Although numerous public and private agencies are working to solve youth unemployment in Africa – a massive problem that affects tens of millions of young people – many of the efforts lack coordination, and in some cases, interventions have never been evaluated to determine if they are making a difference.
Associate professor Gina Chowa and her team with Global Social Development Innovations (GSDI) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Social Work are working with partners in Sub-Saharan Africa to change this fragmented approach. Their goal: to bring together in the countries where GSDI is working a consortium of government, nonprofit and private sector organizations that will focus on accelerating employment opportunities for youth by linking research, evidence, practice and policy.
“By coordinating our efforts, we think we will generate evidence for programs and interventions that will actually work to get more youth employed, inform policies and regulations that increase opportunities for youth, and encourage cross-sector partnerships that have the capacity to scale up promising youth workforce development programs,” said Chowa, GSDI’s director.
This next step will also involve GSDI’s own work in youth workforce development. For the last few years, GSDI team members have partnered with the University of Johannesburg to conduct a nationwide demonstration project with eight youth development organizations in South Africa. These organizations aim to prepare and train young people on life, work readiness, entrepreneurial and technical skills; to provide support services, such as job counseling and workplace experience; and to build networks that connect job seekers and employers.
GSDI and other local partners in Kenya are currently working to finalize a consortium agreement. As proposed: GSDI and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Kenya are expected to take on primary roles; USAID is the lead federal government agency working to end extreme global poverty. RTI International and Generation Kenya will serve in secondary roles, Chowa said. RTI is an independent, nonprofit institute that provides research, development and technical services to government and commercial clients, while the not-for-profit Generation Kenya is a program created by the McKinsey Social Initiative that focuses on youth workforce development in 16 of Kenya’s counties.
Representatives from these organizations and others joined Chowa and GSDI colleague and assistant professor Rainier Masa in Nairobi in June to discuss progress on the partnership. The trip also involved UNC Chancellor Carol L. Folt, who visited to have a first-hand look at some of the work faculty are doing in East and Southern Africa. As part of her visit, the chancellor hosted a dinner organized by GSDI, where Chowa explained the center’s work and introduced the idea of the consortium.
The consortium will initially focus on employment programs and polices in Kenya, where GSDI is conducting workforce development research with Carolina for Kibera (CFK), an international nonprofit affiliated with UNC’s Center for Global Initiatives.
Long-term, GSDI and other partners see the new consortium as a model that can be replicated in other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. All will have a similar mission: to ensure that evidence from promising employment and training efforts are driving government and private sector policy decisions, Chowa said.
“I think a lot of the community-based organizations and non-government organizations that have been working on these issues feel like they’ve been working in isolation and that policy makers are also working on their own,” she explained. “So our goal is to see how we can bring all key players together to talk about what is happening in this space, who are the youth who are getting left behind and how we can work together to fill these gaps.”
Globally, teenagers and young adults, ages 15 to 25, are among those most affected by unemployment, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). In low-resourced countries, such as Kenya, the World Bank has estimated that more than 17 percent of youth are unemployed, among the highest in the region. The barriers to work are complex and can depend largely on gender, whether youth live in a major metro or rural area, a family’s ability to afford a post-secondary education and an individual’s social networks, Chowa said.
In Nairobi, GSDI researchers have been partnering with community agencies to provide job training and assets saving skills to youth. The project, which is coordinated with CFK, targets a population that other employment and training programs, especially those sponsored by the government, often miss: youth in families struggling to live on $1.25 a day.
Part of the challenge to strengthen the economic security of populations in these regions is making sure that all youth have an equal opportunity to enter the labor market, Chowa said.
“The problem is I think there’s been a lot of creaming going on,” she explained. “The youth who already have a lot of opportunities are the ones who end up getting into these mainstream programs and then other agencies get all the youth who are left behind. So the policies are currently developed and put into place for those who already have an advantage and can make it.”
The consortium aims to help level that playing field, she added.
“The goal of having a consortium is to document what works and what doesn’t work, especially for marginalized groups in Kenya,” Chowa said. “Ultimately, we want to focus on building knowledge and evidence so that we can impact policy. That’s GSDI’s goal – to impact policy throughout the continent. We really want to make sure that what we’re doing is impacting people’s lives on the ground.”