Harnessing Swaziland’s Demographic Dividend: A Window of Opportunity to Invest in the Youth
By Thabo Sacolo
Much has been said about African countries entering a demographic transition which comes with a lot of opportunities, collectively called a demographic dividend, raising many questions of what it is and what it entails. A demographic dividend refers to the accelerated economic growth that may result from a decline in a country’s mortality and fertility, and the subsequent change in the age structure of the population.
In 2014, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) reported that Africa is the only continent that is expected to realise an increase in working age population up to 2100. This situation presents a demographic window of opportunity to invest in youth and drive economic growth for countries in the continent, including Swaziland.
A demographic window defines the period of time when the demographic architecture of a population becomes younger and the percentage of people able to work reaches its peak. A large number of young people can represent great economic potential, but only if families and governments can adequately invest in their health and education, and stimulate new economic opportunities for them.
However, if the average number of children per household and population growth remain high, and children and adolescents outnumber working-age adults, families and governments will not have the resources needed to invest adequately in each child.
Looking at the state of the economy of the future, it becomes clear that if people are not equipped with the right kind of skills, the continent will see a rise in structural unemployment – a term that defines unemployment resulting from industrial reorganisation, typically due to technological change, rather than fluctuations in labour supply or demand.
The MacArthur Foundation predicts that 65% of today’s school children will be employed in jobs that do not exist yet. There is therefore a need for constant upskilling and realignment of curricula with the needs of the economy of the future, so as to prevent the phenomenon of labour displacement and structural unemployment from becoming a norm rather than an exception.
It is crucial to acknowledge that the time to act is now and each day that passes by without investing in the youth is a contribution to an unproductive and unskilled labour in the economy of the future. The repercussions of an unskilled and unproductive labour include slow economic growth and youth falling into the cracks of crime, which might affect their eligibility for particular opportunities, further reinforcing criminal disposition.
Swaziland, similar to several other African countries, has realised the need to pay keen attention to the demographic structure of the population (young population). As a result of such realisation, the Ministry of Economic Planning and Development launched the African Union Roadmap on Harnessing Demographic Dividend Through Investment in Youth in 2017. This is one of many strides made by the country in its quest to become a first world nation by 2022. Some efforts include investment in infrastructure.
One of the characteristics of a first world economy is the knowledge economy, and Swaziland is doing all it can to nurture the growth and development of the knowledge economy.
Efforts aimed at supporting basic education is one step in the right direction and the realisation that a lot remains to be done to change people’s mind-sets and their attitudes towards pursuing skills-based career paths as opposed to white-collar jobs, as highlighted under Pillar 5 (empowering the poor to generate income) of the Poverty Reduction Strategy and Action Plan, is a critical ingredient for developing strategies geared towards social development, which in turn result in economic development.
Targeted programmes for youth development will put the country in a better position to take advantage of Swaziland’s young population as evidenced by the country’s population pyramid 2017 projections (which were based on the 2007 census), in which 48% constitutes the ages 0-19 years.
Data on government expenditure suggest that government’s share of expenditure on higher education has been declining over time (see also The World Bank, 2016). The decline was apparent even before the advent of the Free Primary Education (FPE) programme. This reality goes against the country’s strategic actions, one of which is investment in people, raising the question: who will generate the much needed new knowledge and drive innovation in the country?
Providing basic education is a necessary but not sufficient condition for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, in particular goal 1, 4, 8 and 9 (No Poverty; Quality Education; Decent Work and Economic Growth; Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, respectively). Empirical evidence suggests that there is a correlation between the level of education and the space in which an individual plays in the economy (see amongst others Bartels et al., 2012).
Empirical evidence also suggests that there is a positive correlation between higher education and knowledge generation. University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, management economists Jiancheng Guan and Qingjun Zhao (2012) argue that in a highly competitive environment, the ability to catch up with technological progress and continuously innovate is crucial for survival and growth. However, it is increasingly difficult to explore new technologies if there are limited expertise and resources. Therefore, equipping youth with the right skills would ensure that the demographic dividend is harnessed.
It is therefore important to make the investment in youth at the time when it matters the most, otherwise the cost of inaction will be irrepressible and irreversible (the demographic structure of the population would be a time ticking demographic bomb).
The required investment is not only financial. Non-financial investments, such as mentoring and empowerment, are equally important. The country can adapt and adopt models such as Big Brother Big Sister in mentoring the youth, which has proven successful in other parts of the world (i.e. Texas, Toronto, Canada and Pennsylvania).
It is also important to focus more on training job creators as opposed to job seekers. This is crucial in ensuring that the supply of skilled labour does not surpass demand, and that participation in productive economic activities is not largely a function of employment. Technical and vocational education and training (TVET) presents an opportunity in this regard.
Empirical evidence suggests that TVET contributes to job creation, however, there is need to firm up the culture and capacity of job creation by TVET graduates. It is important to realise that it is social development (which includes, but is not limited to, investment in human capital) that causes economic development and not the other way round; therefore youth development is the only chance of achieving the goal of harnessing the demographic dividend.
About the author: Thabo Sacolo is a Senior Research Fellow at the Swaziland Economic Policy Analysis and Research Centre; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He writes in his personal capacity.