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Empowering Ethiopia’s youth – the key to the future we want
By: Amanuel Grunder and Jared Vaile
In Ethiopia, 70 million people are considered to be youth. That is 70 percent of the entire population. It is a very youthful country. And as health care improves, people live longer and birth rates continue to decrease, meaning Ethiopia can reap the rewards of a demographic dividend with informed policies and a conscious society, write Amanuel Grunder and Jared Vaile.
Ethiopia in 2019, seems to be on a stable and peaceful path, especially since Abiy Ahmed (PhD) was selected as the first Oromo representative to serve as Prime Minister of the country. Five years of unprecedented waves of protest and violence took a nation wrought with ethnic tension into what can be seen as a mini-revolution. As the dust settles the country is at an important crossroads, with one of the most pressing issues being the high number of young people looking for jobs, livelihoods and a better future.
This raises the pivotal question of what can be done for Ethiopia’s long-term future? Namely, it's youth. What can be done for the people - who effectively brought the country to a standstill as they protested for economic and political egalitarianism?
Young people are a force for good. They harbor so much energy and potential and if harnessed and mentored, they can unleash transformative local and global impact. Just ask the young man who built the first Apple computers in his garage and changed the way we all work and interact with our world today. Or the young people who went out on the streets to demand rights and freedoms and brought the Ethiopian government to its knees. The potential of youth is undeniable.
However young people can also be a force for bad. If their potential and energy are funneled into more sinister ideals – they can resort to drugs, violence, destruction of property and business, tearing apart families and eroding the fabric that holds society together.
Research from the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), as well as scholars such as Chigunte or Semboja, suggest that idle young people are more prone to violence. As they are excluded from contributing meaningfully to society and the economy, they fall into financial dependence, frustration, and disillusionment. Young people who find themselves without recognized purpose or productive usage of their time can potentially resort to retaliation in forms of civil disobedience, civil strife, and rebellion. Employment is one of the ways young people can funnel their massive talents into something useful, diverting from the destructive behaviors that come from idleness. In addition, a factor that is usually overlooked is that employment also stimulates and invigorates young people and provides them with confidence and self-belief.
In Ethiopia, 70 million people are considered to be youth. That is 70 percent of the entire population. It is a very youthful country. And as health care improves, people live longer and birth rates continue to decrease, meaning Ethiopia can reap the rewards of a demographic dividend with informed policies and a conscious society. But Ethiopia’s youthfulness can mean two things: on one hand, it is a country that has immense potential and on the other hand, it is a country with immense risk.
Therefore, in order to find solutions to empower young people and tap their potential, we sought out the expertise of those who are working at the grassroots level with youth in the country. This led us to informative discussions with three key persons: one expert working for an NGO focused on youth employment and migration; a sports coach who supports young people through sports programs and social development; and an organizer who works with the African Union coordinating the Young African Thinkers network, a youth-led think tank operating in several African countries. Each of these experts gave us unique perspectives on the challenges facing youth, and some of the work being done to meet those challenges. They each came from a unique angle and had their own cause to champion. But there were a few themes that emerged from these discussions, which shed some light on the question of how to build a better future for our youth.
Adding to this our own experience in the field, we are offering a few important points Abiy and future leaders must consider in order to take advantage of the demographic dividend taking shape in the country. This is so that they can lead us to become a stable, prosperous and representative country in the region, setting a path forward for our neighbors and other countries in Africa to follow.
One of the principles we were able to glean is the importance of thoroughly defining the issues facing youth in Ethiopia today. An important example is the illegal immigration of young women to the Middle East in search of employment. Many of us are aware that it is happening, but how well have we defined the problem? What are the causes? What are the effects? In order to understand this issue deeply, we actually have to talk to those who seek illegal employment abroad. Why are they doing this? What are their needs? And if they must go - what support can we give or how can we build awareness and ensure their safety? If we are committed to engaging with the youth themselves, then we will be able to clearly define the challenge before us. Then, as we more deeply understand the problem, we will be better positioned to address it.
This leads to another lesson we unraveled, which is the importance of addressing issues head-on. The problems of youth idleness, unrest or discouragement must be addressed directly and publicly. Whether it’s youth unemployment, illegal immigration, youth sports, or engagement in national or regional agendas, when we avoid a direct and public discussion about the issues, we simply pass it on to the next generation. It is not enough that decision-makers have a report on their desk about the problem; the whole of society has to be involved and informed about the issues, and we must address them head-on and equitably. Public awareness can also change public dialogue, societal norms, and the agenda.
This raises another, particularly pointed observation: the importance of engaging the youth themselves in the problem-solving process. The magic ingredient in all this is actually the youth themselves. It’s not job creation programs, another building, road or factory (as important as all of these things are). Really, at the heart of the issue, is the need to engage and build the youth themselves. We must get the youth into the workshop to produce solutions to their own future. They must be invited into the process, to get their hands dirty, and to wrestle with the problems along with decision makers.
It may seem obvious, but unless we are engaging the youth directly, we have not really begun the important work of building their future. After all, they are the ones who will be stewarding these programs, roads, buildings, and factories that we are trying to build for them. We must give as much attention, if not more, to building the people than building infrastructure. We must prioritize their schools, their mentoring, inviting them into the process of building their own future, instilling in them a sense of ownership. They must be made owners of their own destiny, rather than victims of what has been done by previous generations.
However, there is still one more vital practice that ties all of these together - mentoring. Policymakers, sports coaches, parents, teachers - anyone working with young people can and should model leadership through mentorship. As the youth are invited into spaces of influence and the halls of power, into brainstorming sessions, research trips, benchmarking and community service initiatives, they will see leadership modeled for them.
This modeling will teach them how to hold the wheel of the ship; they will understand that power shared is power multiplied; they will sweat and feel the burn of their muscles as they labor to bring into fruition the country they dream of. Through the process, they will be shaped and molded into creative, hard-working and caring citizens. When mentorship has taken place we will leave the youth not just with physical infrastructure, but with an internal capacity and strength of character to tap into their potential and make them capable of carrying tomorrow. And when tomorrow comes, they will own it, because they helped build it.
Ed.’s Note: Amanuel Grunder was born in Addis Ababa to a Swiss father and an Ethiopian mother. He has spent nine years working on youth employment, women empowerment and social accountability in Ethiopia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Jared Vaile is from the US and has spent seven years working with youth in Ethiopia, both through his church community and with a local tech startup incubator. He can be reached at email@example.com. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views off The Reporter.