To Be Young, Unemployed and African in UNICEF’s ‘Age of Opportunity’

On February 25, 2011, the day Egyptian agitators used eMail, Twitter and Facebook to bring tens of thousands of teenage demonstrators into Tahrir Square for a synchronised demonstration with Egyptian and Tunisian flags, UNICEF published its new report on adolescence suggesting that Information Communications Technologies could help save young people from being ‘left adrift by globalization’. Their report foresaw falling fertility rates in low-income nations opening “two decades” of opportunity for today’s adolescents, the 10 – 19 year olds who now make up 18 per cent of the population of the planet. Statistics showed that North Africa is suffering from the highest youth unemployment in the world.


UNICEF’s report “Adolescence: An Age of Opportunity” touches the central theme of this year’s eLearning Africa conference on Youth, Skills and Employability. Andrea Marshall discusses what the researchers have discovered about Africa, eLearning and ICT.


UNICEF’s researchers confirmed that youth unemployment is now worldwide, spreading in both rich and poor countries.

Although young people in the industrialised countries live easier lives than those of the developing world, both groups are now struggling to find work. In Britain, government statistics have revealed that 938,000 young people – 15,6 per cent of 16-24 year-olds – are currently not in education, work or training.

Global trends in youth unemployment



Largest Cohort of Unemployed Youth Ever

The UNICEF report points out that after a time of global consolidation, things have got worse: “The economic crisis has resulted in the largest cohort of unemployed youth ever, estimated at around 81 million worldwide in 2009.”

After stating that unemployment and underemployment are a “depressing waste of young people’s energy and talent”, the authors describe how the first experience of work for millions of adolescents involves disillusion and rejection and locks them into poverty. This can lead to social fracture and political protest.

Skills Deficit Around the Globe

Apart from a notorious lack of job opportunities and specific regional and cultural challenges, a major difficulty in tackling youth unemployment is the skills deficit – a worldwide problem, according to UNICEF.

Millions of young people all over the globe lack basic knowledge-based skills, let alone the high-level competencies that are required by globalised economies. The best foundation is basic education, but such an education must also “teach students how to think and how to solve problems creatively rather than simply passing on knowledge. Technical and vocational education also needs to be improved.”

The report says the crucial skills are ability in research, writing and communicating, critical thinking and flexibility.

Sub-Saharan Africa: 38 % of Adolescents out of School

UNICEF says secondary education is critical to the empowerment, development and protection of adolescents, even though more than 70 million of them now do not attend school. Despite major advances in both primary and secondary education, the situation remains at its worst in sub-Saharan Africa.

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contributes to greater civic participation and helps to combat youth violence, sexual harassment and human trafficking.

“It results in a range of longterm health benefits, including lower infant mortality, later marriage, reduced domestic violence, lower fertility rates and improved child nutrition.

“It functions as a long-term defence against HIV and AIDS, and also acts to reduce poverty and foster social empowerment.“

UNICEF, “Adolescence – An Age of Opportunity”


According to a recent UNESCO report on “The hidden crisis: Armed conflict and education”, primary net school enrolment in the region has increased by almost a third in the past decade, despite a large rise in the school-age population, but remains the lowest in the world.

At secondary level, 38 per cent of adolescents are out of school, according to UNICEF. Again, despite a large increase in enrolment since 1999, population growth in sub-Saharan Africa has meant no real improvement. Many of those who actually enroll do not complete a full course of schooling. Adolescent girls are falling behind since the gender gap in secondary education is at its widest in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

UNICEF highlights Ghana as a positive example because basic education in that country now lasts 11 years – two years of nursery school, six years of primary school and three years of junior high school. Cameroon, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia are praised for abolishing school fees – and achieving dramatic increases in school attendance.

Different Barriers for Girls and Boys in Africa

Secondary school attendance in Africa, especially south of the Sahara, is restricted by poverty, location and gender. Expensive school fees, long distances to the nearest school, too few school places and the need to generate an income to support the family are barriers to secondary education. Malnutrition and ill health are also barriers since adolescents who are unwell cannot learn.

