It was just a small loan worth the equivalent of $100, from a UN-supported local microfinance bank. But it enabled Mojamah, just returned to her home in Kenema, Sierra Leone, after the country’s civil war, to set up a dressmaking business to support her family of six.
In neighbouring Liberia, Amelia, a single mother with five children, received a loan of $83 to help expand her work crushing rocks, which are then used in road building. The loan, from the Peace Fund established by the regional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), worked so well she applied for another, worth $200, to contract workers to blast additional rocks to help meet the growing demand from rehabilitation projects in post-war Liberia.
Generating decent and sustainable livelihoods for Africa’s poor is at the heart of the continent’s development plans and the ultimate goal of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), the blueprint adopted by African leaders in 2001. Achieving that goal, however, has proved to be profoundly difficult, especially so in countries struggling to recover from years of civil strife.
Resettling refugees and displaced people and demobilizing and reintegrating combatants were the first priorities for the new elected governments of both Sierra Leone and Liberia. With impoverished and disaffected youth predominant in many of the armed groups that had ravaged their countries, both governments were clear on the potentially lethal consequences of failing to provide employment for those aged between 15 and 35. It is a simple equation: “If they have an alternative, they do not fight,” says Andrea Tamagnini, who heads up the reintegration, rehabilitation and recovery arm of the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL).
Today, generating employment, particularly for youth, is a central element in the poverty reduction strategies being implemented by Liberia and Sierra Leone. Both countries have enjoyed steady growth in recent years, but economic opportunities remain limited. As a result, the numbers of those unemployed or underemployed — that is, in jobs that keep them from rising above the poverty line — remain stubbornly high, at some 70–80 per cent of the work force. Generating jobs for all, not just ex-combatants, is crucial to continuing peace and stability.
Disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) programmes have benefited some 70,000 ex-combatants in Sierra Leone and more than 100,000 in Liberia, as well as many displaced people. Assistance has taken a number of forms: cash handouts, skills training and short-term employment, usually in public-works projects (see Africa Renewal, October 2005 and April 2007).
“There were problems on many levels — political, social, funding,” recalls Francis Kai-Kai, who headed up Sierra Leone’s National Commission for Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration. Funding was often in short supply and programmes also had to deal with the trauma suffered by many ex-combatants. Many in their home communities were deeply angry over the violence and atrocities committed during years of war, and resentful that perpetrators were being unjustly “rewarded” for their violence.
To counter this perception, cash handouts and training were presented not as rewards, but as a humanitarian contribution to young people who themselves had often been abused and deprived of their chance for schooling or to learn skills. “We were trying to make a level playing field for them,” Mr. Kai-Kai says. But, he concedes, beneficiaries were more often than not being “reintegrated into poverty.”
Vocational training was a key element in the package provided to the more than 50,000 beneficiaries of Sierra Leone’s reintegration programme. But according to “Overview of DDR Programmes and Current Practices,” a paper prepared for an international conference on DDR in Africa organized by the UN Office of the Special Adviser on Africa (OSAA) in July 2007 in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo: “The sustainable reintegration of ex-combatants into civilian life … particularly male youth, has been stymied by low levels of economic growth, a lack of employment opportunities and poverty.”
The programme in Liberia faced similar problems. In the latter part of 2006, two years into the reintegration phase of the DDR operation, a UN survey found that some 28 per cent of the 60,000 beneficiaries reported that they were unemployed, while only 8 per cent said they had seen a rise in their standard of living.
While more recent surveys show improvements, the continuing high number of unemployed or underemployed youth “remains a particular concern that could be used by spoilers seeking to undermine stability,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned in a February report on Liberia to the Security Council. In January, Mr. Ban voiced similar concerns about Sierra Leone.
Complicating matters in both Liberia and Sierra Leone is the possible impact of unrest in neighbouring countries on a mobile and unsettled youth population. Mr. Tamagnini of UNMIL points to evidence that road repair schemes in Liberia’s Lofa County, bordering Guinea, had helped frustrate such recruitment there.
Between 2006 and 2008, over 60,000 people were employed in Liberia’s “Infrastructure for Employment” programme, rehabilitating the country’s main road arteries. Carried out over two dry seasons, the programme created an estimated 2 mn working days and injected some $6 mn in cash payments and food into the local economy. Importantly, the programme was not limited to ex-combatants, who made up only 30 per cent of those employed. Another quarter were returned refugees or displaced people and 45 per cent were from local communities. More than one in five were women.
