UNICEF outlines groundwork to harness Africa's demographic dividend

Young women learn sewing skills at a vocational school at the Kiryandongo refugee settlement in Uganda. Photo by: Chantal Rigaud / GPE / CC BY-NC-ND

ABIDJAN — To harness the benefits of Africa’s demographic shift, the continent will need to train 11 million new social service workers by 2030, including 5.8 million teachers and 5.6 million health workers, according to a recent UNICEF report

The report details both the potential of Africa’s young population and the immense groundwork necessary to translate population shifts into economic prosperity.

Half of the world’s population will reside in Africa by 2050, a large share of whom will be under age 18. Most African countries are now seeing a decline in birth and death rates and a shift in working-age populations that could accelerate economic growth.

“Human potential needs to be invested in to be realized,” David Anthony, co-author of Generation 2030 Africa 2.0 and UNICEF head of policy analysis, told Devex. “That means three things: you need to be healthy, educated, and empowered.”

The report identifies three policy actions for building Africa’s human capital over the next 10 years. First, to scale up essential services in health, social welfare, and protection to meet international recommendations. Second, to transform Africa’s educational, skills, and vocational learning systems through curriculum reform and access to technology. Finally, the report urges protecting Africa’s women and children from abuse and harmful cultural practices.

To achieve those three objectives, UNICEF urges governments to make health and education higher budgeting priorities. World Bank statistics show that government expenditures on education in Africa range from 5 percent in countries such as Kenya to 2.5 percent in Sierra Leone. The global average is 4.7 percent. Spending on health care is also generally below the global average of 10 percent of GDP.

The report aligns with similar policies from the African Union, which named 2017 the “year of harnessing the demographic dividend through investments in youth.” The AU has held high-level policy meetings, donor roundtables, and youth forums to promote employment, entrepreneurship, education, skills development, health, rights, governance, and youth empowerment. The regional body is expected to present a continental plan to address the demographic shift at a January 2018 heads of state meeting.

Much of the shift now underway has been made possible through past improvements, for example the doubling of access to education in Africa since 1990. The continent has seen a significant decrease in under 5 mortality and an increase in the number of births overseen by skilled attendants. However, 26 percent of women have unmet family planning needs and an estimated 39 percent of girls are child brides, serving as a bleak reminder of areas that need improvement.

If not adequately harnessed, population transitions could have a devastating impact on development efforts and stability, Anthony said. Poverty can “sow the seed for insecurity” that could prompt a “vicious cycle if investments don’t happen or if they are made after the issues [have] already become unbearable,” he said.

Educational systems must prepare youth for the current and future job market, the report argues. Anthony said reaping a demographic dividend will require a balance of sound strategies, enhanced implementation capacity, financing, and political will.

“It’s more of an issue of prioritization,” he said. “We would encourage governments … to refocus attention on investments on children and youth, which are by far their greatest assets — much more than oil and agriculture.”

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About the author

  • Christin Roby

    Christin Roby worked as the West Africa Correspondent for Devex, covering global development trends, health, technology, and policy. Before relocating to West Africa, Christin spent several years working in local newsrooms and earned her master of science in videography and global affairs reporting from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Her informed insight into the region stems from her diverse coverage of more than a dozen African nations.