Africa’s future depends on the children we are failing

Africa’s future depends on the children we are failing
Illustrative image | Sources: EPA-EFE / Nic Bothma / Guillem Sartorio / Bloomberg via Getty Images

As Africa struggles to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic and the world begins to rebuild, it is time to consider what kind of future we are bequeathing to the youth of our continent.

Mcebisi Jonas is MTN group chairperson and former deputy finance minister of South Africa.

The pandemic has created a hinge moment for humanity. It has laid bare fundamental and disturbing truths about global inequality. And it has provoked a global discussion about the need for nations around the world to work together to confront monumental crises, such as pandemics or global warming. Africa is at the centre of all these challenges.

The entire world has a stake in the future of Africa, which is the youngest continent and the only one whose youth population is projected to increase over the coming century. By 2050, one out of three people under 24 on the planet will be Africans. Between now and then, the youth of Africa will increase by 522 million while the numbers in the rest of the world will decline by 220 million.

Today, almost eight out of 10 people in sub-Saharan Africa are under 35 and the median age is 19 years — a decade lower than the global median age of 29. 

By 2050, the population of Africa will double, and by 2100 it will triple to 4.3 billion. Half of the world’s population growth will take place in just six countries, five of them in Africa. Nigeria will have more people than China by the end of the century.

Unless this demographic explosion is accompanied by the kind of development that fundamentally alters the trajectory of growth and provides opportunities and pathways to a good life for all, a blessing will become a curse.

It is wrong to talk about a continent as varied and as complex as Africa as one place, but there are commonalities across much of the continent, the starkest being the way we are failing our children.

More than half of the youth of employable age in South Africa, one of the most developed economies on the continent, are unemployed. Further north, thousands of young Africans risk their lives every day to cross the Sahara Desert and to get across the Mediterranean in rickety boats, in search of economic opportunities that they cannot find at home.

There is even a word for African youth stranded without hope or prospects: Waithood. Young people are trapped and stagnating just as their lives are supposed to be taking off. They are no longer children, but have not yet become adults.

Mozambican anthropologist Alcinda Honwana says that African societies no longer offer reliable pathways to adulthood: “Traditional ways of making this transition have broken down, and new ways of attaining adult status are yet to be developed.”

This is partly a function of a rapidly urbanising continent. But whereas urbanisation has been an important driver of growth in Asia and Latin America, the new African cities are overcrowded, yet not efficient enough to promote scale economies or to attract capital investment.

A 2020 report produced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which uses spatial analysis to map the new urban geography of Africa, found that what is profoundly transforming African societies is the emergence of thousands of small towns and intermediary cities. “This heightened proximity between rural and urban environments gives rise to new and unique urban forms increasingly blurring the lines between rural and urban.”

These peripheral urban dwellers are not all poor, certainly not by the standards of young Africans of past decades. Many have university degrees and access to the wider world through smartphones and the internet.

But growth without opportunity is a dangerous mix as we are seeing with the emergence of Jihadi groups in Nigeria, the Sahel, Somalia and northern Mozambique. Recruits to these movements are almost exclusively young men lured less by ideology than by the prospect of material advancement — such as owning a motorbike, sharing the spoils of looting, or getting a girlfriend or wife.

Attempts to quash these insurgencies with military might alone will fail unless there are more attractive alternatives for people’s lives.

But how does Africa fashion a different future, when even after the most profound health crisis in a century, its major economies — Nigeria, South Africa and Angola, which make up 50% of the continent’s GDP — are recovering sluggishly and not even making up lost ground?

It will take exceptional leadership to transform this unique moment into a sustained and different future. It will involve rethinking the role of the state as an entity that is not just there to serve elites, but to manage society for the benefit of all. And before one shakes one head and says that’s not possible, this is not optional.

One consequence of the pandemic is the end of the neoliberal ideology of small government — even in Washington there is a return to some version of a development state — but African governments lack the means to finance a welfare state or implement the kind of stimulus that has got the US, European and Chinese economies back up and running.

Instead, the watchword should be nimbleness: the ability of the state to move quickly through thoughtful interventions that stimulate economic activity and create jobs while providing a basic safety net, especially in healthcare and ensuring human security and the maintenance of the rule of law.

African governments need to capitalise on the potential of their youth by investing in better-quality education and training, but this cannot happen in a vacuum in which young people are prepared for jobs that don’t exist. It needs to be targeted to growth sectors and the actual needs of economies.

There has to be a greater emphasis on urban planning to not only ensure that the new cities are liveable, but that they can open their doors to the world. City and country leaders need to work to allow the new cities to develop scale economies in line with successful urban development elsewhere in the world.

Africa’s people, given half a chance, are capable of miracles. The economic fallout from Covid was blunted by resilient Africans who went back into the marketplaces and found ways to survive and prosper. The pandemic showed that Africa’s greatest strength and dynamism is its people, especially the women who are mainstays of the markets.

Now, they need capital and a leg-up.

New forms of financing and mobile money are providing a bridge between the formal economy and the informal economy that will strengthen African businesses and consumers on the ground. 

But the reality remains that Africa needs more, not less globalisation. It needs global partners to access capital and new technologies that can provide a shortcut to growth, development, and solving problems in sectors such as energy, agriculture and health. And it needs to be more closely integrated into global supply chains.

As the world’s economies start firing again, demand for commodities will bring new revenue to the continent. But it is a competitive world, as Mozambique has discovered. Its natural gas bonanza is in danger of flaring out thanks to the insurrection and fighting in Cabo Delgado. The potential loss of $20-billion in investment, if it disappears, will go elsewhere as major producers of liquified natural gas look to places such as Guyana and Papua New Guinea to open up new fields to meet growing global demand for the one fossil fuel that will continue to strengthen.

In many instances, African states remain hamstrung in their options. Debt burdens have worsened during the pandemic and states such as Mozambique and Zambia are among the most highly indebted in the world. The World Bank has called for an all-hands-on-deck approach to the debt situation in Africa — and it needs to be responded to with urgency.

But the real challenge is accessing new money. To capitalise and develop the infrastructure needed to build modern economies, governments have to prove they are capable of repaying new debt. What will count for lenders (whether the IMF, China or the bond markets) will be sound policies, good governance and adherence to the rule of law.

Investors in Africa will not engage based on sentimentality. They will look to countries that are most welcoming to private investment and best placed to participate in global supply chains.

The counter-narrative is true as well. As the greatest reservoir of future demand, the global economy will be dependent on Africa and its youth for development into the 21st century and beyond.

African leaders have a critical role to play in ensuring that they take advantage of the opportunities that arise by strategically positioning their economies for investment and growth.

This is not a matter of a one size fits all prescription — as in the days of structural adjustment. The African economies of tomorrow do not have to follow one single pattern of development, whether by becoming Asian tigers or miniature versions of China or the United States.

Africa has its own strengths, its own attractions and its own unique beauty.

Thanks to the extraordinary talents of its youth, Africa is poised to lead the world in design, music, entertainment — parts of the economy that are seldom talked about. Africa’s greatest comparative strength is its dynamism and innovative power, as we have seen in tech-savvy cities on the continent where new ideas are being hatched. It is not a stretch to imagine that the next Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Ma will be Nigerian or Rwandan.

Out of the catastrophe of Covid comes the possibility for those who can seize the opportunity and take up the challenge. DM


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