The youth bulge in developing countries, Uganda inclusive, continues to soar. In these countries, a big number of the population comprises of young adults. In Africa, about 40 per cent of the population is under 15, and nearly 70 per cent is under 30. In countries like Uganda, almost 75 per cent of the population is under 30 and a large share of 15-29-year-olds will persist for decades to come. This trend is often due to a stage of development where a country succeeds in reducing infant mortality, without necessarily dealing with high fertility rate!
Youths are commonly known for being energetic and productive; meaning if a youth bulge is coupled with working opportunities, high dependence levels would be long gone in many developing countries. The youth bulge can also be a demographic dividend if the youths are fully employed in productive areas since this would increase the level of average income per capita in a country. However, this is a far cry from the reality since a large cohort of young people are mainly unemployed and frustrated, thereby becoming an impending threat to social, political and economic instability.
According to a report by the African Development Bank, youth unemployment in Uganda could be as high as 83 per cent and is also believed to be the highest in Africa. The high number of unemployed youths is most likely to lead to social, political and economic instability.
East Asian economies make a good case study of turning the youth bulge into a demographic dividend. In China for example, dependency levels were resolved by initiating economic reforms in late 1970. These reforms have seen China generate millions of new jobs, while also relocating young workers from lower productivity agricultural activities to higher productivity manufacturing—all without experiencing high unemployment among the youthful labour force. The same is true for South Korea.
Following the Korean War in the early 1950s, South Korea’s population remained primarily rural and agricultural. Its Total Fertility Rate (TFR) exceeded six children per woman. In order to address the youth bulge, South Korea in 1962 began its national family planning campaign to reduce women’s unwanted births through basic maternal and child health services, and the provision of family planning supplies. The programme was seen as essential if the goals of economic growth and modernisation were to be achieved. Overall, the public responded well to the idea of a ‘small and prosperous family’. By 1970, the TFR had fallen to 4.5 against a background of rapid industrialisation and the waning of the country’s largely agrarian character. From 1974, South Korea’s national family planning flourished on a campaign message dubbed “Sons or daughters, let’s have two children and raise them well”.
Uganda has always justifies its youth bulge by referring to East Asia countries of China and South Korea. Unfortunately, unlike the East Asian countries, Uganda’s youth bulge lacks follow-up population growth control policies. China and South Korea learnt from developed countries and controlled their population growth to get where they are today. In Uganda today, the total population stands at over 33 million people and could quadruple in the next few decades with the current high birth rate. Unfortunately, continue having children beyond their needs. As population increases, youth unemployment too continues to take its toll. Surely, shall we develop with a poor population structure where more than 70 per cent of the people are dependants?
The youth unemployment rate in Uganda has also been advanced by the country’s inadequate education system, which has moved away from innovative, critical and practical teaching in technical and vocational institutions. For China and South Korea to manage their youth bulge, they ensured that youths acquire quality vocational and technical education by setting up well equipped institutions. In Uganda, most of the technical and vocational institutions are dilapidated. The capacity of each of these technical and vocational institutions is below 500 students.
Instead of upgrading infrastructure at the existing institutions to accommodate up to about 3,000 students, the government is now planning to implement a policy of one technical institute per county/ sub-county that shall result in huge administrative costs, which could have been avoided. We have seen a similar trend when government created more districts and increased administrative costs instead of strengthening the existing ones. Instead of improving service delivery in the old districts, attention was geared towards administrative costs for the new district staff. Benefits given to high profile district leaders could have played a major role in equipping health centres in such counties.
The government has also come up with the youth livelihood programme as another intervention that has a component of vocational skills acquisition. If this is to have impact, the technical and vocational institutes/colleges have to be part of this programme. It is not right to wait for students to come out of the technical and vocational institutions and universities without skills and hope that they will acquire them from workshops under the youth livelihood programme. For a bigger part of the youth to be employed in the industrial sector, they must acquire technical and vocational skills at certificate and diploma level.
This calls for capitalisation and development of technical and vocational institutions in the area of both physical and human resources, just like China and South Korea did.
Lastly, Uganda must immediately take steps to control the population growth and use the meagre resources to improve the health and education services for a reduced population. While we always justify the youth bulge by referring to East Asian countries, it is important to note that after the youth bulge, China adopted the one-child policy that was recently reviewed to two-child policy. Similarly, South Korea adopted a two-child policy through sensitisation of South Korean people to have not more than two children and raise them well, which overwhelmingly succeeded.
With our current youth population, even 50 per cent of the national budget is not enough to provide quality education at primary school level. The donors / development partners are cutting or threatening to cut aid to critical sectors like health and education due to mainly corruption and enactment of the anti-homosexuality Bill into law. Lately, we have seen government priorities focused on security, including regional security and on provision of infrastructure like roads. If this is not refocused, the biggest threat we are faced with is that the youth are not likely to access quality education and health services. And as long as we have such a scenario, Uganda’s youth bulge will become a demographic bomb.
Prof Baryamureeba is a Higher Education Expert and Vice Chancellor Uganda Technology and Management University.