Mahe, Seychelles-Africa will account for approximately 80 percent of the projected four billion increase in the global population by the year 2100, according to the United Nations (UN).
Africa’s population currently stands at about 1, 2 billion. In East and Southern Africa, adolescents and young people aged between 10 and 24 years represent nearly 33 percent of the total population.
That population of young people is projected to double by the year 2050. This can be an opportunity or a challenge, according to Frederick Okwayo, a Population Data Policy Advisor with United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in East and Southern Africa.
He said this to SADC PF Members of Parliament during a symposium at the beginning of the 41st plenary of the SADC Parliamentary Forum which took place last week.
The SADC PF organised the symposium to interrogate the theme: ‘Harnessing Democratic Dividend in Africa through Investment in Youth’.
Okwayo warned that the continent’s growing youthful population can pose a major challenge “if it is not properly invested in.” he cautioned the Members of Parliament drawn from 12 SADC Member States that Africa’s population was projected to constitute 40 percent of the world’s population by the year 2100.
In other parts of the world that include Europe, populations are not increasing. Okweyo said as things stand, people aged below 25 years of age make up approximately 60 per cent of the population in Africa. “We have a resource which, when invested in, we can leverage.”
The African Union has declared 2017 the year for harnessing demographic dividend through investing in the youths. Accordingly, African Member States are reportedly trying to figure out how they can tap into the demographic dividend that young people present.
Angling for the demographic dividend is being done through a variety of instruments that include Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) and Agenda 2063.
The demographic dividend refers to the economic benefit that can arise when a country has a relatively large proportion of working-age population due to declining fertility and mortality and when it effectively invests in their health, empowerment, education and employment through public action and private sector involvement.
“With timely, targeted and simultaneous investments at macro and micro levels, this shift can accelerate inclusive socio-economic development. Changing the age structure can produce a window of economic opportunity in countries undergoing a fertility decline,” Okweyo said.
He explained that, typically, demographic dividends start when fertility and mortality decline. “When fertility goes down, the population age structure changes, so that there are more people in the working age group population. When that happens, the dependency ratio declines.”
He stressed that demographic dividend presents potential for economic growth. However, it is not a given and should not be squandered.
“For it to become real, duty bearers who include Members of Parliament, development partners and the private sector need to make a lot of investments. The working age population has to be empowered, kept healthy, be educated and be highly skilled in an environment that offers decent jobs.”
Countries that have benefitted from the demographic dividend have done so through, also, increasing or expanding family planning commodities and services to change the population age structure. Such countries include those commonly referred to as the Asian Tigers.
In those countries there were, among others, assured reproductive health; major advances in the use of modern family planning; empowerment of women and girls to stay in school; avoidance of child marriage; improved quality of education; and expanded access to decent employment.
Okweyo cited a few of the many parameters that African countries, working closely with Members of Parliament, can focus on to derive the demographic dividend. They include maternal mortality; women in agriculture; low-life expectancy; rampant poverty; high inequality; low school enrolment rates in early childhood; and illiteracy as well as unmet needs for family planning.
“We need to provide resources or services to women so that we continue changing the population age structure but in a human rights perspective,” Okweyo said. Research conducted by UNFPA shows that to meaningfully contribute to the demographic dividend, the youth need education, empowerment and gainful employment.
MPs in the SADC region have their work cut out. The AU has identified four pillars that require focus: employment and entrepreneurship; education and skills development; health and wellbeing; and rights, governance and youth empowerment if Member States are to realise the demographic dividend.
Okweyo called on MPs to embrace and promote the concept of demographic dividend, allocate resources to undertake relevant research, and develop a roadmap and action plan. There will be need also to enact laws that ensure ratification, domestication and full implementation of all the AU shared values and instruments.
“There is need for laws that improve access to credit facilities for youths and establish and operationalise national and regional youth funds to increase young people’s access to business capital.”
Okweyo’s presentation sparked animated debate. The speaker of Malawi, Richard Msowoya said unless African members states begin to shun corruption, the demographic dividend would remain an elusive pie in the sky.
“While he (Okweyo) was speaking, I opened my smartphone and checked the index on corruption. There is a direct correlation between the level of corruption and the number of women who are dying in our country,” he thundered. He said technocrats – among whom Okweyo numbers – should help SADC Member States to stop corruption and all else would follow.
“We know all these things (how to realise the demographic dividend). We are eating that money; we are banking that money outside. Look at the neckties we are wearing here,” he quipped, adding: “If we fail to be honest to one another, we are not going to help this continent. The time has come to call a spade a spade and stop stealing from our governments,” he said.
Malawi lawmaker Joseph Njobvuyalema took issue with Okweyo for not talking about the youth’s responsibilities in the quest for the demographic dividend.
“Much as the youths enjoy rights, they have certain responsibilities and obligations to observe. We can invest in health, but it is their responsibility to protect themselves against contracting HIV. You can invest in education, but if they don’t observe the rules or not attend school, that investment would not be meaningful at all.”
Njobvuyalema said some youth had no respect for the public or public property.
“Some of us come from very poor backgrounds, but here we are with Masters’ degrees. We have secured good jobs because as youths, we carried personal responsibilities. Today, if a country makes a simple decision of hiking fees, the youths will go demolishing buildings. Very irresponsible! In your presentation these things did not come out.”
Senator Monica Mutsvangwa from Zimbabwe said today’s youth lacked mentorship and called on MPs to fill that gap. Zambian MP Elizabeth Phiri said some youth needed help in understanding the difference between wants and needs. “Instead of moving sensible things, they are crying for things which are not helpful. As a parent, I find it very, very awkward. What agenda are they moving?”
* Moses Magadza is communications and advocacy specialist at SADC PF.