Participation & Governance

Hannah Smith of Restless Development Reflects on the 2012 Mo Ibrahim Forum

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Reflecting back on November’s 2012 Ibrahim Forum this article offers a much needed analysis of those talking points that emerged from the event. Read on to find out how the forum grappled with the topic: ‘How to allow and empower Africa’s youth to gain economic autonomy, to acquire social and political responsibility and to share ownership of their continent’s future’…

African Youth: Fulfilling the Potential

On Sunday 11th November 2012, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation hosted the2012 Ibrahim Forum with the topic focusing on Youth and Governance in Africa: How to allow and empower Africa’s youth to gain economic autonomy, to acquire social and political responsibility and to share ownership of their continent’s future.

The discussion was broken down in to three core themes - employment, education and civic participation - which were discussed by a diversity of high-level panel members from the private sector, civil society and previous government actors; and covered key factors that pose a challenge to the economic and social development of Africa’s youth population.

To critically evaluate the outcomes of the Forum’s discussions is no mean feat - in a single day the panels touched upon a wealth of issues ranging from job creation and entrepreneurship, to reforming education structures and the role of intergenerational working at the decision-making level.

However, there are a few key talking points that we can draw out of the discussions, which will impact on the way youth-related development issues in Africa are addressed in the future.


Panel 1. Employment Outlook : Setting The Global And Regional Context

  • Africa is currently the only continent with a growing youth population.
  • In less than three generations, the majority of the world’s youth will be African.
  • By 2035, Africa’s labour force will be larger than China’s.

Discussions on employment at the 2012 Ibrahim Forum focussed heavily on addressing the widening gap in the employment market for young graduates in Africa. The lack of meaningful job opportunities for the educated classes has resulted in the large-scale loss of skills, knowledge and expertise abroad. Panellists agreed that the diaspora - a “priceless commodity” - could contribute significantly to the development of their home countries. To address this so-called ‘brain drain’, Joel Bamwise from Tanzania challenged the panel to take young people in to greater positions of power within their own companies and organisations. In response to such a challenge, we were thrilled to hear that the Executive Board of one contributor’s company was already chaired by one of the youngest employees in their team. We hope to hear of more such initiatives in the coming months from the rest of the panel!

‘How we deal with the youth bulge on the continent is going to define Africa’s fortunes this century.

- Hadeel Ibrahim,Executive Director,Mo Ibrahim Foundation

According to the accompanying report, the informal sector of street vendors, small businesses and independent service providers accounts for 80% of employment opportunities in Africa, and without innovation and entrepreneurship from young people, many of these jobs would not exist. It was therefore reassuring to see panellists address the absence of job opportunities, by better harnessing young people’s innovative and creative capacity to set up their own initiatives.

However, young participants at the Forumfelt that as a result of the strong emphasis on entrepreneurialism, the impetus came to be too heavily placed on them to create the bulk of the 1 million jobs that will need to be created each month for the rising working-age population in Africa.

Mo Ibrahim 1

Panel 2. Ensuring African Youth Competitiveness: Developing The Right Skills And Providing Adequate Tools

  • Almost half the world’s out-of-school children live in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • African youth are better educated but less employed than their parents.
  • Youth unemployment increases with education level in Africa.

Throughout the Forum, the need to overhaul an outdated, irrelevant and overly theoretical education system thread its way through each of the three panel discussions. For Lilly Mensah, Youth Delegate from Ghana, “this constant call for educational reforms across Africa was a clarion call for governments to take it more seriously.” By ensuring that curriculums provide comprehensive vocational and practical skills, it was agreed that this would not only tackle youth unemployment, but ensure African competitiveness in the global job market.

My generation had more opportunities than facilities; your generation has more facilities than it has opportunities.

- Olusegun Obasanjo,Former President of Nigeria

With regard to formal educational provision, we welcomed the panel’s call for an interface between government, curriculum developers and young people in order to update teaching and make education relevant at the local-level. As the Youth Delegation had discussed in their pre-Forum training, many youth-led initiatives are already well underway to do just that (Aviwe’s teaching).

The role of non-formal education and training initiatives also featured a great deal in discussion, with mentorship programmes put forward as one of the key means of getting young people the kind of experience that is needed to make the jump from the classroom in to the job market. Mamadou Toure, Founder of Africa2.0, outlined a proposal in which a new form of participatory mentorship might emerge that stimulates mutual-benefit between elders and the youth, in which the learning and sharing is 2-way and the experiences of both generations hold value.

Finally, Angel Mwaipopo - youth delegate from Tanzania - felt that the panel missed a crucial point in the discussion by failing to address the missing link between those who have education and skills and those who have opportunities - one of the key causes of unemployment that sees hundreds of thousands of skilled youth out of work. Angel is working with Restless Development in Tanzania to create an online platform to link up skilled unemployed youth to potential employers, and in putting this model forward to the panel as a potential solution, we welcomed those who felt the initiative should and could be scaled up to the national level.