Participants at an OSAA-sponsored conference on youth employment in Windhoek, Namibia, in 2005 argued that while early employment schemes in Liberia had enhanced the skills of ex-combatants, there was too little emphasis on job placement linked to wider government employment strategies.
Mr. Kai-Kai points out that the employment element of DDR was a short-term programme designed “to help calm the situation” in the immediate post-war period, as the economy slowly picked up. Such employment, Mr. Tamagnini agrees, is “the ‘peace dividend’ for poor people.” But reflecting the views of many, he also argues that maintaining job creation programmes over “several years” is essential for successful peacebuilding.
Trying for the longer run
The biggest challenge, Mr. Kai-Kai and Mr. Tamagnini agree, is shifting to the promotion of long-term, sustainable employment for all. This is particularly relevant in Liberia, where the final phase of the reintegration programme — and the cash it provides — ends in April. The UN Development Programme (UNDP) is providing some $3.5 mn to help continue the road repair programme, switching the focus from dry-season repairs to year-round maintenance, with execution by local communities. Ex-combatants are being encouraged to return to their communities.
Mr. Tamagnini does not underestimate the challenge. “Liberia’s economy simply doesn’t offer enough jobs for everybody,” he points out. Both Liberia and Sierra Leone are feeling the impact of the current global economic slowdown. In Sierra Leone, diamond and rutile mining operations have been hit by falling prices and other factors, leading to job losses. In Liberia, the spectacular fall in rubber prices on the world market in recent months has forced wage cuts and layoffs at some plantations, sometimes prompting violence.
Employment generation, particularly for youth, is central in the poverty reduction strategies adopted by both countries, as they are across Africa, as governments struggle to find the right strategies to create jobs.
The Sierra Leone government’s blueprint for the next three years, Agenda for Change, presented by President Ernest Koroma in December 2008, views youth unemployment as one of the three main and immediate risks to peace and security, along with corruption and illicit drug trafficking. The government estimates the country will need to create over 200,000 jobs a year.
The picture is similar in Liberia, where unemployment in the formal sector is some 80 per cent. “Job creation is a top priority,” declares the country’s Development Assistance Framework for 2008–2012.
Both Sierra Leone and Liberia are beneficiaries of the UN’s Peacebuilding Fund (PBF). Some $4 mn of the $35 mn allocated to Sierra Leone has been targeted for youth employment. In Liberia, $6 mn of the $15 mn allocation is for a broad-range of livelihood-boosting projects.
Reflecting the importance of employment- and income-generation programmes in post-conflict countries, the UN set up a task force, with UNDP and the International Labour Organization (ILO) in the lead, to strengthen implementation and “scale up” such projects. “We need to build scale, to make sure programmes are not just drops in the ocean,” says the ILO’s Claudia Coenjaerts.
In Sierra Leone, the PBF’s loans for youth employment support the government’s efforts to promote sustainable livelihoods through business development. A recent World Bank study, “Youth and Employment in Africa,” concluded that providing financing and advice for entrepreneurship is particularly effective.
Today, small groups like the Community Empowerment and Development Agency (CEDA), the Association for Rural Development and Hope Micro, many of them linked to international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) long active in outreach to poor communities, are handling some $2.8 mn in PBF funding to assist upwards of 13,000 young people. Projects include tailoring, trading, construction and bike and vehicle repairs. Loans for taxi bikes — known as okadas — have been particularly successful. Owners can earn up to $15 a day, says Patrice Lamboi, a programme officer with the UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Sierra Leone (UNIPSIL), enabling them to pay back a start-up loan within six months, with a chance to get a further loan for a second bike to expand the business.
Taxi bikes have similarly been a source of earnings in Liberia. A project run by YMCA Liberia in the northern town of Ganta has been so successful that a proposal is going before the PBF to extend it to other towns.
The Ganta scheme has had close involvement with local youth associations. One of the main complaints voiced by youth representatives at OSAA’s Windhoek conference was the lack of consultation with potential beneficiaries and local leaders. In both Liberia and Sierra Leone, aid efforts are being focused on building up local council and community organizations to help them determine and allocate funds for development.
