Ngom: Investing in Youth Should be Africa’s Devt Priority

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As the African Union and member states move to improve overall development, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)’s Regional Director for West and Central Africa, Mr. Mabingue Ngom shares his views with Abimbola Akosile on the need for States to prioritise investment in youth to achieve rapid development across the region and the continent, among other issues

What major challenges have you experienced in your work as the Regional Director of UNFPA in the West and Central Africa region?
West and Central Africa’s (WCA) population is predominantly young. More than 64 per cent are under the age of 24. Young people are a tremendous resource for the region – but their potential will only be realised when the right investments in their education, health, skills and empowerment are made.

Young people comprise a significant percentage of the population and while many countries have already made progress in investing in young people, they must do much more if they want to harness the demographic dividend (DD) in this region. Young people in this region face considerable challenges.

This region has some of the world’s highest levels of child marriage, adolescent pregnancy and maternal mortality rates (especially among adolescents), unemployment and underemployment. This is indeed the region most left behind. Harnessing a demographic transition is at the core of what UNFPA is striving for in West and Central Africa.

What useful lessons and commitments did you learn and obtain from the 28th Session of the African Union summit held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia recently?
AU collectively endorsing a policy instrument is an important step but much more is needed to bring about concrete effects on the lives of the people. Translating the political commitment into concrete, sound and scaled-up programmatic interventions building on best practices/successful pilot initiatives should be the next steps and this cannot be done if there is no follow through.

Equally important is to move forward with getting things done with a new spirit: openness, partnership, focusing on what is to be achieved and putting all the necessary efforts, including fiscal efforts, in to such a vital endeavour.

African countries alone will not be able to do it, thus the need for institutions like UNFPA which play a vital role in engaging AU member states through policy dialogue to adopt the DD as their own development policy, and to engage state and non-state actors to build strong coalitions for the next steps.
Efforts must be made to enable behaviour change, not only at community and individual levels, but also at institutional level. Institutions supporting Africa and other developing countries must change to make this new initiative a real success for the people of Africa so Africa can finally end poverty, roll back misery and enter in the era of peace and prosperity. There will be no Africa We Want if we do not #PutYoungPeopleFirst and the demographic dividend is the way to go!

Africa has an increasing youth population; are there any useful tips for heads of governments on how to effectively harness this population size to help ensure a better development process this year?
There is an urgent need for a paradigm shift. African Governments must match national needs to a sequence of short and medium term investments that will ultimately protect and realise the rights of young people to plan their lives, be free of violence and trauma, have access to quality education and mentoring, and be assured of essential freedoms and reproductive rights.

There needs to be simultaneous investments in decent job creation, good governance, infrastructure, and a functioning business climate. This is crucial to deter youth from taking the dangerous and perilous journey of crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Europe in search of greener pastures.

We play a strategic convening role to bring together partners from Governments, Regional Bodies, UN agencies, CSOs, and young people to support multi-sectoral interventions and increase investments in young people, particularly adolescent girls, in order to realise the demographic dividend in the region.

Under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), there are so many development challenges facing Africa; which ones should have priority attention, in your view?
The 17 Global Goals are all crucial to the development of Africa and its’ people. However, in the face of scarce resources, there is a need for prioritisation to reap the maximum benefits. In my view and in the context of development, I think the priority focus should be ending poverty in all its forms (goal 1), ensuring health populations (goal 3), promoting inclusive and quality education (goal 4) and gender equality and women’s empowerment (goal 5). It is important to note that all the goals are inter-related but focusing on these goals for Africa will ensure a window of rapid economic growth leading to the Demographic Dividend arising from the bulging youth population of Africa.

Addressing unemployment especially among young people is key to ending poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. Youth unemployment has remained at twice the adult rate and whilst young people aged 15-24 make up about 37 per cent of the working age population, they sadly account for 60 per cent of all unemployed people in Africa.

The African Union has targeted harnessing the demographic dividend through investment in the youth in 2017; how best can this be achieved in all the regions?
Putting youth at the centre of our engagements and our development priorities is critical. We must put young people first if we are to harness the demographic dividend, build resilience and transform the continent to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and the Africa We Want.

