Thursday, January 27, 2011

Youth Unemployment: A Danger for Africa’s Future

The International Labour Organization (ILO) just released a frightening report on unemployment worldwide. It said that more than 1.5 billion people, or half the world’s working population, are in vulnerable or insecure jobs and that 205 million workers were unemployed last year. According to the ILO, the official figure is probably an underestimate because many people have given up trying to find a job. The most unsettling aspect of the report is that 77.7 million young people between the ages of 15 and 24 are unable to find work. This is a particular problem for countries in Africa.

There are 200 million Africans in this age range, comprising more than 20% of the continent’s population. Worldwide, youth are 43.7% of the total unemployed people even though they account for only 25% of the world’s working population. In sub-Saharan Africa, about 60% of the unemployed are youth, and an average of 72% of youth live on less than US$2 a day.

Young Africans have tried to seek better opportunities in urban areas, but too often find themselves stuck in slums with little or no way to make a survival salary. Many of them end up being paid as thugs by political parties or joining militias – not because of an ideological compatibility, but because they need to eat. Criminal enterprises also recruit from this pool of the unemployed, hopeless youth. This large, desperate and restive population poses a danger for many African countries. One of the underlying causes of the sudden revolt in Tunisia was high youth unemployment. While the overall unemployment rate in Tunisia is 13.3%, it is much higher among the young.

It is still higher in many other African countries, whose base unemployment rate is high to begin with:

Zimbabwe: 95%
Liberia: 85%
Mozambique: 60%
Djibouti: 59%
Namibia: 51.2%

With rates that high, the entire population is having trouble surviving, and youth are three times more likely to be unemployed than their elders, so there are veritable armies of unemployed youth eager to make a living doing whatever they have to do to survive. An increasing number of unemployed youth are college graduates. While some do leave for the developed world, many are stuck without the funds to go abroad. They are dissatisfied with what their governments have done for them and have the smarts to connect with others to channel their discontent into action.

The Tunisian example spread to Egypt, whose population is comprised by two-thirds under the age of 30. They make up an estimated 90% of the unemployed. Even though Egypt’s official unemployment rate is 9.4%, university students facing the prospect of no jobs and ever-rising prices are the moving force behind the Egyptian demonstrations that are demanding change. The wave of youth-motivated demonstrations for change in government have reached Yemen, and though the focus is now on the Arab world, African governments should be very concerned about what their youth will do given their economically dire straits.

If unemployment of less than 15% in North African countries boiled over into demonstrations, what might be the case in Africa, where more than 20 countries have equal or higher unemployment rates?

Poor governance, corruption and systemic economic problems certainly cause much of the unemployment in African countries. However, a lack of investment in enterprises that could create jobs also is at fault. If African countries can attract more investment – both domestic and foreign – then the problem of unemployment gradually can be minimized.

Many of Africa’s countries are sitting on a powder keg. More and more youth leave school each year, whatever the grade, with little prospect of honestly earning a living. They will not tolerate being kept in such a situation forever. With a window on the world provided by the internet, young people know how their status matches that of their counterparts elsewhere, and they now see that young people elsewhere are taking steps to remedy their predicament.

If you are a government leader in Africa, don’t wait too long to tackle this issue. Young people are notoriously impatient. Ask the Tunisians and Egyptians.

Monday, January 17, 2011

A Twitter Revolution in Africa?

Africa is a large continent with more than four dozen countries. It is difficult for any government to keep track of what is happening in all its countries. That is, of course, quite obvious, but it also is an explanation for why surprising things happen so suddenly on the continent. Such was the case a few days ago in Tunisia.

Tunisia has been an American ally in Africa and was considered safe enough to host the African Development Bank when Cote d’Ivoire became too turbulent. Little has been said publicly about Tunisia’s government being unstable. In fact, Tunisian President Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali was only the second president in the country since independence from France came in 1956. He had governed the country since 1987 and was most recently re-elected in 2009 with 89.62% of the vote. Yet Ben Ali has been forced to step down as president and flee the country.

