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Africa in Transition | Investing in Youth for Economic Prosperity

The Wilson Center’s Africa in Transition series, co-sponsored by the Population Institute, focuses on how often overlooked population trends—fertility, maternal mortality, migration, urbanization—shape sub-Saharan Africa’s chances for prosperity, health, and security. Please join the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program and Maternal Health Initiative, in partnership with Population Institute, for a discussion about impactful investments that country leaders can make to empower their countries’ youth.

Date & Time

Apr. 16, 2019
9:30am – 11:30am ET


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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“African countries are not in the middle of one transition, they are in the midst of several transitions,” said Parfait Eloundou-Enyegue, Professor and Chair of the Department of Development Sociology at Cornell University, at a recent Wilson Center event on demographic trends on the continent, and investing in youth to ensure economic prosperity. “All of these transitions are an opportunity for prosperity, an opportunity for growth, an opportunity to build human capital,” said Eloundou-Enyugue. However, demographic, cultural, political, and economic changes can also exacerbate existing inequalities between and within countries. The challenge is not only to build prosperity, but to do it for all, said Eloundou-Enyegue. 

The Demographic Dividend

The demographic dividend is defined as the accelerated economic growth that can follow a change in a country’s age structure as a result of falling birth and death rates. Decreasing fertility rates and lower child mortality causes the young dependent population to grow smaller in relation to the working age population. This means families are smaller, healthier, and can invest more time and resources in their children and the economy. But the demographic change alone is not enough to speed up growth that improves the living standards of most people. Musimbi Kanyoro, President and CEO of the Global Fund for Women, outlined four stages during which countries shift from experiencing destabilizing effects, such as epidemics and wars, to building human capital, personal savings, and investing in health, politics, education and ideas. Before the benefits of a dividend can be realized, countries undergoing the demographic transition must make strategic investments in health, education, and economic policy.  Many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have stalled at the stage of rapid population growth and high fertility rates but have not been able to make the necessary advancements in health and education to lower and stabilize these rates. Furthermore, issues relating to gender inequality, such as inadequate education of girls, gender-based violence, and lack of access to contraception and family planning, continue to prevent progress. Facilitating the entry and participation of women in the labor force is a proven key factor to achieving the demographic dividend, said Kanyoro. 

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Systems Thinking

Although many countries in Africa have made economic gains, their effects are felt by only a small group of people. According to the World Bank, 7 of the 10 most unequal countries in the world are in Africa. In addition to income inequality, fertility rates heavily fluctuate between the top and bottom income groups within Sub-Saharan African countries, with the richest people seeing the lowest fertility rates. This “compounding of income inequality and demographic inequality” both slows a country’s progress through the demographic transition, but also widens gaps between groups that persist through the next generation, said Eloundou-Enyegue. To address these disparities, innovative programs must find ways to think about the system as a whole rather than viewing different sectors as separate and unrelated. The PHE approach, which addresses population, health, and environment in conjunction, combines interventions to a make wider impact. “Integrating healthcare with management of wildlife is very important to contribute to conservation and sustainable development,” said Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Conservation through Public Health (CTPH). At CTPH, Village Health and Conservation Team (VHCT) volunteers work with communities in Uganda to not only protect critically endangered mountain gorillas but also promote conservation, hygiene and sanitation, sustainable agriculture, nutrition, and more. In the rural Bwindi area, the conservation and protection of wildlife is directly related to economic prosperity in surrounding communities. The nonprofit’s Alternative Livelihoods program offers training and access to markets to people living around protected areas. Many participants are former poachers who find viable livelihoods in coffee farming.  The volunteers also administer family planning injections in peoples’ homes to make family planning more accessible. Through their work, Conservation through Public Health has seen a threefold increase in homes with handwashing facilities, as well as overall reductions in disease transmission between gorillas, livestock, and humans. Family planning uptake has increased from 22 percent to 67 percent of women in the Bwindi area since the start of the program. Systems thinking also involves engaging with all groups and stakeholders in a system. For example, providing comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) to youth in schools is not enough to make a full impact. “Young people do not live in a vacuum,” said Unami Jeremiah, Founder of the Mosadi Global Trust, noting that they are part of a community. “If that community does not also have the same information that these young people are getting in the school set up, then as you get home, you might as well leave your CSE at the door.” 

The Future Workforce

Some 11 million young people are projected to enter the labor force each year for the next decade in Africa. Therefore, engaging with and investing in youth is not only crucial but also an opportunity for building human capital to progress toward the demographic dividend. Building human capital does not only occur in schools—it should be prioritized at all points from birth to the transition into the workforce, said Eloundou-Enyegue. Emphasizing equity in youth can break the cycle of inequality across generations. Equalizing opportunities at birth and in early childhood sets the foundation to allow for more merit-based systems later on, said Eloundou-Enyegue. Today’s young people have a wide range of varying experiences. To adapt to these realities, countries should diversify employment opportunities to create secure and sustainable jobs for young people’s varying skill sets. This includes elevating vocational training as a valuable option, as well as revising school curriculums to prepare youth for jobs of the future, such as in the field of technology, said Jeremiah. Eloundou-Enyegue also highlighted the tutoring industry, which not only employs young graduates but also utilizes them to improve the quality of school systems.  Governments must also be held “accountable for their actions and also their inactions,” said Jeremiah. National budgets should explicitly reflect investments in young people’s health, wellbeing and development by including funds for nutrition and comprehensive sexuality education. Additionally, international partners and donors should look to invest in ideas and projects led by young people, as well as already existing grassroots organizations and programs on the continent itself. Enough of doing pilot programs in Africa, said Kanyoro. “Believe in Africa and believe in Africans and you will see the contribution that we can bring to the world,” she said. Continue the conversation on Twitter by following @NewSecurityBeat and @Wilson_MHI using the hashtag #AfricainTransition. You can also find related coverage on our blog at

Photo Source: Photo credit: Doug Linstedt

Hosted By

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

Maternal Health Initiative

Life and health are the most basic human rights, yet disparities between and within countries continue to grow. No single solution or institution can address the variety of health concerns the world faces. By leveraging, building on, and coordinating the Wilson Center’s strong regional and cross-cutting programming, the Maternal Health Initiative (MHI) promotes dialogue and understanding among practitioners, scholars, community leaders, and policymakers.  Read more

Global Risk and Resilience Program

The Global Risk and Resilience Program (GRRP) seeks to support the development of inclusive, resilient networks in local communities facing global change. By providing a platform for sharing lessons, mapping knowledge, and linking people and ideas, GRRP and its affiliated programs empower policymakers, practitioners, and community members to participate in the global dialogue on sustainability and resilience. Empowered communities are better able to develop flexible, diverse, and equitable networks of resilience that can improve their health, preserve their natural resources, and build peace between people in a changing world.  Read more

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more

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