The African Economic Conference (AEC) was held on Monday in Sharm El-Sheikh to discuss issues highlighted in its theme of “Jobs, Entrepreneurship, and Capacity Development for African Youth”.
The two-day conference focused on African young people who represent more than 60 per cent of the continent’s population, estimated at 1.2 billion, and are likely to increase to 830 million by 2050.
The conference was held to discuss entrepreneurship, job opportunities, the participation of young people and women in development projects, and investment opportunities for skilled young people within the African Union’s (AU) Agenda for Sustainable Development 2063.
Since Egypt assumed the chairmanship of the AU earlier this year, it has been seeking to implement this agenda with African institutions and countries through equal and integrated cooperation.
The AU agenda targets increasing job opportunities, encouraging and financing small, medium and micro-enterprises, and developing the skills required in the labour market for agriculture, industry, and communications and digital services, among other fields.
The African Development Bank, a co-organiser of the AEC, said Egypt had been selected to host this important economic event because it was a strong and successful model for Africa.
The Sharm El-Sheikh AEC and Egypt’s previous initiatives in similar fields derive their importance from the fact that most African countries are in need of help in education and training, particularly in the establishment and management of projects.
Africa needs to provide more employment opportunities for its young people, who make up more than half of the continent’s population, and to decrease the number of skilled young people who migrate abroad.
In some African countries, up to 56 per cent of young people may be tempted to migrate due to the absence of an environment that can help them to fulfil their aspirations, thereby denying their countries the opportunity to benefit from efforts to achieve development and improve living conditions.
The World Economic Forum expects the number of Africa’s unemployed to reach 50 million by 2040. The number of working-age Africans in the 34 Sub-Saharan African countries is also expected to rise to 300 million by 2050, up from 150 million in 2014.
As a result, questions have been asked about the future of the continent’s young people and employment opportunities in 2050, since by some estimates only between six and 25 per cent of Africans of working age have steady jobs.
There are many factors that drive African young people to migrate, prime among which are unemployment, corruption, and human rights violations. Some statistics show that 50 per cent of Africans live in poverty, and in 15 years the majority of the world’s poor are estimated to be Africans. Of the 48 least-developed countries in the world, 33 are in Africa.
Malnutrition kills more than 50 per cent of children less than five years old in some African countries. Many Sub-Saharan Africans live on an average daily income of $1.25, and millions have no access to primary education, due to the insufficient number of schools and teachers, let alone tertiary education.
Hundreds of thousands of Sub-Saharan Africans annually die of diseases including HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, often due to a lack of doctors, nurses, hospitals and medicines. According to a study published in the UK medical journal The Lancet, it could take these countries more than 100 years for the stillbirth rate to drop to that in developed countries.
The AEC in Sharm El-Sheikh also focused on African women and their participation in development projects as well as enhancing their skills and capabilities.
Many African women are still denied land ownership rights and are not entitled to inherit from their fathers and husbands. Many African parents do not pay enough attention to their daughters’ education. Many women are still married off at an early age in accordance with tradition, especially in the Sub-Saharan African countries.
Moreover, many African women have to work hard in agriculture or trade, in addition to caring for their families. Women make up 70 per cent of farmers in Africa and produce 90 per cent of the food. They may suffer most in the aftermath of conflicts, becoming homeless or refugees because their husbands were either killed during fighting or simply decided to shake off their responsibilities.
In some Sub-Saharan countries, up to 56 per cent of women may have contracted HIV, and in others every minute a woman may experience an intra-uterine fetal death. One woman out of 16 in Africa dies every minute, whereas one out of 3,800 dies per minute in the developed countries.
Young girls make up the majority of African women, and many of them may suffer from homelessness as a result of conflict, hunger and malnutrition. These may be deprived of education or be given inadequate medical care. They may also be subject to rape or forced marriage or even “sold” to prospective husbands to pay off debts or find money to buy food.
The Lancet published a Stanford University study from the US saying that armed conflicts, and consequently hunger and disease, had led to the deaths of five million African children below the age of five between 1995 and 2015.
In some parts of Africa, young people have been recruited by terrorist organisations such as the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda or Boko Haram. Their poor economic prospects may lead to radicalisation and a desire to take revenge on foreign countries they see as responsible for African poverty.
Such problems have made Africa the poorest continent in the world today, despite being the richest in terms of natural resources.
According to the African Development Bank, unemployment in Africa was behind a third of the mass protests on the continent between 2014 and 2016. Unemployment in Zimbabwe and Somalia, for example, stands at 80 per cent. In 2017, 700,000 Nigerians applied for 500 jobs.
At the EU-Africa Summit held in Berlin in June 2017, then International Monetary Fund director Christine Lagarde said studies had showed that Africa needed $100 billion annually in infrastructure projects and 20 million new jobs to accommodate the expected population growth.
However, little has been done since, with some countries on the continent on the verge of bankruptcy and unable to provide job opportunities and dignified lives for their young people.
In other cases, such as in South Sudan, Libya and Sudan, terrorism and conflicts have left these countries with no extra money to solve young people’s problems and encourage them to take part in development projects, instead of migrating in search of job opportunities abroad.
The hopelessness that drives some African young people to protest and seek illegal migration will not be eradicated unless donor countries and institutions and African governments cooperate to develop the continent, improving the living conditions of its peoples and providing job opportunities for the unemployed.
Richer countries should provide financial assistance and expertise to upgrade Africa’s deteriorating infrastructure and set up economic projects. This should be done in tandem with African governments meeting donor conditions to fight corruption, end bureaucracy, reform tax and banking systems, and design employment policies to attract investments.
The continent’s sustainable development plans are currently estimated to cost $2.5 trillion, which the African governments cannot afford without the participation of the private sector and international financial institutions to meet the expected increase in Africa’s population to 2.5 billion by 2050.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.