Youth Empowerment

A group of smiling children and youth

The UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) supportd youth in Gao in launching a communal theatre project to promote peace and reconciliation. Members of the audience at a performance put on by the youth theatre project. UN Photo/Marco Dormino

According to the United Nations statistics, there are 1.2 billion youth aged 15-24 globally as of 2015, accounting for one out of every six people (17%) worldwide. This is predicted to increase to one out of every four people, which means there would be 1.3 billion youth by 2030.

This global trend has particular pertinence to Africa, because Africa has the largest concentration of young people in the world. According to the United Nations, 226 million youth aged 15-24 lived in Africa in 2015 representing nearly 20% of Africa’s population, making up one fifth of the world’s youth population. If one includes all people aged below 35, this number increases to a staggering three quarters of Africa’s population. Moreover, the share of Africa’s youth in the world is forecasted to increase to 42% by 2030 and is expected to continue to grow throughout the remainder of the 21st century, more than doubling from current levels by 2055.

Opportunities and Challenges

A group of young boys graduating

Graduation ceremony at a secondary school in Tanzania. Photo: Jonathan Kalan

The continent’s youthful population presents a powerful opportunity for accelerated economic growth and innovation while other world regions face an aging population with subsequent issues such as high health costs for elderly care and high demand for skilled and qualified labour. Yet this demographic also presents economic and social challenges, as well as implications for peace and security.  With the highest youth unemployment rate of any region in the world, the World Bank estimates that 11 million youth will enter Africa’s labour market every year for the next decade. African youth represent 60% of the continent’s unemployed and are frequently hindered by social, economic and political exclusion.

Demographic Dividend

The demographic dividend describes the process by which countries benefit from acceleration in economic growth as a result of a higher proportion of economically active people compared to dependents.

From a demographic perspective, the demographic dividend occurs as follows:

“As a country’s total fertility rate (TFR, the average number of children per woman) drops, the proportion of the population under age 15 begins to decrease relative to the adult working-age population (generally ages 15-64 — the child dependency ratio).”

This means that smaller families become the norm which frees up income for families to invest in health, education, and well-being of each family member. On a larger scale it means a country has a window of opportunity (for as long as the child dependency ratio continues to decrease) for rapid economic growth if the right social and economic policies are developed and investments made. Once people ages 65 and older begin to represent an increasingly larger proportion of the population then this signals the end of the first demographic dividend.

While Africa’s demographic structure presents great opportunities for a demographic dividend, it presents risks as well. Unemployment or underemployment, and lack of social security, educational opportunities and inclusive governance can drive youth to informal or even criminal activities, making them susceptible to recruitment efforts of terrorist organisations, or lead youth to attempt illegal migration. Policy makers warn that a youth population without opportunity can lead to political instability or even conflict. Large urban centres, the destination for many youth looking for opportunities, face increasing difficulties in managing mega slums that continue to grow. In other words,

“unless political leadership offers young people something to live for, social stresses such as unemployment can make them an easy prey to those who offer them something to die for."

-- Andrews Atta-Asamoah, Senior Researcher for the Institute of Security Studies in South Africa, “Head to head: Is Africa’s young population a risk or an asset? BBC World, 29 January 2014

Whether Africa’s youth bulge will be a boon or a ticking demographic time bomb will depend on the extent to which African Governments implement sound policies and invest in human capital sectors such as tertiary education, vocational training, skills development, agriculture and food security, health, labour intensive job creation and encouraging entrepreneurship, as well as peace and security. Effective policies and measures are critical to harness the benefits of the potential demographic dividend. In addition, African Governments need support from a wide range of international partners and stakeholders as the Sustainable Development Goals will not be achieved without the active engagement and contribution of Africa’s youth to identify their priorities, partner with development actors to foster robust implementation of the various development priorities.

In this light, the first steps towards implementation progress has been registered at both regional and global levels, with the formulation of two ambitious, holistic Agendas: Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development and the African Union Agenda 2063 with its corresponding First Ten-Year Implementation Plan. Both agendas bring youth issues into sharp focus. In particular, Aspiration 6 of Agenda 2063 states that Africa wants:

“An Africa, whose development is people-driven, relying on the potential of African people, especially its women and youth.” 

