Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Positive Domino Effects: An Analysis of Civic Engagement in Africa Today

I recently attended a panel discussion at the Brookings Institution, conducted by the Brookings Africa Growth Initiative Team about what Africa needs to do in order to speed up its progress and productivity.

One interesting point that came up at the event was about the surplus of young people in African countries, and the potential that lies in their existence. This particular dialogue was from a discussion of supply and demand. And, while the demand was multifaceted and included aid, technology and mobilization, the supply was very specific: young people.

The mass influx of young people has not had a positive effect on Africa as of yet. The existing issue is that along with the large numbers of young people, there are also high levels of unemployment and low levels of productivity. But what if this could be turned around? What sort of potential does Africa have that is stored in its younger generations?

In order to grow, Africa has to maximize its full potential—which is undoubtedly easier said than done—meaning that Africa must mobilize its people and utilize its domestic resources. One of these domestic resources is young people. There seems to be a link between youth productivity and continental recovery. However, the negative stories in the news about various African nations always seem to take a front seat, which in turn makes the small steps that other countries make go unnoticed.

An example of an important program civically engaging young people in Africa is loveLife's groundBREAKERS initiative in South Africa that was established in 1999. Aimed at young people ages 18-25, the national service initiative aims to reduce the prominence of HIV by raising awareness through counseling, clinics and education. The main idea is that groundBREAKERS offers a peer network of young people not much older than the targeted age group, with the hopes that they will be more persuasive and easier to connect with. Overall, groundBREAKERS hopes to raise HIV awareness and foster social responsibility.

In another example, in Nigeria, grants have been given to researchers and faculty who want to write books for schools, so there are up-to-date textbooks. One attendee of the discussion remarked that she had been a teacher in Kenya for five years, but the textbooks used in schools were completely out of date. She questioned how youth engagement could take place if the young people were not accurately learning about their own history or what is going on in today’s world. Now, something is being done about it, but it oftentimes it seems that not many publicly acknowledge these positive steps.

Civic engagement and youth service programs cannot be formed without a foundation first. And that foundation must include youth education. Thus, there are countries where steps are being taken to begin this building process, and we should be doing all we can to not only acknowledge these situations, but promote them to the best of our abilities.

Lastly, a closing point that was driven home by the panel was that Africa today is not the same Africa from 30 or 40 years ago. Africa is changing; intellectuals in the region understand that there are high percentages of youth populations that do not have productive workforces to enter into. I think it is important to acknowledge that the need for youth engagement can lead to mobilization if the right programs are implemented as a response to this need, then mobilization can yield productivity in a country. Since Africa potentially has an empowering domino effect on its hands, it is of the utmost importance that the right civic steps are taken to engage their young people.

To learn more about national youth service programs in Africa, visit ICP's website at

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