By Sheikh Muhammad Ali Waiswa
In view of the population report 2019/20 which was recently launched on October 23, 2019, and the forthcoming population summit to be held in Kenya on November 12, 2019, I wish to draw lessons from the Arab world.
In the next 24 hours, more than 30,000 African youths will be entering the job market in search of gainful employment opportunities and, very often, idealised adulthood of the working man or woman portrayed in literature, media and even at family gatherings. The unfortunate reality is that most of these pursuits will end up in failure, regardless of the qualifications and experience of eager new hires. And that is being optimistic.
The UN projects that by 2050, Africa's youth population is likely to grow to 830 million. That is roughly twice the current population of the entire Middle East and North Africa. In most of Africa's 54 countries, youths are the largest demographic.
On average, 41% - 45% of Africa's youths are below the age of 15, while 19% - 28% are between ages 15-24. These numbers are not likely to decrease given high fertility, poor family planning, and declining infant mortality rates. Africa's total population is expected to grow to more than two billion in the next three decades.
The most troubling aspect for the continent, which, especially affects the 18-30-year-old demographic, is the catastrophic lack of economic opportunities. Africa remains the poorest continent on the planet, home to 28 of the world's poorest countries. Nearly half of the African population lives on less than $2 a day, which translates to nearly 300 million people going to bed hungry, underfed and malnourished.
Some 38% of African adults are illiterate, the majority being women and these numbers are not likely to change given the persistent exclusion of girls from education opportunities.
For those who still manage to get into school, there is pervasive learning crisis that affects the quality of education and even its delivery. For instance, according to World Bank report, 75% of second-grade students failed to count beyond 80, while two out of five could barely complete one-digit addition.
In reading, the numbers are even worse, with 50% - 80% of second graders not being able to answer a single comprehension question based on a short passage, while an even larger proportion failed to read a single word altogether.
Only 10 of the continents 54 countries have more than a $100 per-capita public fund for health care expenditures. Households increasingly spend more of their limited funds securing health care services or worse, not seeking proper medical care, which worsened public health concerns such as the prevalence of HIV/AIDS cases. Africa has more than 25.7million people living with HIV, constituting the most cases by far worldwide.
Sub-Saharan Africa lacks adequate number of medical professionals such as physicians, nurses and midwives. The World Health Organisation estimates that there has to least have to be 2.5 medical staff per 1,000 people in order to provide adequate primary care. For most countries in Africa, there's less than 0.1 medical staff per 1,000 people, with some as low as 0.01.
This trifecta of poverty, illiteracy and poor healthcare often worsens crises such as the spread of infectious diseases, as happened in West Africa from 2014 to 2016. Currently, an outbreak of Ebola in Congo is likely to continue spreading even beyond its borders.
Numbers do not lie and this is not mere hyperbole. But we should avoid a familiar trap of quantifying Africa's problems and producing alarmist literature that fails to produce positive results on the ground. What the continent needs is serious engagement across the board. It is also important to draw inspiration from other regions that share some of these problems.
For that, the Arab world provides some unique lessons for African policymakers, especially what to avoid regarding youth policy.
The current reality and past failures in Arab world to take advantage of opportunity that its own youth bulge presented should be avoided in Africa. For the continent, developments in the Arab world, especially any successful or failed attempts at transforming education, private sector development and creating sufficient opportunities for young adults are crucial learning opportunity.
The first step is addressing the quality of education and improving access to it. Governments can do so by reforming national education curricula, practices, oversight and regulations with the aim of providing higher quality learning.
Universalising education and even making it mandatory up to a certain age will go along way forward giving young girls access to education and the opportunities to utilise talents, skills and other gifts beyond the home. It is still possible Africa to turn its youth bulge into a boon rather than a future curse.
The writer is the Second Deputy Mufti of Uganda Muslim Supreme Council, the Imam of Makerere University Business School and a national population champion and executive board member of the Interreligious Council of Uganda