So how did he come to be deposed within weeks of street protests and anti-government Internet activity being launched?

Corruption was perceived to be rampant in the Tunisian government. I use the term “perceived” because the government has been quite successful in keeping a lid on information. The media has not reported much of the negative side of Ben Ali’s rule and has made a strenuous effort to clamp down on the Internet, especially social media. Despite leading North Africa and the Arab world in the level of Internet access, Reporters Without Borders ranks Tunisia 164th out of 178 countries in its press freedom index. Tunisia is listed as one of the group’s “15 enemies of the Internet” and says it has established a “very effective system of censoring” the web.

However, its system apparently was not effective enough. BBC News reported that a steady flow of protest videos, tweets and political manifestos have made their way into Tunisian homes and offices in a variety of languages: Arabic, the Darija Tunisian dialect, French and English. In addition to informing Tunisians of the depth of misrule by their government, social media were used to coordinate demonstrations. Most of this activity was generated by Tunisians, though some came from abroad. Moreover, while unions and opposition political parties have played some role in the uprising that has now deposed the President, much of the anti-government content has come from average citizen bloggers.

In yet another example of unrest insufficiently tracked by Western governments, an ally was forced out without warning. I give credit to our intelligence services who may well have known how bad things were, but if their information was taken seriously by those who make our foreign policy, they surely kept it to themselves. The U.S. government now has issued a travel warning, but if the situation was looking as dire as it now is, why wasn’t there some prior warning for tourists and business people caught in the midst of the current unrest? A group of Swedish wild boar hunters were arrested for being in the wrong place at the wrong time in Tunisia, and I’ll bet they wish there had been some prior warning for them.

Ironically, some North African leaders, such as Libya’s Muammar el-Quaddafi, believe American intelligence services deliberately leaked information detrimental to the Tunisian regime to Wikileaks in order to bring it down. This belief also is catching on within the remaining government operatives within Tunisian. This conspiracy theory comes despite the American government’s battle with Wikileaks on other leaked cables that have proven embarrassing to the Obama Administration. Those who buy into this conspiracy don’t say why America wanted Ben Ali deposed and
Tunisia thrown into chaos; they just believe America is too all-powerful to get caught unaware by an Internet site.

Arab and North African leaders are becoming increasingly concerned that the Internet and social media could lead to their downfall as well. But little is said about how sub-Saharan Africa leaders may be taking the Tunisian example. Governments like Zimbabwe’s have made every effort to crack down in the Internet and social media for some time. The Tunisian example and the Wikileaks tales about U.S. views of their government leaders will undoubtedly lead to more repression on freedom of speech elsewhere in Africa, but we have gone past the time when that could be completely successful, as Tunisia has now shown.

Wireless Internet allows video and commentary to be distributed worldwide immediately, forcing transparency on government dealings when none is wanted. So if our intelligence services uncover weaknesses within foreign allies, those who execute American foreign policy need to take heed. Governments who replace those overthrown by the release of secret information will not be so friendly to an America complicit in their misery.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Building the Links to African Unity

There is a famous 19th century drawing of adventurer-businessman Cecil Rhodes standing like a colossus with one foot in South Africa and the other in Egypt. It symbolized his dream of a Cape to Cairo land connection. The British Empire that he represented wanted a road, but Rhodes preferred a railway. More than a hundred years later, that land connection is still not fully realized, and in the failure to complete it lays the explanation of why Africa’s transportation infrastructure remains inadequate.

The British saw this land connection as the key to advancing their commercial and military interests on the continent. The road (or highway) would link the British colonies of Egypt, Sudan, Kenya, Nyassaland (Malawi), Northern and Southern Rhodesia (Zambia and Zimbabwe) and South Africa. Unfortunately for the British, Tanzania (then Tanganyika) was a German possession until after World War I, but soon after the so-called Great War, Egypt became independent.

