Reproductive Health Supplies, Security and Governance, U.S. Foreign Assistance

Future Prospects for the Youth in Uganda

I have just concluded a nine day visit to Uganda to research the connections between population dynamics and development. This connection has been made by PAI and others on the global level but we have yet to discern how this plays out in individual countries. Uganda has one of the fastest growing populations in the world and 50 percent of its population is younger than 15 years old. How do you educate all these children? On paper, the intentions are very good. The government has supported free primary school for quite some time already and more than two-thirds of the population is literate. Recently, a bill that will allow free secondary education was passed by the Ugandan parliament.

Despite these great strides, in reality, there is another story to be told. The ever increasing number of children of school age puts a tremendous pressure on the existing infrastructure and there is a pressing need for new schools. The teacher to student ratio can be as high as 1/100, while the initial goal was 1/40. Parents are asked to contribute not only for books and school uniforms, but also for the new schools’ construction materials. These increasing demands on household income, which averages US$340 annually, cause many drop-outs. According to Catharine Watson from Uganda’s Straight Talk Foundation, only a few students are actually able to complete their education. A 14 year old boy at the Straight Talk Foundation was telling Ms. Watson about his anxiety about how long he will be able to stay in school and the fear of what comes next. “I am afraid I will become a thief,” he told Ms. Watson.

Very youthful age structures are certainly challenging for a country because of the steady demands they make for adapting capacities to the needs of a fast growing population. Depending on the job situation in the country, a young age structure is either an opportunity or a risk for development (see “The Shape of Things to Come,” available on PAI’s website). University studies are still very prestigious, but they just don’t match the demand of the labor market. This mismatch between the demand for and offer of work and the lack of vocational training translate into record breaking unemployment figures among youth ages 15 to 24 (the share of unemployed youth among the total unemployed is 83 percent in Uganda, the highest in the world according to the new Africa Development Indicators launched by The World Bank in 2008).

A few days ago, a university graduation took place in the gardens of the Sheraton Hotel in Kampala. The ceremony was filled with smiling faces, but the future of these young graduates does not look bright. According to the German Foundation for World Population (DSW), only one-third of university graduates are able to find a job in the formal sector. What options remain for the less lucky ones? What are the alternatives for youth in the informal economy? It is difficult to tell with certainty but any onlooker in the capital can be sure of one thing. The streets of Kampala are filled with a swarm of young guys waiting patiently on their sparkling motorbikes for potential clients in need of a ride. However, earnings in the informal economy rarely allow for making future plans.

Where can this combination of under-utilized youth potential and poor economic prospects lead the country? Different paths of development are possible. While sustained economic growth could expand the labor market to offer new opportunities, disillusions and poverty might as well inspire Ugandan youth to follow the example of their Kenyan brothers and make the streets of Kampala as dangerous as those of Nairobi. Could disputed elections be the tipping point leading to an outbreak of violence as they did in Kenya? The course of political events is always difficult to predict. Sometimes it just takes a sudden increase in the price of staple foods to cause hunger riots like those we saw in Haiti last spring. Desperation and the legitimate desire for a decent living may lead youth to turn to violence to get the solutions they do not get from elsewhere. At the same time, youth are often creative in the face of problems, and the potential instilled in them should not be underestimated. Slowing population growth is a beneficial byproduct of sensible, rights-based provision of family planning services. The youth of Uganda deserve nothing less.

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