Furthermore, the theme of the 28th African Union Summit in January 2017 calls for “Harnessing Demographic Dividend through Investments in the Youth”. All major development activities across the continent will focus on harnessing youth potential to drive forward Africa’s transformative agenda. This is coupled with the declaration of the decade 2010-2019 as the Africa Youth Decade to accelerate youth empowerment and development.

The African Youth Charter

During the 7th Ordinary Session of the Conference of Heads of State and Government, held in Banjul, Gambia, in July 2006, African Union Heads of State and Government adopted the African Youth Charter (AYC) PDF, a political and legal document to support policies, programmes and actions for youth development in Africa. The AYC, which serves as the strategic framework for youth empowerment and development at the continental, regional and national levels, addresses key issues affecting youth, including:

  • Employment,
  • Sustainable livelihoods,
  • Education,
  • Skills development,
  • Health,
  • Youth participation,
  • National youth policy,
  • Peace and security,
  • Law enforcement,
  • Youth in the Diaspora and
  • Youth with disabilities.

A young Liberian woman makes the "hello" sign at a Day of the African Child event in Monrovia, Liberia. The 2012 motto was "I am Able" and was part of efforts to highlight the global theme "The Rights of Children with Disabilities: The Duty to Protect, Respect, Promote and Fulfill". UN Photo/Staton Winter

Decade on Youth Development in Africa

In addition, in 2009 African Union Heads of State and Government declared the years 2009 to 2018 as the Decade on Youth Development in Africa to accelerate youth empowerment for sustainable development PDF on the continent. As part of the decade, a Plan of Action was adopted to provide a framework for multi-sectoral and multi-dimensional engagement of all stakeholders towards the achievement of the goals and the objectives of the African Youth Charter.

A key Aspiration of Agenda 2063

Agenda 2063, the continent’s ambitious 50-year framework for development, peace and security emphasises the importance of youth for the realization of its aims.

Aspiration 6 of the Agenda calls for an

“Africa where development is people-driven, unleashing the potential of its women and youth”,

with strong emphasis on putting children first and engaging and empowering youth.

OSAA’s Contribution

Child Representative Addresses General Assembly Meeting on Children

15-year old Millicent Atieno Orondo, Youth Representative and Chairperson of the Child Participation Committee of Kenya, addresses a High-Level meeting of the sixty-second session of the General Assembly on the follow-up to the Outcome of the Special Session on Children "A World Fit for Children +5 (WFFC+5)". 13/Dec/2007. United Nations, New York. UN Photo/Eric Kanalstein.

The Office of the Special Adviser on Africa (OSAA) continues to support youth empowerment in Africa through its advocacy efforts.

In January 2017, the Office will organize, with the United Nations Development Programme and other organizational partners, a session of the ECOSOC Youth Forum 2017 on the theme, "Africa’s Youth on the Rise! Harnessing Africa’s Youth dividend to achieve prosperity for all”.  The session will provide a platform for African youth to raise awareness of the challenges they face, as well as to discuss ways to strengthen African youth participation in global, regional, national and local governance processes.

Did you know?

  • In the past decade access to basic health services has risen dramatically across Africa, yielding real progress in tackling preventable diseases. For example, deaths from measles, a major child killer, declined by 80% in sub-Saharan Africa between 2000 and 2011 (UNICEF).
  • Across Africa, the under-five mortality rate has decreased by 37% since 1990, and maternal mortality has fallen by 42% (UNDP, 2014).
  • Africa is a continent of young people with 65 percent of the population below the age of 35, and nearly 50 per cent under the age of 19 (UN ECOSOC Youth Forum, 2014 PDF).
  • In 15 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, half the population is under age 18 (UNFPA State of the Worls Population Report, 2014 PDF).
  • Based on current trends, 59 percent of 20-24 year olds will have had secondary education in 2030, compared to 42 percent today. This will translate into 137 million 20-24 year olds with secondary education and 12 million with tertiary education in 2030 (UNDP MDG Africa Report 2014 PDF)