Then there were the problems of climate and terrain. Furthermore, French ambitions to link their territories in West Africa to Djibouti in the East and Portuguese ambitions to link Angola and Mozambique also interfered with the land connections the British sought. After World War II, the struggles for African independence put a final cap on British ambitions (as well as those of the French and Portuguese).

What the colonial powers left behind when their African empires finally ended in the last half of the 20th century was a conflicting collection of roads that didn’t connect neighboring countries, railroads of different gauges that could not be linked, ports that were too shallow or too small for significant cargo handling and air traffic designed to serve the colonial powers but not the Africans themselves. All too often, to get from here to there in Africa, you run into dead ends, impassable rivers, vast deserts and other natural and man-made obstacles.

Now that we are entering the second decade of the 21st century, it is long past time to identify and correct the problems that hamper transportation linkages on the continent and allow more efficient movement of goods and people. In his book “Guns, Germs and Steel,” author Jared Diamond explains that Africa’s geography has led to its fragmentation. He writes that the continent’s north-south orientation, as opposed to Asia, Europe and North America’s east-west orientation did not facilitate the sharing of culture and intermingling of people that allows unity.

But we now have the technology to overcome the obstacles that prevented Africa’s forefathers from learning from one another and becoming stronger for this sharing of knowledge. The question is now: Does there exist the will to create transportation infrastructures that allow for progress in the modern world?

There are efforts underway to address the obstacles to freer transportation in Africa. For example, the Sub-Saharan Africa Transport Policy Program is a partnership of 35 African countries, eight regional economic communities, the United Nations Economic Community for Africa (UNECA), the African Union’s New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) and the African Development Bank (ADB). The aim of this partnership is to better enable African governments to integrate their transportation strategies into their poverty reduction strategies. The driving force behind this partnership is a commitment to regional planning and cooperation.

The German Marshall Fund and the Hewlett Foundation are working on a Development Corridors program to stimulate the expansion of existing and creation of new transportation structures to allow African products, especially those produced by smallholder farmers, to be brought to market. The plan is to encourage public-private partnership that will allow currently underutilized economic potential to be realized more fully.

By the way, the Cairo – Cape Town Highway – envisioned by Rhodes more than a hundred years ago – has been taken up by UNECA, the ADB and the AU. When completed, it will link Cairo, Khartoum, Addis Ababa, Kampala, Nairobi, Lusaka, Harare, Gaborone and Cape Town and smaller cities and towns in between. Only this time, the road known as Trans-African Highway 4 will serve the needs and interests of Africans and not just those of foreign powers.

The positive cost-benefit ratio of investing in transportation infrastructure in China has demonstrated the wisdom of investing in roads, for example. At the G8 Summit in Gleneagles back in 2005, world leaders highlighted Africa’s lack of infrastructure as the main constraint on economic growth and development. The World Bank and other international organizations pledged create a diagnostic to determine the state of the continent’s infrastructure, but while we now know far more than we did before then about the limits of Africa’s transportation infrastructure, the financing of projects has been slow to materialize.

The World Bank estimates that US$93 billion in infrastructure investment is needed annually for African infrastructure to be brought up to date, but only US$45 billion are arriving. Now that African governments and regional institutions are cooperating in creating the necessary policy structure, perhaps lenders and investors will loosen the purse strings.

As the old saying goes: “God helps those who help themselves.” Apparently, international lenders and investors live by that motto as well.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Africa Predictions for 2011

When I looked ahead last January to important African developments in 2010, I focused on elections because they seemed to offer the most important events that could be foreseen. This new year is little different in that election issues are important, but there are non-electoral developments that loom large for the continent as well. The following are my five top forecasts for Africa in 2011.

1. The results of next week’s referendum on the independence of Southern Sudan could produce the world’s newest country or a renewed North-South conflict in that country. According to a recent article in the New York Times, neither the National Congress Party government in Khartoum nor the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement government in Juba wants a return to war because each has too much to lose. Both North and South depend on oil for most of their revenue, and renewed war would be devastating in that regard.

