Africa youth leadership: Building local leaders to solve global challenges

Vital Sounouvou (C) of Benin, raises his hand trying to be called on from U.S. President Barack Obama, at the Summit of the Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, July 28, 2014.     REUTERS/Larry Downing   (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS EDUCATION) - GM1EA7T017E01
Editor's note:

This blog post builds on the Brookings report entitled “Accountable Leadership: The Key to Africa’s Successful Transformation.”

Accountable leadership remains one of the biggest challenges to development in Africa. Leaders in Africa have not always responded effectively to the needs of the continent, but there is hope in the rising generation of youth who could play a critical role in building accountability for successful economic transformation, representation, and public service. The urgency of these efforts is not lost on the youth, as they have the most to lose if solutions are not enacted.

By 2030, 375 million young people in Africa will reach working age—a population equivalent to the combined populations of Canada and the United States. Just two years ago, the International Labor Organization reported that 160.8 million youth in emerging and developing countries were living in poverty, i.e., on less than $3.10 a day, with young women and minorities disproportionately affected. Youth unemployment, which improved from 11.6 to 11.2 percent in sub-Saharan Africa from 2008 to 2018, still needs much work to decrease significantly more. Part of the solution will be to strengthen democracy and governance systems throughout the continent.

Many of the countries that were swept up in the global wave of democratization and liberalization in the 1990s are now facing weak institutions and failing to fulfill citizens’ basic needs. Despite notable progress, too many citizens still face insufficient security, poor healthcare and education, unemployment, illegitimate elections, inadequate judiciary systems, and challenges to free expression and participation in civil society. But, young people across the continent are important to creating structural change.

Youth in power: A seat at the table is not enough

By current numbers, 70 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s population is under the age of 30, representing about 743 million of the 1.061 billion people in this region. This demographic bulge has significant implications for economic activity, public service provision, and state stability. By 2050, one out of three young people in the world will be living in sub-Saharan Africa. Given the actual high unemployment and vulnerable employment rates for youth, the group with the most at stake, young African leaders deserve to be part of the policy discussions that seek to find solutions to the challenge of employment.

Most African leaders are 55 years old or older, with some as old as 75. This represents a significant gap between those deciding policy and those who have to weather its effects. At the parliamentary level, only 14 percent of members are under 40 years old. African parliamentary compositions reflect the global trend, wherein only 14.2 percent of the world’s members of parliament are under 40 years old. With African countries on track to account for half of the world’s population growth and an exponential increase in the number of young people, the number of young parliamentarians should be higher.

Further, the youth need to take more places in presidencies, councils of ministers, parliaments, national committees, corporate boardrooms, and civil society organizational teams.

Several programs exist already for youth inclusion in decisionmaking bodies, including the United Nations Population Fund Global Youth Advisory Panel and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. But beyond symbolic memberships and flagship roles, youth should be fully vested with effective and executive responsibilities.

On the continent, some young people were appointed ministers by the age of 35 such as in Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, or Botswana. However, these outliers do not constitute the critical mass necessary for change.

Young leaders must have the courage to apply for official positions, and current officials should be willing to cede important tasks to young people’s innovative ideas and influence. The number of young leaders must be higher considering the demographics of the continent.

When young leaders reach positions of influence, they should focus on building strong institutions for accountability and educate people about the importance of broad accountability for a successful continent. Countries with higher levels of accountability collectively outperform those with lower levels. Youth leaders can advance civil society growth, poverty reduction, economic expansion, and innovation throughout the continent by strengthening the participation of women and youth, promoting human rights, facilitating access to justice, and ensuring inclusion of all communities.

The future of Africa and the world

Young leaders are poised to take hold of powerful organizations, institutions, and groups because they have already led change at the social level. According to the African Leadership Institute report, “An Abundance of Young African Leaders but No Seat at the Table,” approximately 700,000 young Africans have already been exposed to some form of selective leadership initiative, so the challenge now is to tap into these pools of young leaders.

Youth-led movements like Y’en a marre in Senegal and Balai Citoyen in Burkina Faso are testaments to young Africans’ capacity to reinforce constitutional accountability at the presidential level. Through self-organization and the integration of technology, youth have improved the implementation of programs and policy. Young people in Kenya, for example, used technology to track violence throughout their country in 2010 and increased political participation in their broader communities in the reporting process.

But to fully grasp the impact of youth on the economy and governance in Africa, more formal mechanisms of monitoring and evaluation should be devised to track and enhance youth engagement at all societal levels. Implementing reliable systems of assessment will also lead to more effective youth participation, representation, and policy influence if decisionmakers adopt corrective policies such as capacity building, quotas for elected positions, cabinet ministries, and boards of state-owned enterprises, among others. This assessment process should simultaneously identify opportunities to improve policymaking structures to respond to the time-sensitive needs of all African people. Effective and accountable leadership at all levels of society is the key to unlocking the potential of African youth to create economic, political, and social policies for their bright futures.