An investment in Africa's future

Rural youth need viable livelihood opportunities to escape out of poverty and realize their aspirations. How could they be helped to fully unleash their potential? This is an aloud call that needs novel strategies among governments, policy makers, and international development partners and donors.

© Abate Damet, Kora Images

Dr. Essa Chanie Mussa

Dr. Essa Chanie Mussa / ZEF

Dr. Essa Chanie Mussa is Assistant Professor at the University of Gondar. He holds a PhD in agricultural and development economics from the Center for Development Research at the University of Bonn. In addition, he works as a research analyst for the UNICEF Office for Research - Innocenti, Social and Economic Policy in a project to build an integrated safety net for the most vulnerable women and children in rural and urban Ethiopia.

In 2006, the African Union adopted the African Youth Charter, a policy and legal framework, outlining strategic directions on youth development and empowerment and consequently to ensure their active engagement in shaping African future path. The continent’s youth population, those aged 15-35 years as defined by the charter, constitutes about 40 percent of the population, and Africa is said to have been experiencing a youth bulge in recent years . Therefore, all those happened and not happened to the youth are more likely to determine how Africa meets the future. However, some alarming and depressing figures characterize current African youth— a major concern and challenge to governments, policymakers, and development partners. The 2015 International Labour Office report shows that while globally about two-thirds of youth remain in working poverty, affecting as much as 169 million youth; in sub-Saharan Africa, nine in ten youth (about 92 percent) remain poor or near poor. The report also shows that employed youth are more likely to be poor compared to their adult counterparts.
Since investments in education, health, nutrition and pro-innovative behavioral developments take time to manifest over individuals’ life course, a novel approach to address many of the underlying youth problems in rural and urban Africa alike, as in other parts of the world, is without doubt to turn into investment in children, mainly in rural areas where the majority of African youth live. This is an untapped opportunity for Africa that with highly promising solutions for many of its unfolding problems. This article presents major theoretical arguments for and empirical evidence on how childhood conditions unfold later in life and provide life-time opportunities to shape most of the youth labor market and life outcomes in Africa, mainly in rural areas.


Investments in early human capital formation and outcomes later

Ich bin ein Alternativtext
Children are selling biscuits and chewing gums on the street to passing-by travelers when breaking for breakfast and lunch. Photo: Essa C. Mussa
Youth education and health are keys to harnessing the African demographic dividend—the surest pathway to reducing poverty and achieving rural development, accelerating structural transformation, and meeting and sustaining the sustainable development goals over the next several years. Investments in childhood education and health, in this regard, have proved beyond doubt to have profound long-term effects on youth and adulthood labor market outcomes and wellbeing. For instance, an earlier study from the UK shows that children from the highest quartile of test scores at the age of 7 earned 20 percent higher wage at the age of 33 compared to their peers from the lowest test quartile. In the US, it is also found that about 12 and 11 percent of the variations in high school and college completions, respectively, are explained by test scores and background variables measured between the ages of 6 and 8 years. What is more, a different study also indicates that a 10 percent increase in parental investments at ages 6 to7 years increases earnings by 24.9 percent, and increases the likelihood of graduating high school by 64.4 percent. We have, however, scare similar evidence from developing countries due mainly to lack of long-term data to understand how childhood conditions manifest in the future. Exploring the limited evidence in this regard from a developing country perspective, researchers from Center for Development Research (ZEF) of University of Bonn, find that in rural Ethiopia while long-term school progression to full primary education is generally lower, children (aged 4-14 years) who exclusively attended schooling and combined work and study, relative to their working-only peers, attained three more years of schooling after sixteen years. They also find that schooling during the ages of 4 and 14 resulted in significant earnings differential: School-children earned about twice as much higher income in self-employment non-farm jobs in the adult labor markets as to those who were mainly working. These evidences boldly suggest that African governments are compelled to prioritize child education and propel future growth and development using educated, aspired and innovative youth. The problem is more serious in rural areas —areas disadvantaged in infrastructure, budgeted inadequately and child labor is pervasive, suggesting that education systems have to give special attention to rural areas.

What we know so far, it is very difficult to take remedial measures to rectifying childhood health shocks in developing countries and catching-up with their unaffected peers is very thin. For instance, the 1919 Brazilian cohort who was affected by the pandemic in utero attained 0.2 years fewer schooling, earned  20 percent lower wages, and the affected-individuals were five times more likely to be unemployed. This clearly shows that in order to positively influence rural young people’s wellbeing, governments need to start acting to improve early health human capital formation. We also learn useful lessons on what would have happened if actions were taken to one of the most prevalent health shocks in rural Africa: Malaria. It is estimated that a complete eradication of malaria infections resulted in a rise in adulthood income by 47 percent in the US, 45 percent in Brazil, 45 percent in Colombia, and 41 percent in Mexico. Although the evidence remains to be almost absent in rural Africa, it can be safely argued that investment in childhood health, combined with quality education, enhanced access to preventive and curative child health, and implementing effective diseases control and vaccination, through affecting children’s behaviors, could have contributed to preventive health practices of youth which is vital to control crime, malaria, and the spread of communicable diseases such as HIV/ AIDS among youth.

