Governments, companies and international groups can all play a role in reducing unemployment
For about two decades, Africa has achieved rapid development with an average GDP growth rate at about 5 percent, yet there are some hindrances that have held back development.
Looking at the whole picture, we find a dilemma in economic structure. On the one hand, there is a great demographic dividend and vast opportunities. On the other, high unemployment is a headache for many African countries.
What went wrong? Isn't it strange that there are so many opportunities in various sectors while many young people are unemployed?
Lack of education is obviously a problem for many young people in some regions and countries. Take Nigeria, for example. Education is badly needed. But when education is provided, the link between education and employment is sometimes lacking.
Graduates are seen wandering about the streets of such cities as Lagos, Abuja, Nairobi and Johannesburg, peddling wares to earn a little money, without a permanent job. The bottleneck is the lack of proper skills.
What is the solution? Government, enterprises and the international community should place great emphasis on professional and vocational training.
As for African governments, the most important thing is to decide on their national strategy for development. That is, they should decide what is the best way to develop their economy and create a better society. Industrial upgrading and technological progress cannot be achieved in one day, so it is not wise to think of catching up in all fields with developed countries overnight, or of trying to learn the world's most sophisticated technology immediately if starting from a low level.
The proper way is to choose the most suitable fields according to a nation's own conditions. It is essential to target the most advanced technology in the world as an eventual goal, yet it is more important to take a down-to-earth path by choosing the most suitable areas in which to catch up.
For many African countries, labor-intensive industries are the most suitable field for several reasons. First, the domestic market is huge, since most African countries have to import a lot of products. Second, there is ongoing industry transformation and technological transfer in the labor-intensive area from developing countries in Asia and Latin America. Third, labor-intensive industries can immediately absorb many young laborers and help solve the problem of unemployment.
The African Union has issued several important policy documents regarding vocational training, such as Strategy to Revitalize Technical and Vocational Education and Training in Africa, which was approved in 2007 in final draft form at a meeting of ministers of education of member states. Yet few African countries applied it.
Such documents show there are measures that African governments can take to make things better. They should emphasize education, especially strengthening vocational education.
The need for additional change can be seen in that there are very few official vocational schools. Most training schools are run by the private sector. In Ghana, for example, about 90 percent of the technological training is carried out by nongovernmental institutions.
If we look at fast-developing countries, we see that their governments took responsibility and introduced various training programs for the young. For example, the Ethiopian government used the money provided by the international community to run such technical and vocational schools, and achieved impressive results.
The governments should issue policies to encourage students or talented people to study abroad and come back to support the economic development in their homelands. For instance, Sudan's government has hired overseas graduates with expertise in petroleum-related fields and made good use of them.
Finally, African governments should take advantage of another asset: their citizens who are living abroad. A great number of Africans are spread across the world and many of them have received very good educations. They have links with home and would like to make some contribution to their home village or country.
As for companies, they could take some actions to change the local situation and make the business environment more appealing.
First, companies could help local schools create flexible courses suitable to local communities. The key is to respect local initiatives, conditions and interests. There already are some successful cases in Tunisia and Ethiopia.
Second, companies could set up vocational schools to develop local resources. For example, Tanzania could set up vocational programs in sisal production and the making of ebony art objects. Madagascar could help reduce poverty through bamboo and rattan design and building. Fruit-processing training schools in Mali would improve the well-being of local people.
Third, enterprises could run training classes inside factories to encourage technology transfers.
So what can international organizations do to promote social and economic development in Africa in terms of professional and technological training? One of the best ways is to use their international networks to bring together different parties and come up with ideas. African governments, the United Nations Development Program and other related institutions could team up and exchange ideas through seminars.
International organizations, however, should avoid preaching and interference. Africa belongs to Africans, and the African problem needs African solutions - be they political, economic or social. With its rich cultural heritage, considerable human and natural resources, large population of young people and its overseas community, Africa will definitely catch up and become one of the world's most dynamic and productive forces in the future.
The author is the director of the Center for African Studies, School of International Studies, Peking University.
(China Daily Africa Weekly 01/16/2015 page10)