Girls may not attend school in rural areas since they have heavy workloads at home; cooking, cleaning, collecting wood, fetching water and nursing. In Zambia girls are expected to drop out of school to care for sick family members.

UNICEF found that girls may also be faced with adolescent marriage (particularly in Chad and the Republic of Niger), sexual and physical violence, ethnic or social exclusion and teenage pregnancy (high in Namibia). There are programmes to tackle domestic violence and female genital mutilation in Uganda, Senegal and Ethiopia.

Boys may be forced into warfare as child combatants or forced into child labour, which is most prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa. In Côte d’Ivoire, one of the largest cocoa bean producing countries, boys are worked hard in the plantations.

UNICEF says, “Adolescents who work excessive hours or in hazardous conditions are unlikely to be able to complete their education.” Disabled children and those suffering from HIV/AIDS are often excluded from school.

Non-Formal Education and Participation Needed

Acknowledging that improvements in formal schooling will provide huge benefits, UNICEF stressed the importance of flexible and non-formal education: “The most vulnerable adolescents – those affected, for example, by poverty, HIV/ AIDS, drugs, disability or ethnic disadvantage – are unlikely to be reached by the ‘standard’ offer of secondary schooling.”

Private enterprise influence on the development of adolescent skills was not explicitly mentioned in the report but several African initiatives to improve job skills and youth entrepreneurship were highlighted. The Liberian EPAG project, for example, provides skills training for wage-earning employment, combined with job placement assistance and facilitates business development with links to microcredit for young women entrepreneurs.

Another key factor identified for the development of young people is participation. The report pointed out that wherever adolescents are included in decision-making by families, communities and societies, they step out of passivity, develop skills and create knowledge, rather than receiving it.

“ICT Can Accelerate Skills and Knowledge Acquisition”

The Internet, eLearning, social networks and their related technologies can play a pivotal role – by increasing participation and delivering more flexible forms of education and training.

The UNICEF report clearly acknowledges that ICTs “offer the potential to remove barriers to education and literacy and to hand adolescents a key to unlock many of the benefits of the modern knowledge economy and not be left adrift by globalization”.

The report makes it clear that beyond basic access to information, young people need sufficient literacy to spot biased and unreliable information and tackle issues of ‘digital saftety’.

Although the report stresses the vast digital divide between the industrialised world and the developing world, and also between rich and poor in all countries, some encouraging features were noted.

In the slums of Cape Town, South Africa, adolescent gang members are being empowered to change their lives using mobile chat, Facebook and texting.  South Africa’s Drug Counselling Portal now offers young people 24-hour mobile access to information and support. In Africa’s largest slum, Kibera in Nairobi, very poor Kenyan adolescents are engaged in mapping risks and vulnerabilities in their community with the help of global positioning devices (GPS).

Now is the Time to Invest in the Skills of the Young

UNICEF reported: “The slowing of fertility rates worldwide represents a demographic opportunity for many developing countries. A large number of developing countries, particularly low income nations, are approaching a period… when lower birth rates combine with higher numbers of adolescents and youth than ever before to make the productive workforce an extremely large proportion of the total population.

“A window for possible economic development of at least two decades opens, and many developing countries are just about to enter this phase.”

Africa should take advantage.

For Further Reading

UNESCO (1 March 2011), The hidden crisis: Armed conflict and education.

UNICEF (25 February 2011), The State of the World’s Children 2011. Adolescence: An Age of Opportunity.

Education for All – Fast Track Initiative (8 March 2011), Fast Tracking Girls’ Education.

Pearson, Lizz (4 March 2011), Tanzanian girls risking rape for an education.  BBC News Africa.

Shepherd, Jessica (24 February 2011), Record number of young people not in education, work or training. The Guardian. (

One Comment

  1. Charles Gathige Muigai

    We should focus beyond our thinking to extra miles.

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