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Africa’s 21st-century challenges

Carlos Lopes
By Carlos Lopes
High Representative of the Commission of the African Union

Carlos Lopes is the former head of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. He is currently a professor at the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance, University of Cape Town and a visiting professor at Sciences Po in Paris. He is also a member of the Global Commission for Economy and Climate.

Posted on Thursday, 30 May 2019 13:50, updated on Monday, 3 June 2019 10:31

The continent's youth bulge and high unemployment are pushing the limits of the social contract between continents and generations. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

In the African context, the challenge of a new social contract resides mostly on balancing environmental and demographic concerns in the structural transformation process.

The contemporary interpretation of a social contract in any part of the world cannot ignore the demographic tectonic shifts that will define most of the early part of the 21st century. Africa has already the youngest population average of any continent and that record will be enhanced between now and mid-century.

Many would be worried about the size of this youth bulge in terms of economic opportunities and environmental stress. Yet one has also to bear in mind the rest of the world will be ageing, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries in particular.

This presents challenges of a completely different order, not least to expect intergenerational solidarity when the older generation is not living in the same territorial space as the younger generation.

New contracts needed

The acceleration of digital opportunities and computer-led technological developments will increase the pressure for new forms of social contracts.

Artificial intelligence, genomics, and 3D printing will be added to the knowledge-intensive capacities already being deployed through automation and robotisation. As a latecomer, Africa will have a much more difficult adaptation aptitude and can suffer from technological and innovation systems enshrined in the current intellectual property regimes.

Obligations to future generations present a central ethical problem, in terms of both how to approach the reality of an ageing population in most of the developing countries, in significant part of Asia and Latin America, and a booming younger population in Africa. Let us consider this conundrum.

Demographic dynamics

In the interest of intergenerational equity, how can we draw up a new social contract that will consider changing demographic dynamics? The answer to this ‘riddle’ will lie in the ability to right the youth asymmetry that the world is currently witnessing.

In its latest report on the global population trends, the United Nations said that the world’s population will increase to 7.2 billion and is projected to reach 10.9 billion by 2100. Population growth is likely to increase in the world’s poorest countries with high fertility rates, which are mainly concentrated in Africa. It is estimated that half of population growth between 2013 and 2100 will be concentrated in just eight countries, which are as follows: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Niger, Nigeria, India, Tanzania, Uganda, and the United States.

The current youth dynamics in Africa present a challenge. It is reported that in less than three generations, 41% of the world youth will be Africans. It is believed that between 2010 and 2020, Africa will add an additional 163 million people to its potential labour force. In addition, the African labour force is set to increase and outgrow that of China by 2035.

Government inadequacies

Approximately 54% of Africa’s youth is currently unemployed and more than three quarters live on less than $2 a day. In Africa, there is a tendency for youth unemployment to increase with the increase in education levels. Another constant factor is that government programmes, aimed at promoting youth employment, tend to be inefficient. This is the case for at least 21 countries in Africa.

This generation of young people have an enormous potential to expand Africa’s productive workforce, promote job creation and entrepreneurship, and harness the enormous resources that the continent is endowed with. Poor investment in today’s and tomorrow’s youth can constitute a blessing or a curse for the continent. Balancing the development sheet needs to be done in ways that do not leave the majority of the world’s population disenfranchised.

Many questions, fewer answers

But how prepared is Africa to deflect the potential tensions that can arise from an urban youth population that is rapidly growing, educated, unemployed, frustrated, and lacks a political space? Given the relative stagnation of employment in the 15–24 age bracket, how can Africa design and use a new social contract to ensure that the marginalised youth is not written off and fully absorbed in the economy?

The real challenge of the 21st century will lie in developing the ability to address this demographic mega-trend in a manner that will preserve the interests of future generations.

Intergenerational solidarity

The recent political developments have demonstrated that the principles that framed the understanding of intergenerational solidarity can and are being questioned when it is sociologically perceived that migrants from other regions are taking jobs from the citizens of Western countries.

Upon listening carefully to the populist arguments against opening societies that espouse multilateralism and expand humanitarianism, it becomes clear that the discussion about demographic mega-trends is unnerving. In the very near future, exercising intergenerational solidarity will entail a need for ageing countries to embrace those with a very young population.

The latter are mostly African and the former mostly Western. This is indeed a new brave world that many are not ready for.

This is an extract of “African in Transformation. Economic Development in the age of doubt” (Palgrave McMillan, 2019), the new book by the author out now.

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