Never contend with a man who has nothing to Lose; for thereby you enter into an unequal conflict. The other enters without anxiety; having lost everything, including shame, he has no further loss to fear. He therefore re-sorts to all kinds of insolence. (Baltasar Gracián)
The Roman Catholic rector inked these words over 300 years ago. Going over them today, it is natural to imagine images of a safari gone bad and the eventual man-beast cat fight; I am however concerned with our ability to extract contemporary meaning from this wisdom packaged in historical wrappings.
To me they are a reminder that the African youths are starving in untold disgrace. This is not difficult to tell at all when our youths are less likely to be employed than our parents; when they are gambling their dignity away in slums and casinos. Despite being Africa’s biggest asset, a majority of us have chosen to give policy attention to the below market value oil discoveries or our occasionally good physical infrastructure. Yet while these assets are important, they are truly useful in the context of the generation for whom they are sought especially the over 200 million youths aged between 12-24 years in Africa.
Strength of the Bench
Our youths are the strength of the bench upon which we sit. They buy more Coca Cola that our parents buy milk; PnG and Unilever balance sheet is really a reflection of the youth preferences; when MTN and Safaricom think of growing data revenues they think youth. If they drive consumption then improving their purchasing power does well to us all. A World Bank report titled “Youth in Africa’s Labor Market” notes that reducing the difficulties youths face as they enter the work force and developing the skills needed to ensure gainful and productive employment can have profound effects on a country’s’ investment climate and prospects for growth.
An educated and healthy work force provides incentives for investment; unskilled and disillusioned youth make returns to investment low and uncertain. Supporting the youth transition from school to work is our best shot of enjoying the demographic dividend i.e. the benefit of having a larger working-age population than the dependent one that was enjoyed by East Asian countries. It can also be said of us, that we enjoyed an economic miracle because we treated our youth right.
How then can one account for the discordance between this knowledge and our actions? The answer may seem to lie quite on the surface: – OUR ATTITUDE towards the youth. We haven’t limited our starving them to our weak policy decisions, skewed rationale in hiring or even our half-hearted commitment to their well being; we have famished them with our condescending attitudes. We casually declare them lazy; say they need to work just a little bit harder; we push them to edges of immunity to shame, loss or anxiety.
I applaud, and celebrate true believers of the African youth, the corporate, individuals and governments. I call upon even more to realize that we are not a deadweight loss; a vexatious necessity that you have to attend to. Do not mortgage our future; give us more than cosmetic commitments; develop us from mere effective consumers to effective producers.
Why we will not win
Yes, I am aware that comparing our youth to a starved animal could be considered alarmist, but lining up for an eventual bite is not so smart either, or is it?
See, we did not cease treating women as less than men because of a guilt wave; we realized (though late) that we will never obtain and sustain success when half of our population was excluded from productive engagement. Continuous exclusion of our youth as a matter of policy or acceptable social norms gets us into an unequal contest littered with casualties and no winner; the kind to be avoided.
Simon NDIRANGU MWANGI (MS) is the Founder and CEO of TheBridgeAfrica – an enterprise that works with graduates, universities, employers and professional societies to achieve market ready status.TheBridgeAfrica–Connecting the Workforce to You.