African governments need to turbocharge delivery to create jobs for young people

Collaboration with private sector needed to beat youth unemployment, writes Tony Blair

09 October 2022 - 00:00
By Tony Blair
Unemployed men wait for shift work on the pavement.
Image: ANTONIO MUCHAVE Unemployed men wait for shift work on the pavement.

The social and political implications of mass youth unemployment mean governments need to sharpen their focus on delivery.

Africa is a young continent and its young people are its brightest hope for a prosperous future. But the vast human potential in its rising generations also poses a clear challenge to its leaders — how to transform their countries’ economies to generate employment for the increasing numbers of young people entering the job market, now and in the years to come.

All governments in Africa are grappling with high and rising levels of youth unemployment, which currently stands at 12.7%,  while SA has one of the highest rates with 66.5% of 15- to 25-year-olds unemployed and looking for work. Furthermore, the majority of Africa’s young people work informally, and many are underemployed or remain in poverty, despite working, due to low wages and the lack of a social safety net.

While opportunities to acquire an education and skills are increasing exponentially in many African countries, there aren’t enough jobs for young people, which risks a lost generation and entrenched unemployment. This situation causes young people to settle for less-than-ideal employment, such as jobs that are low-paying, temporary, or unsafe, or ones for which they are overqualified.

Like all policy problems which reach a leader’s in-tray, creating jobs for young people can be resolved more swiftly and effectively by a laser-like focus on delivery. Delivery isn’t just about government working well, it’s turbocharging government. It requires the whole of government to constantly leverage new technologies and all of the tools at its disposal to get things done at scale and pace.

By learning what works, stripping out what doesn’t, removing obstacles and streamlining processes, leaders can learn in real time how to make change happen

Focusing on delivery doesn’t mean government doing everything on its own. Like most complex public policy challenges, solving the problem of youth unemployment will require delivery-focused government, collaborating with the private sector and other non-state actors, to deliver meaningful outcomes. 

In SA, we have seen how this collaborative approach can work, with government working with social partners to co-design policies and create solutions together. Established three years ago, the Presidential Youth Employment Intervention is SA’s flagship initiative to accelerate delivery for youth. It is co-ordinated by the project management office (PMO) in the presidency, a delivery unit whose initial purpose was to improve government spending on employment programmes, and has brought together a wide range of partners in a whole-of-society approach to improve the implementation of active labour market policies.

With the outbreak of Covid, the PMO was deployed to support the pandemic response and economic recovery. The unit now oversees Operation Vulindlela, a programme of structural economic reform focused on SA’s network industries. Vulindlela has notched up important successes such as enabling the auction of spectrum for mobile networks and other key measures to support economic growth. 

The success of the PMO shows how focusing on discrete problems and demonstrating early wins, as well as developing collaborative approaches and coalitions for change, can build credibility and momentum for the delivery agenda.

But while working with the private sector, improving the environment for businesses, attracting more investments, and diversifying the economy are necessary steps, they will not, in themselves, be sufficient to solve the problem. Systematically creating more jobs for young people will require targeted interventions with a user-centric and cross-sectoral approach to address their specific needs, and the characteristics of each country.

This is where the focus on delivery by governments is truly valuable. By learning what works, stripping out what doesn’t, removing obstacles and streamlining processes, leaders can learn in real time how to make change happen, refining policy and practice thanks to the feedback loops built into the delivery process. 

The African leaders I speak to are all too aware of the scale of the issue, and the imperative to tackle the different dimensions of the challenge. I am confident that the growing interest in delivery among leaders in Africa, and beyond, will help them to find better and more sustainable solutions to the complex issues their societies face, and to do so faster, fulfilling the expectations of their people.

Blair is a former UK prime minister and executive chairman of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (TBI). TBI’s annual Africa Delivery Exchange event is taking place this week, co-hosted with the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance at the University of Cape Town. It brings together government leaders from across Africa to share their experiences in public service delivery.