WASHINGTON — Africa’s youth population is growing rapidly and within 30 years the continent will be home to about one-quarter of the world’s youth. At a recent congressional hearing, experts discussed how the U.S. government can help create opportunities for youth and and turn the “youth bulge” into a positive force on the continent.
“Going forward, U.S. policy towards Africa needs to take the long view and not be subject to short-term political whims.”— Macani Toungara, African affairs consultant
Too often the focus is on the risk that the youth population represents, but they can be peaceful drivers of political change and they need education and employment opportunities, Rep. Karen Bass, the Democratic chair of the House Foreign Affairs sub-committee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations, said at a hearing of the subcommittee on Thursday.
A group of Africa policy experts shared their recommendations about how U.S. policies can address the growing youth population. Those experts offered a series of recommendations: leadership training, support for SMEs, education and skills training, and trade policy changes.
Leadership and education
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Youth need more leadership and educational opportunities that help them form their own political identities and understand how to engage with their governments, said Krystal Strong, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
“My recommendations are that we better engage with young people where they are already socially and politically engaged, and that we leverage relationships with African governments to persuade current leaders to create youth-centered policies and leadership opportunities,” she said.
There are three tangible approaches the U.S. can take to to address these challenges, Strong said.
The U.S. should expand educational and leadership opportunities in the U.S. for young Africans, including expanding existing programs such as the Young African Leaders Initiative. The recent increase in travel restrictions to citizens of several African countries “undermines young people’s ability to take advantage of such opportunities,” she said. Lifting those restrictions is an important step.
The U.S. should also support youth leadership development in African countries themselves, Strong said. One way would be to expand the Young African Leaders Initiative regional leadership centers and improve the program so that those who are trained can replicate the programs in their communities, expanding the impact, said Macani Toungara, an African affairs consultant.
The funding for those leadership training programs could go to African organizations but the U.S. government would also need to help them build capacity to meet the reporting requirements.
‘Take the long view’
Many of the jobs that need to be created to employ the growing youth population will come from small businesses that they create themselves, but they need support from the U.S. government to be able to succeed, Toungara said.
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The U.S. should use Peace Corps to channel U.S. expertise in science, technology, engineering, and math, digital economy and important soft job skills into networks of youth-focused organizations in Africa, she said.
Public-private partnerships that bring knowledge, expertise, and market access to African communities and youth-led enterprises should continue to be supported, particularly through the USAID Global Development Alliance program, Toungara said.
As the U.S government develops programs it should engage youth in the process, because they want to not only influence their governments but the programming in their communities, she said.
There are lessons that can be learned from the U.S. Small Business Administration that should be adapted to help build the capacity of African institutions and organizations that are supporting small- and medium-sized companies, Toungara said.
“Going forward, U.S. policy towards Africa needs to take the long view and not be subject to short-term political whims,” she said. “The Chinese have been effective in positioning themselves as investment partners to African governments through their persistent presence and a strategy that engages the private sector, local communities and governments. The U.S. response to this dynamic should be to lean into the competition.”
“A strong reservoir of goodwill exists towards the United States among young leaders in Africa, we can tap into that enthusiasm to ensure that American businesses, goods and services are part of the economic fabric of a competitive African economy — one led by its youth,” Toungara added.
Often investments from other countries do not include skills or knowledge transfer and fail to create many jobs for African youth, Toungara said, adding that the U.S. could help African governments improve their negotiating skills so future contracts and investments require local job creation.
Institutions and protection
Africa’s youth need their countries and regional bodies to have strong institutions and effective governments to help “cultivate and nurture their economic potential,” said Thierry Dongala, founder of Accountable Africa.
“U.S. policy should work towards positioning Africa to protect itself militarily and also economically,” he said.
One way to do this is for the U.S. government to reconsider its opposition to the African Union’s 0.2% levy on eligible non-African imports to finance its operations, programs, and peace and security operations. The AU decided on the levy in 2016 and it entered into operation for member states in 2017. The U.S. has been opposed to the levy and Congress should hold hearings on the issue to revisit the U.S. position, Dongala said.
Another place where the U.S. could support Africa’s youth is with the African Continental Free Trade Area, which should have a component within it to protect the economic potential of youth, he said.