Child nutrition is a master key to unlock many of long-term life gates

Ich bin ein Alternativtext
A rural youth in Ethiopia transporting goods with camels from per-urban to rural areas. Photo: Essa C. Mussa

As much as one sees opportunities in investing in child education and health to help young people fully realize their potentials and effectively employing them in national economies, these efforts depend so much on the states of child nutrition. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reports that 165 million under -5 children are stunted (too short for their age) in developing countries while 146 million are underweight and undernourished due to acute or chronic hunger in these countries. Other estimates also show that more than 200 million under-5 children unable to reach their full potentials in cognitive development due mainly to poverty, poor health, and mal(under)nutrition. Moreover, hidden hunger or deficiencies of important micronutrients are expected to have affected about two billion people globally; rural African children could be most affected with life-time consequences. This is a serious problem that hampers the efforts to build a healthy, productive, and skilled labor force in the continent and at the same time calling for short and long-term measures.


The literature gives us strong evidence that in Sub-Saharan Africa, a region with the highest proportion of disadvantaged children, their position resulted in an above 20 percent reduction in adulthood income and more likely to transfer to the next generation. This is still a useful input to policymakers in Africa and development donors to prioritize investing in disadvantaged children, mainly of those in rural areas, and from poor families, to break the poverty cycle in the continent.


The effects of child labor: a double-edged sword

Clean water is essential to child health but a grave problem to many African rural people. Photo: Essa C. Mussa

Globally, about 152 million children aged 5–17 years are child laborers, of which about 72 million reside in Africa (59 million in sub-Saharan Africa). About 85 percent of child labor in Africa (71 percent globally) is found in agriculture, affecting the lives of about 50 million children due to long working hours and associated occupational hazards. Unlike other regions, sub-Saharan Africa, a region with the highest prevalence of child labor in the world, witnessed a rise in child labor from 21.4 to 22.4 percent between 2012 and 2016. There are disputes among researchers whether child labor actually impedes long-term outcomes or positively contributes to outcomes later in life. In Brazil, it was found that entry into the labor market before the age of 12 reduces adulthood earnings, while another study shows that early entry into the labor market tends to reduce lifetime earnings and increase the likelihood of being poor when adults.


On the contrary, a long-term study unravels that, in rural Ethiopia, while full-time childhood work reduces grade attainment by half compared to full-time school children after 16 years, those who combined work and study attained more years of schooling even compared to full-time schoolchildren and earned higher income in non-farm self-employment jobs. Such contending evidences suggest that child labor is like a double-edged sword which can be used to children’s long-term development but if it is excessive or exclusive it surely impedes their long-term development, productivity and wages. This implies that African countries should devise mechanisms to differentiate and eliminate the forms of child labor which is damaging and against their schooling from those by which children use to lean important life skills. While poverty is often cited as the culprit of child labor, culture and opportunistic behaviors may also contribute to the wider prevalence of child labor and for its inter-generational transmission which tends to maintain poverty and inequality between generations.


The way forward

Youth harvesting Barley in rural Ethiopia. Photo: Essa C. Mussa

African rural areas should be changed from a place where youth aspire to out-migrate to a place of hope and filled with opportunities to young people to stay and prosper. Given the crucial roles of childhood periods to outcomes later in life, there is no disagreement that investing in children is the key to build aspired, productive, innovative and skilled rural youth labor force in the long-term, but gravely ignored. Accordingly, rural development programs including social protections should be child development sensitive and that African governments need to work to remove all impediments (in the short-and long-term perspectives) against youth to participate in the labor markets. Early childhood quality education and health care facilitate later human capital investments among youth, smoothing the school-to-work transitions. In that way, African countries can reduce youth underemployment, precarious employment, vulnerable and informal sector employment, unemployment and youth working poverty.

Über den Autoren

Dr. Essa Chanie Mussa

Dr. Essa Chanie Mussa / ZEF

Dr. Essa Chanie Mussa is Assistant Professor at the University of Gondar. He holds a PhD in agricultural and development economics from the Center for Development Research at the University of Bonn. In addition, he works as a research analyst for the UNICEF Office for Research - Innocenti, Social and Economic Policy in a project to build an integrated safety net for the most vulnerable women and children in rural and urban Ethiopia.

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