Carlos Lopes

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African Youth: the custodians of a new social contract

20 September 2013
African Youth: the custodians of a new social contract

History has shown the tenacity of African youth. Some of the most renowned figures of Africa’s independence struggle started their political engagements as young adults. By the time he turned 37, Kwame Nkrumah was deeply involved in the planning of the 1945 Pan-African Congress in Manchester. Abdul Gamel Nasser, at 35, was a colonel in the Egyptian army and became President at 38. Frantz Fanon at age 27 wrote his first book to worldwide critical acclaim. Other leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Patrice Lumumba and Modibo Keita were all, in their youth, thinkers and change makers, recognized for their contributions. Indeed, my own mentor, Amilcar Cabral, by age 26, had founded several student movements dedicated to promoting the cause of liberation of Portuguese colonies in Africa. When he died at the age of 46, he had achieved more than many people do in several lifetimes. These are only a few examples of 20th century African leaders who, during their youth, were and continue to be a source of inspiration to Africans and the world at large.

By comparison, how well are today’s African youth leaders supporting Africa’s transformation process? Our youth is still struggling to make their voices heard in all spheres of influence. For example, the current median age of African leaders is 3 times the median age of the African population. African leaders seem to be less willing today to open up space for political engagements. In North Africa for example, over a period of more than 40 years, failed to develop open and pluralistic political systems giving little scope for citizens’ participation, especially the youth’s participation in civil or political life. Analysts see this as one of the systemic failures that spurred the swathe of political uprisings, mostly led by unemployed young men and women.

Approximately 54% of Africa’s youth is currently unemployed and more than three-quarters is considered poor. In many African countries, the informal economy is the largest provider of jobs for youth. For instance, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo 96.2 % of young workers are claimed to be informally employed; in Cameroon the percentage would be 88.6 and in Zambia, it is said that no less than 99 % of working teenagers work in the informal economy. In Africa, the tendency is that youth unemployment tends to increase with higher education levels. In Morocco, for example, ILO estimated that the unemployment rate for youths age 15-24 in 2004 was 7.7 percent for workers without a diploma, 28.1 percent for those with a baccalaureate, and 61.2 percent for those with a university diploma or higher. Although educational attainment levels are on the rise, Africa, compared to the rest of the world tends to lag behind.

This situation is worrisome. When we look at the current demographic mega trends, it is even an anachronism. Africa’s population is growing at a faster rate than any other region. Not only is it increasing in numbers but, more importantly, the population is growing younger. In 2010, 20.4% of Africa’s population was between 15 to 24 years. Further projections show that by 2020, 3 out of 4 Africans will be on average 20 years old. It is also estimated that by 2100, 10 out of the top 20 most populous nations will be in Africa- these are Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Niger, Nigeria, Sudan Tanzania, and Uganda.

Whilst Africa’s population is growing younger, the irony is that other parts of the world are growing older. The European Union, Japan, China and many other countries in the Americas are recording extremely low levels of fertility with severe repercussions on current labour supply. For instance, China and the EU’s labour supply are in a decline - after peaking in 2010 - and the Japanese population is expected to fall by up to a third in the next fifty years; with almost 40% of the population being 65 years old or older. Most of Latin America will also follow the same trend.

The glaring reality shows that there is increasingly an imbalance in the world’s demographic system and this has consequential effects on markets and social structures. A younger Africa with excess labour versus an aging world with manpower shortage. A younger Africa with a creative, resourceful and increasingly educated youth versus an aging world with demands for innovation and new thinking.

How do Europe, Japan, China and others aim to fill the void that is emerging in their societies as the skills, strength, labour and creativity gap left by their aging societies grow and affect their lifestyle? Today’s elderly generations in developed countries are able to enjoy a relatively prosperous retirement mainly because of their strong social welfare system, built on the shoulders of a large younger working population. To what extent can these countries sustain their social welfare contract with the old without re-negotiating a new contract with the places in the world where a large workforce will be able to sustain future generations?

This demographic and geographic asymmetry needs to be corrected by calling for a new global social order that takes into consideration the interest of intergenerational and intercontinental equity. Given that Africa will be the custodian of a younger generation, how can Africans “cut a deal” with the rest of the world, in order to harness the considerable potential that this demographic dividend represents?

Three hundred years ago, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, considered one of the most original philosophers of the Enlightenment, was born. His seminal work, ‘The Social Contract’ gives us a starting place for this discussion. Rousseau considered the possibility of balancing the relationship between humans and nature. He also looked at creating a society based on the principles of equality, freedom and participatory governance. The concept of a Social Contract was important in breaking the entrenched structural inequalities that existed in the 18th century and the promotion of the ideals of equality and human rights.

The 21st century is different from the Enlightenment era. Different challenges exist such as the paralyzing breakdown and collapse of an economic system that makes us question current economic models, the increase in the number, intensity and impact of environmental and social crises transcending national and continental borders and requiring collective global actions. These new challenges call for, now more than ever, a need for alternative development thinking and a new intergenerational justice, where the needs of future generations inform the activities of the current generation.

Just as Rousseau’s Social Contract did, we need to create a new Social Contract that is based on the original principles but goes beyond them. It needs to address current challenges, such as creating a redistributive system that is “solidaristic” and helps to enhance both intra-generational and inter-generational equity as well as create new institutions that can lift people out of poverty.

This is the real challenge of the 21st century and Africa’s youthfulness potential cannot be taken out of the equation. African youth seem to be up to the challenge. Current change makers such as Ashish Thakkar, the youngest African billionaire, highly acclaimed Angolan writer Ondjaki, Ethiopian CEO of Sole Rebels shoe company Bethlehem Tilahuan, Saheed Adepoju, inventor of Nigeria’s first Android tablet and renown Ivorian footballer Didier Drogba continue to raise the bar in their areas of expertise. Other African youth accomplishers like Kenyan Ory Okolloh inventor of the Ushahidi software, South African Fred Swaniker, who unearths and grooms young talents, Ghanaian investigative journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas whose undercover work on corruption and human rights abuse has led to policy change across the continent, or Moroccan Hip Hop Group H-Kayne are all making a difference. Indeed the role of Tunisian youth Mohammed Bouazizi in the North African Revolution has been labeled by Academic Larbi Sadiki as an event that has ‘changed the course of Arab political history’. These young people, just like their forefathers, continue to break new frontiers in science and technology, entrepreneurship and business, the arts and music, and change the political landscape of their times, using enablers such as social media or civil movements.

Is a new Social Contract utopian? Our collective interest is strongly rooted in our ability to institute the behavioral response that will ensure that, whilst cognisant of a risk sharing approach, we are also willing to spread opportunities that will provide safety nets to this and future generations. Africa has been described as the continent on the rise. It is gradually becoming an economic powerhouse, registering significant increases in GDP rates. A new Social Contract that will keep growth rates steady and equitable, and inspire new found confidence in the youth will enable the continent to actively pursue its “sprint” to transformational development.