Which Way for Youth Empowerment?

Published on 6th February 2007

It was all jubilation as Mwai Kibaki, Kenya’s President, released Kshs 900 million towards youth empowerment, in what analysts describe as a ploy to lure the youth to elect him for another five year term. The fund was gazetted in 2006 “after extensive consultations with the youth, financial intermediaries and development partners,” reports the Kenya government. It will provide loans to finance institutions and NGOs lending to youth, besides supporting youth oriented enterprise, marketing and employment creation.

“African youth are a special resource that requires special attention. They are a formidable creative resource that can be harnessed for Africa’s Socio-economic development,” says Prof. Nagia Mohammed Essayed, Africa Union’s Commissioner for Human Resources, Science and Technology.

With growing incidences of poverty and adverse social impacts of economic restructuring, large sections of young people have been marginalized and excluded from education, healthcare and employment. Consequently, reports ILO’s SEED Working Paper No. 72, they have resorted to drug addiction, crime and as in Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, joined rebel Movements as Canon fodder.

Wamuyu Mahindra, Executive Director of Kenya Youth Business Trust (KYBT) observes that lack of start up and working capital, poor attitude to wealth creation, lack of role models and bad policies are a setback to youth productivity. 

In this light, Kenya, which is facing an increasing young labour force and economic growth that absorbs only 25 percent of the 500,000 youth joining the labour force annually should be lauded for ascribing Kshs 900 million to youth empowerment. Kenya’s gesture should send a loud message to Africa and the world that the increasing youth population is not a scourge but a resource that needs investment to activate its intrinsic potential. Africa should also realize that business approaches are panacea to its economic woes.

Kenya should however guard against making empowerment ubiquitous, yet amorphous buzzword, an often empty vessel carrying widely different connotations depending upon who pilots it. True empowerment is more than bequeathing millions of shillings to the youth. It is the removal of barriers to opportunity that prevent individuals from controlling their destinies. Such barriers include minimum wage laws that hinder youth from being employed; punitive regulations to entrepreneurial opportunities that particularly burden start up companies and measures that make a worker keep less of what he earns due to high taxation. An environment that does not guarantee property rights and security of citizens will never benefit from any investment. 

True empowerment among the youth will be realized when the work ethic is inculcated in the education system. Economic courses in schools are 90 percent mathematical equations with scant attention paid to human behavior. Putting too much stock in mathematical formulas and little in the study of complex dynamics of human behavior in which incentives, interactions and preference matter will only breed “illiterate economists.” True empowerment is giving people greater power and responsibility over their lives, instead of reliance on the government for goodies.

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