Governments must make strategic investments and policy interventions that will allow parents to plan families better and to improve education; that will ensure skills development and strengthened health systems; ultimately leading to sound fiscal and macro-economic reforms, job creation, good governance and accountability. Investing in youth should not be lip service but a key national development priority.

UNFPA also plays a critical role in supporting governments and other partners to prioritise, strategise and invest in policies and programmes that will improve the lives of young people and result in the harnessing of the demographic dividend.

What are the windows of hope for the African girl-child and the youth in the present context of development for all?
Child marriage and FGM are severe violations of human rights. Approximately 15 million girls are married every year before the age of 18, with 39 per cent of them in sub-Saharan Africa. 30 out of the 41 countries with a child marriage prevalence rate of 30 per cent or more are located in Africa. Demographics also show that if the current trends continue, nearly half of all child brides will be African in 2050. The region of West and Central Africa has the highest prevalence rate of child marriage in Africa and the world’s second highest prevalence rate (after South Asia), with five out of six highest prevalence rate countries worldwide: Niger (76.3%), the Central African Republic (68%), Chad (68%), Mali (55%) and Guinea (52%).

There has been a growing momentum and recognition to end child marriage. At the regional level, the AU Campaign to End Child Marriage in Africa has been launched in 18 countries across the continent to date, including in 12 countries in the West and Central Africa region.

In June 2015, all AU Member States endorsed an African Common Position to End Child Marriage. The political momentum is also building at the national level as shown by the development of national strategies or action plans on child marriage – including in Burkina Faso, Chad, Ghana, Nigeria, with more countries in the process of developing similar initiatives.
UNFPA is the co-lead of the Global Joint Programme on Child Marriage, along with UNICEF. The Global Programme covers five countries in this region: Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Ghana.

What development outcomes have emerged from UNFPA’s collaboration with other state and non-state actors in West and Central Africa?

In 2016, the team at the UNFPA West and Central Africa Regional Office and in our country offices prepared and actively engaged constituencies so that in 2017 we can focus on securing resources and moving forward actions to har¬ness the demographic dividend in Africa.

Thanks to sustained advocacy, parliamentarians are also fully onboard to pass and implement laws that will provide a safe environment for our young people to reach their full potential. By cooperating, collaborating and communicat¬ing with our partners, we have seen improved re¬sults. In 2017, we will consolidate these partner¬ships and continue to drive their work forward.

Inequality and gender equality are prominent goals under the SDGs; what are the most effective ways of addressing these goals and their targets in Africa?
Africa’s progress will be constrained if the population is under-prepared, and every person, particularly every girl, cannot pursue her education, or navigate her transition to adulthood assured of her human rights. Such assurance includes the freedom to decide when and whom to marry, the timing and number of children, and the security to balance work and family life. Investments in the girl-child in Africa are key in bridging the inequality and gender equality divide.

The issue of commitment by States to agreements, charters, protocols and resolutions is a tricky one; how can this be tackled this year?
Unfortunately, as I often say, there was a roadmap in 2006, when the African Youth Charter was adopted, but there was no follow up. Actually, more than 10 years later, many countries have not still ratified the Charter. This means that we need to do better when it comes to the implementation of the decisions taken by the authorities at the continental level. That is my major concern regarding the demographic dividend. My second concern is the ability to work together on large-scale programmes and focus on a limited number of high-impact interventions, in order to change the lives of people.

Africa needs a strong commitment from its leaders to turn the utterances about the demographic dividend into practical actions. The demographic dividend is a real opportunity for the States and an appropriate strategy to rule out undesirable scenarios such as persistence of unwanted pregnancies, illegal migration, endemic youth unemployment, the rise of violent extremism and all the other scourges holding back the continent.

There is hope because African leaders have seized the opportunity and agreed to focus on the means to harness the demographic dividend and make it a continental initiative. This requires strategic investments for youth in priority areas such as education and training, health, wealth generation and governance.