needs, youth aspirations and opportunities. Sector-based approaches have merit, and agriculture remains an important source of employment and economic activity for African youth.
• Discussions on scale, innovation, sustainability and impact of programming are pressing given the urgency and sheer magnitude of the youth underemployment problem. Designing for the large scale of work required to meet the needs of youth populations involves intentional choices and tradeoffs. Expensive programs that are entirely dependent on donor funding might not ultimately be possible to implement on a larger scale. Greater engagement between the public, private and non-profit sector is needed to both drive efficiency and to create incentives for markets and government to make necessary investments in this space.
Integration of these considerations into programs and policies will achieve better results for young people in Africa. Accomplishing this will require nurturing African leadership across sectors, deepening knowledge around what works and under which conditions for specific youth segments, and finding mechanisms and structures to coordinate collective activity. Youth participation in program development and evaluation must be considered integral to success.
The MasterCard Foundation has already made significant investments that can be leveraged to help catalyze this re-energized movement. This paper outlines the considerations that are informing this work, and how improving the prospects of young people in Africa will be central to its trajectory.