Investing in youth in North Africa: popular support, priorities, and performance

By Quentin Wodon, Director of the UNESCO International Institute for Capacity Building in Africa (UNESCO IICBA) in Addis Ababa

November 1 is Africa Youth Day and an opportunity to recognize youth as key agents for social change, economic growth, and sustainable development. Youth are defined by the African Union as the population from 15 to 35 years of age. They account for over a third of Africa’s population and represent the continent’s future. They also matter for the world. According to United Nations statistics, by 2050, a fourth of the world’s population could live in Africa, and this could be the case for over one in three youths (by the international definition of 15-24 years-olds). The challenges brought about by Africa’s youth bulge are immense, but so could be the opportunities. This is also the case in North Africa.

Consider first the challenges and take Morocco as an example. Too many youths enter adulthood today without sufficient investments in their human capital. The World Bank’s Human Capital Index is based on six variables: (i) the probability that a child will survive past age five (98 percent in Morocco in the 2020 data update); (ii) the years of schooling that a child is expected to complete by age 18 (10.4 years); (iii) the level of learning that a child is expected to acquire (380 on a scale where 625 represents advanced attainment and 300 the lowest attainment); (iv) the learning-adjusted years of schooling that a child is expected to complete, a measure combining the two previous measures (6.3 years); (v) the adult survival rate (93 percent surviving until age 60); and finally (vi) the probability that a child will not be stunted in early childhood (85 percent).

Based on those six variables, the expected productivity in adulthood of a child is estimated in comparison to full productivity that could be expected with full education and health. The estimate is that a child born in Morocco today will reach only 50 percent of its potential, which is very low. Estimates for other countries in North Africa are similar. For example, in Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia, children born today are expected to reach respectively 53 percent, 49 percent, and 52 percent of their potential in adulthood.

To improve opportunities for youth, investments are clearly needed. Is there popular support for such investments, and if so, what should be the priorities for investments? Analysis of Afrobarometer surveys released today by the UNESCO International Institute for Capacity Building in Africa (UNESCO IICBA) provides insights on those questions (see IICBA’s Data Briefs). The data are representative at the national level. Respondents in the surveys are asked whether they would support higher government taxation to invest in youth.

Consider again the case of Morocco. In that country, well over half of respondents state that they would indeed support higher taxation for investments in youth, with youths slightly more likely to say so. Potential priorities for investments listed in the survey questionnaire are job creation, education, job training, business loans, social services (health, drugs), and a category for individuals stating that the government should not spend in those areas. Employment (job creation) is as expected the top priority, but education comes next, while social services rank lower. Very few respondents state that the government should not spend. The results are similar in Tunisia, although investments in social services are given a higher priority there. Data are not available for Algeria and Egypt.

The survey also asks about respondents’ perceptions of government performance in a range of sectors. The share of respondents stating that the government is performing fairly well or very well is low in Morocco as in most other countries, although they are higher for basic services (but not education) than for issues related to jobs and the economy. There has been an increase between Afrobarometer Wave 7 (2016–18) and Wave 8 (2019–21) in the perceived performance of the government in many areas, which is great news. Yet, there is still a need for improvements in basic services and other sectors to ensure that youth have the opportunities they need and deserve. In Tunisia, perceived performance has declined.

It was mentioned earlier that the challenges brought about by Africa’s youth bulge are immense, but so could be the opportunities, thanks to the extraordinary initiative and creativity that many youths in Africa already display. To celebrate Africa’s youth, IICBA interviewed half a dozen youths leading initiatives in service to others. Although none were from North Africa, their experiences are still relevant:

Emmanuella Luanda Musafiri, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo who lives in a refugee settlement in Uganda;
Jocelyne Cyiza Kirezi from Rwanda who works as a researcher for VVOB, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality of education especially in Africa;
Olga Tusala Katembo, a permanent volunteer of the International Movement ATD Fourth World in the Central African Republic, an organization with an outstanding record of working with the extreme poor and giving them voice;
Ousseynou Gueye, the founder of Polaris Asso, a nonprofit in Senegal supporting among others young girls and women in acquiring digital skills;
Rossette Kyakyo, the founder of Slum Youth Rehabilitation and Development Organization, a nonprofit working with youths in slum communities in Kampala to improve their livelihood; and finally
Zigwai Tagwai, a young Nigerian promoting active citizenship in governance processes while also working on a community development project.

Many other youths could have been interviewed, but these six interviews show the positive difference that youths already make today across the continent. We need to support them by investing in their future.

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