Abdoulie Janneh, Executive Director, Mo Ibrahim Foundation, on creating jobs For Africa’s youth

The Mo Ibrahim Governance Weekend, hosted this year in Morocco, the latest country to join the African Union, brought together former presidents, leaders from the business sector, investment, finance, academia and civil society to discuss and advocate issues around good governance and proactive socio-economic development on the African continent.

This year’s conference also coincides with the 10th anniversary of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation and focuses strongly on a green future for the continent. The foundation also publishes an annual index of governance across African countries and generally also awards a prize of five million US dollars to an African leader who has distinguished themselves through exceptional contribution to the socio-economic development of their country.

Key themes this year include dealing with the impact of violent extremism and migration across Africa, encouraging citizen engagement and participation in democracy, and finding ways to build inclusive economies that promoted growth and created sustainable jobs for women and the youth.

Former Under-Secretary-General of the UN Economic Commission for Africa and the Executive Director of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, Abdoulie Janneh talks to Africa.com about the importance of creating job opportunities for Africa’s youth, and in finding new ways to involve them in critical decision-making processes that promote good governance across the board.

Africa.com: One of the big themes around this year’s conference is ‘inclusive economic growth and jobs for the youth’ – this concept of inclusive growth has been a critical focal point for discussions around Africa’s economic development… can you put it in context for us, why is this economic inclusivity so important now and how do we bring Africa’s youth into that discussion?
Abdoulie Janneh: Well, first I think we should recognise that Africa is making some progress; maybe it’s not at the levels where we can deal with all our challenges but certainly at the continent and a state level we are conscious [of trying] to do well as you will see in our index report this year the continent as a whole is getting together, which is a must if we are really to reach the levels of development that we aspire towards, but that may take some time… but I agree, where there is development it has to be inclusive because this is what affects the lives of individuals and in Africa, that’s still not optimum. Inequality, particularly, continues to be a challenge and we hope that the more democratic the continent becomes the more governments are accountable to their people, the issue of inclusivity will be center-stage and efforts will be made to minimise, as far as possible, the issue of inequality because they go together.

Having said that, the biggest challenge facing Africa to my mind is the issue of youth… how you empower them more [and] how you provide employment for them. It is one of the biggest challenges facing each and every country in Africa… how do we get over it? There’s the question of skills development, but also giving the youth a say and [letting them] be part of the decision-making will be the so that together with them we can say, ‘how do we meet these challenges?’…

I’m hesitant to deal with Africa as a whole, but in your mind who are the high-flyers here and what do you think are the keys to their success and which are the countries that are struggling to keep up?
If you ask me I cannot point out where these issues have been dealt with at a level that gives comfort to the youth – what we should talk about is where these countries that really are very conscious of this are… [Really] I don’t think there is any country that is not conscious of it, but there are those countries that are putting in place programs that are mitigating this issue… I think there is a strong correlation in most countries between improved growth rates, better economic management, better planning and the inroads they are making in solving this problem; so if you look around in Africa those countries stand out…

You’ve talked in the past about how Africa’s youth really have the biggest stake in the planet’s sustainable future – how do you see that role playing out with how the youth can help build sustainable economies in Africa in terms of what initiative we should focus on, how do we get the youth to actively participate in building those sustainable economies in the future?
The youth should have a role in decision-making – we’re a continent where [if you] look at the very top leadership, there’s a big gap between the age of those who lead and the age of those they are leading… I mean it’s a fact [that] it’s a continent where the average age of an African leader at the very top [currently]… the average age is 60. If presidents like President Obama can take over the United States at the age of 45 you can see what I’m alluding to. I’m not saying we want to elect a 25-year-old as president, but having leaders who are more sensitive and more concerned with this issue, really age could be a factor… I have no empirical evidence to show this is so but i get the feeling that when [leaders are younger] they tend to have more understanding of the frustrations and aspirations of the youth.

But I’m hoping that, even if people are leaders at 60 that they have around them a role for younger people, that younger people will be part of the decision-making process… it’s nice to be involved in the solutions to problems that affect you, and youth employment affects the youth more than anybody else, so therefore in finding solutions, they should have a voice.

If we turn very briefly to Africa’s financial institutions involving the youth participation and citizen participation, in perhaps boosting that ‘good governance’ aspect that we’ve been talking about in this sector, is this possible and do you see this happening as the youth conversation starts to grow?
Whenever you have a system that endeavors to be more inclusive, that gives a role to various sectors of society, including women and the youth, this affects all institution, and financial institutions would not be an exception to this because then the omission becomes glaring. As I was saying, in terms of decision-making and in terms of priorities, if our youth are involved then the issue of how we manage financial institutions, the place they have in financial institutions, what importance do they give to youth for example, access to capital, giving them the opportunity to support their endeavors to become entrepreneurs, that they youth have a fair share of this – issues of this would be dealt with. Not that I’m saying these issues are not being dealt, with now, but the scale of the problem [shows] that they are not being dealt with at the optimum level; but the more we improve our government dispensation to include them, the rest follows…

You mentioned earlier that the youth, and economies on general, need to have a bigger focus on the green economy and building green/sustainable cities – how important is it for Africa to focus on green and sustainable megacities particularly within this theme of channeling good governance?
Of course it’s very important. Firstly, the rate of urban growth is colossal in Africa, and if you look into the future then a significant proportion of Africans will live in cities; it doesn’t mean the rural areas will become depopulated but these are large concentrations of people. The positive side is that opportunities to shape the development of these urban areas are colossal – we see the trends, we could accompany strengths, we could put in place programs and projects to encourage this development.

And part of this is really the whole issue of greening the cities, of [prioritising], of making this an important plank of urban development. Increasingly, I see around the continent that we are paying a lot of attention, perhaps a lot of lip service, to creating a concrete path to see that our urban development is green. Here I could easily mention a few countries. Ethiopia, for example, is very conscious of this [they have] implemented significant measures to guide this development on a green basis and it’s important for us to go green in this era of climate change…

Any last words for what you see for the future of the youth in Africa as we push towards an era of greater good governance across the continent?
I have faith in the youth of our continent –giving them significant employment is currently our biggest challenge, but it is a challenge being recognised, I think, and we should talk more about it. Together we will deal with it, but I want to put emphasis on [the idea] that our success will depend on three major factors: leadership that includes the youth; continued improvement in governance where we agree that governance is about delivery of the goods and services that people expect from them; and pay attention to promoting regional integration, we are 54 countries and can you imagine if China would be where it is if it was 54 little countries? We have to put an emphasis on regional integration, and I count on the youth to be the promoters, the supporters, and the spokespeople for this to know this should happen… we must move forward those activities that bring Africa together and I hope the youth will take a prime role in this.

The Mo Ibrahim Governance Weekend brings together a powerful coalition of global and African leaders, like Abdoulie Janneh, with a goal of strengthening governance in Africa and to engage the youth as well as the broader community around these discussions in hopes of empowering others.

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