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Panel 3. Civic Participation: Acquiring Social and Political Responsibility

  • The continental average age is 19 years old and the average age of African leaders is 62

In order for young people to acquire social and political responsibility, panellists at the 2012 Ibrahim Forum talked at length about the need to ‘involve’ young people in decision-making, “not only for economic and social reasons, but also for the peace, stability and security of our countries” said Abdoul Mbaye, the Senegalese Prime Minister in his speech to plenary. This need was universally agreed to, and a few ideas were put forward on how to go about such ‘involving’: more partnership initiatives should be forged between young people and elders; national governments should be working harder to ensure young people are represented at government level; and more mechanisms should be put in place to ensure that the provisions in policies such as the African Youth Charter are adhered to by decision-makers.

Yet what Yeabsira Bogale - Youth Delegate from Ethiopia - felt was missing from the discussion, was the need for a “change in attitudes towards young people across society”.Far too often, young people are painted in a negative light - at best, as passive receptors of policies designed on their behalf, at worst, as a violent burden to society and drain on resources. Without such a change in perception, young Africans cannot hope to acquire a true state of empowered citizenship in Africa.

“Young Africans want leaders that can inspire them, that they can see and feel in their own communities.”

- (Mamadou Toure,Founder, Africa 2.0)

The Restless Development Youth Delegation came to address such negative perceptions: to demonstrate that youth can be and are professional, committed, expert leaders in development. And even more than that, they attended to demonstrate that they have solutions. It was therefore rather difficult to see that many in the room were struggling to re-frame African youth as an asset rather than a liability, despite the evidence in front of them to the contrary. Mthulisi Moyo from Zimbabwe felt that “young people need many more elders who entrust young people to lead.” Without such trust, decisions that affect young people in Africa will never come to be made by and for young people, and will therefore fail to address the key challenges thrown up at the Forum.

In Lilly Mensah’s words: “It is high time leaders and policy makers accept the reality that young people are not only the present but the future and also create opportunities for us. Unless policy makers and leaders start to see us as an asset rather than a liability, unless they accept that we are partners in decision making, then our children’s children will be talking about the same problems years down the line”

Mo Ibrahim 3


The 2012 Ibrahim Forum provided a great deal of food for thought on what the majority of the African population will be challenged by in the coming decades, and was backed up by a wealth of new research focusing in on the Youth demographic. The topics touched upon were far-reaching and pertinent, and for Mthulisi Moyo of Zimbabwe the panellists “sparked debate and made us think of what needs to be done right across Africa.”

However, despite early claims that the Forum would be a space to identify priorities and put forward solutions, in reality this was not fully committed to. Panellists fell back on age-old habits of exploring the challenges in too-great-a depth, and left little space for participants - both in the audience and online - to press them for ways of addressing such challenges. By the close of the Forum, there was very little by way of tangible action to take forwards - neither policy recommendations nor implementable models to put in to action on the ground.

Furthermore, Yeabsira Bogale felt that the few solutions that were put forward were drawn too heavily from European experience, “which does not reflect the issues that we are facing in Africa today. For me, this underlined the need to contextualize and adapt our learning to better meet current situations and circumstances.” Without such contextualisation, the solutions that are implemented will fail to meet the needs of youth in Africa today and for generations to come.

As a discussion space, the 2012 Ibrahim Forum certainly lived-up to the task of providing “thought-provoking commentary on current challenges”, yet is this really what Africa’s youth need from such a platform? With the ability to convene some of Africa’s leading influencers from across civil society, the Ibrahim Forum holds the potential to be a truly powerful platform for providing tangible solutions, and mandating decision-makers to take action.

So, the responsibility falls to us - the participants of the Forum and broader civil society - to dig out the key learnings of the Forum and the accompanying research; to identify new solutions to the unemployment challenge; to forge meaningful new partnerships across generations; to mobilise the resources and skills that we share; and to transform all of this in to action.

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There was one key message that shone throughout the Forum, one message that will undoubtedly inform the future actions of many who attended the Forum: The principle of interconnectedness and inter-dependence, largely advocated by Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “We are family. We will not advance if we forget that we are made for interdependence.” And it is here that we can see the ambitions of Mo Ibrahim underpinning the discussions: A vision of a free and unrestricted Africa, in which people, products, ideas, wealth and energy can move, unhindered by the barriers that are created between generations, cultures and geographic borders. For Africa’s youth, the universal failure of their decision-makers to acknowledge this interdependence risks compromising any effort to overcome the biggest challenges of the 21st century. Without trust and a belief in the inherent strengths of each and every one of us - irrespective of age - we will fail to create solutions that truly count.