Building local capacity
Having the right local arrangements and capacity is crucial, argues Mr. Kai-Kai. He warns that this will have to involve strong and clear national leadership. Employment has to be central, Ms. Coenjaerts argues, adding that it has to be part of an integrated approach across sectors, with adequate local capacity to implement it.
But ensuring effective coordination across ministries and other national bodies, all with limited capacity, can bedevil speedy implementation. In Sierra Leone, of the $4 mn approved for the PBF’s 18-month youth employment schemes in May 2007, over $1 mn was still waiting to be allocated to projects in December 2008, to the frustration of local youth groups. The pace of approvals is now accelerating.
Local capacity and clear regulation are particularly important for microfinance efforts, which are playing a key role in more and more African countries. Studies carried out in Liberia and Sierra Leone by UNDP found a far higher demand for small loans than existing institutions could meet.
In both countries the central banks, working with donors, have developed policies to promote microfinance development. In January 2009 a new microfinance entity, Access Bank, opened its doors in Liberia. Partially owned by the African Development Bank, the European Investment Bank and the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation, it has start-up capital of $6 mn and aims to serve 27,000 customers by 2013. It will join other entities, such as the Local Employment Assistance Programme (LEAP), Liberty Finance and Ecobank, which are also expanding with the help of donor funding.
According to Kenyeh Barlay, who oversees UNDP’s microfinance programme in Liberia, many loans go to women’s groups, especially those involved in trading activities. Liberty Bank reports that more than 90 per cent of its clients are women. Most loans have been for people in urban areas or living along major road arteries. The scale and pattern of microfinance lending is similar in Sierra Leone.
Chukwu-Emeka Chikezie, executive director of the African Foundation for Development (AFFORD), a UK-based NGO that is heavily involved in Sierra Leone, argues that microfinance schemes only go so far. Loans are generally too small. Instead, he urges reaching the “missing middle,” larger loans that can help clients expand their businesses enough to have a real impact on jobs and wider economic activity. Mr. Chikezie insists that only larger-scale private-sector activities can generate sufficient long-term employment for countries like Sierra Leone.
AFFORD is helping the government to develop a private-sector development strategy for 2009–2014 focused in large part on improving conditions for business. It has also set up business-support centres in Freetown and other towns to provide entrepreneurial, accountancy and other training to people wanting to start or expand businesses. In both countries the ILO provides kits on “expanding your business” and other tools designed, as Ms. Coenjaerts puts it, to increase the “employability” of people.
Return to farming
However, even if such efforts bear fruit, not enough jobs can be created without the revival of the countries’ agricultural sectors, experts agree. A recent study by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization found that Liberia’s agriculture has considerable potential for providing jobs and income, but it needs to be commercialized and its productivity must be raised. The ILO is supporting efforts to build local capacity to carry out rural market assessments. And this year the government is seeking to attract donor funding for investment in small-scale agriculture. Mr. Chikezie cites the example of sorghum growing in Sierra Leone to supply the local beer industry.
But nobody is underestimating the scale of the challenge. Mr. Barlay concedes that despite successes in expanding microfinance, small-scale agriculture remains an uncertain market for enterprise-based lending, given that the risks are perceived to be higher and the prospects lower than in other sectors.
“Nobody is selling farming as a business. A lot of people are running away from agriculture here,” observes one Liberia-based official. “People have to be brought back to cultivating the land,” another adds.
Meanwhile, the threat posed to peace and stability by youth unemployment remains. In his January report on Sierra Leone, Mr. Ban argued that it is “the most acute concern” among the country’s main challenges, calling for urgent action to reduce “the lingering effects of marginalization of the country’s young people.”
Mr. Kai-Kai concurs that such marginalization of a major segment of the population represents a common challenge for countries emerging from conflict. For him, the solution “is all about governance,” with efforts to involve youth placed truly at the forefront. While building local capacity is vital, it must be accompanied by “bold ideas, boldly managed by bold people,” he argues.
With both Liberia and Sierra Leone now feeling the heat of a global economic downturn, both Mr. Kai-Kai and Mr. Chikezie argue that it is very important for governments to make a difference for people struggling to survive.