Africa stands on the cusp of its biggest opportunity to pull millions of its children out of poverty and to position its young people at the frontline of changes transforming the global economy through the fourth industrial revolution.

A modelling exercise of Africa’s demographic dividend potential, done by the UN International Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef), shows that the continent can achieve an average per-capita income growth rate of 5.2% annually if it invests in its children and adolescents between now and 2030.

To achieve this, African governments and their partners — the private sector, UN agencies, nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), donors, religious organisations, youth and communities — will need to pull together their political, economic and social capital to harness the potential of the world’s youngest population.

There is growing evidence that increased investments should be focused on skills and vocational training; secondary education; empowerment — most notably of girls; and in health. By way of example, we know that lowering the youth unemployment rate to that of adults would translate to a 10%-20% increase in Africa’s GDP. In SA, an investment of 2% of GDP would create 925,000 new jobs for young people in two sectors of the economy, while in Kenya, according to the World Economic Forum, youth-focused investments in areas such as online talent platforms could result in more than 500,000 people earning by 2025.

A focus on girls will also be paramount. Indeed, the World Bank has said that each year of secondary education for a girl correlates with as much as a 25% increase in wages later in life. And according to The Lancet, investments in adolescent health and wellbeing bring a triple dividend of benefits now, into future adult life, and for the next generation of children.

The numbers are startling. Combined, such investments would help the continent maximise the benefits of Africa’s youth population as they transition into the labour force and catalyse a period of unprecedented economic and social development. That scenario is the high road.

The low-road scenario paints a picture nobody wants to see: increased unemployment and underemployment, sluggish economic growth, migration, instability with the potential for violent conflict and an addition to the continent’s 8-million internal refugees.

At current investment levels and patterns, the pathway leading to the demographic dividend seems slim. Unicef’s analysis of recent expenditure trends indicates that only three of the 21 governments in Eastern and Southern Africa are meeting the minimum investment requirements for health (15% of the budget, according to the Abuja declaration) and seven for education (20% of the budget, based on the Incheon education for all declaration). Further, it is estimated that less than 2% of adolescents are enrolled in some type of nonformal or technical and vocational education and training programme in the region.

In 2002, official development assistance (ODA) was 20% of the national budgets in Eastern and Southern Africa. Today it stands at about 8%. ODA remains critical, as does mobilising more domestic resources, prioritising them in the right sectors and programmes, and spending them better.

The required areas for investment in Africa’s children and youth are both traditional and nontraditional. Areas often not at scale — such as adolescent programming and vocational training — are emerging as catalytic accelerators to reaping a dividend. This means governments, the private sector, partners in the UN, in development and civil society have to think and invest differently. It means gathering thought leadership, looking at nontraditional approaches and investing at scale.

This is not the work of one grouping or sector. It is about collective responsibility and leadership. Investing in Africa’s children and adolescents remains Africa’s best opportunity to strengthen the economic gains of recent years. This is the moment.

• Pakkala is Unicef’s regional director for Eastern and Southern Africa. 

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