While that is true, and while Northern leaders have sounded accepting lately of the upcoming referendum’s likely results, the Khartoum regime has not taken any action in recent memory that didn’t have loopholes allowing it to renege on promises. In this case, the government has not removed its troops as required by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, continues to support rebels in the South and has prevented the full level of voter registration as required in the 2005 peace accord. That sounds like the government is hedging its bets. However inevitable independence of southern Sudan is, this will not be an easy process, and problem likely will linger beyond this year.

2. My next forecast is that for the more than two dozen African elections scheduled for 2011, the international community’s response to serious discrepancies could be different from what it has been -- depending on the outcome of the deadlock in Cote d’Ivoire. The usual international community response has been to complain about election irregularities when it involves an ally and sanctions when it is not a friendly government. Most often, the preferred solution has been to call for a government of national unity to smooth over problems. In the current Cote d’Ivoire case, though, there has been pressure on the presumed losing party to step down rather than accept the winner as a partner.

Having set this new precedent, it will be difficult to go back to taking the easy way out of electoral deadlocks in the future. Perhaps it also will encourage more international support for earlier training of parties and election officials and monitoring of the pre-election environment. It is much easier to prevent bad elections before they actually happen than to correct them once they have taken place. Elections in Nigeria, Egypt, Madagascar, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other countries are too important to rely on cookie cutter approaches to electoral problem solving.

3. In the largest change of land ownership since the colonial era, more than 50 million hectares of African land has been leased or is in the process of being leased by 20 African countries. This modern land grab is displacing African farmers and failing to create jobs for African workers. In 2011, the trend toward leasing massive amounts of African land will accelerate due to the continuing global food shortage and dwindling supplies of water. This shortage is especially acute in the Middle East, which happens to be the main source of African land leasing arrangements. In Madagascar in 2009, a government was displaced largely due to reports of a land deal with foreigners. Perhaps as early as this year, there will be other citizen eruptions because of what they see as negative consequences from these land deals.

4. African societies, especially in rural areas, cling to traditions that are sometimes millennia old. One of these traditions is the disdain for open homosexuality. Those who keep their sexual orientation to themselves usually are ignored, but in recent years, evangelical activists have taken their war against what they describe as the gay agenda to Africa to warn of foreign influences drastically changing African cultures. Some point to Zimbabwe, where gays there were encouraged by outsiders to be open about their sexuality. Unfortunately, African societies are not as tolerant of behavior celebrating what African spiritual leaders largely find as being n violation of religious standards. Apparently, these American evangelicals did not realize that African governments would not react as the U.S. government has. Gays have been arrested and prosecuted in countries like Zimbabwe and Malawi, and Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, speaking to supporters in November, called for gays to be arrested and jailed for their behavior. Pressure from the international community forced Uganda to back down from a law that would in some cases have sentenced homosexuals to death sentences. In 2011, the clash between modern views of human rights and traditional views of acceptable sexual behavior in Africa may come to a head, provoking court challenges to laws and rising harassment of openly gay citizens in African countries.

5. Finally, a hopeful sign in 2011 will be an increase in foreign investment. The continent as a whole is expected to see a growth rate of 5% or more this year. The fall of interest rates in many African countries is caused by lowered rates of inflation. Along with the anticipated rise in the level of bank credit on the continent, one can expect renewed interest in the more than two dozen African equity markets. Various economic analysts say the fastest-growing areas will be telecoms, banks, retail outlets and manufacturing. With the broad use of advanced telephones in Africa, many on the continent are in a position to take advantage of tele-banking. Members of the recent African Diaspora have been increasing their transfer of funds to Africa, and remittances now outpace foreign aid. Moreover, traditional elements of the African Diaspora, some of whom have been linked to specific countries through DNA testing, are taking a closer look at the African equity markets and see opportunities for profits that exceed what traditional Western stock exchanges are offering.

I see a mixed picture for Africa this year, with some progress and some challenges, but even the challenges provide opportunities for advancement.