Counting Africa’s Invisible Workers

YAMOUSSOUKRO – The billions of dollars in aid delivered to Africa annually may do the continent much good, but it cannot deliver a solution to poverty. Only creating more high-quality jobs can do that. The question is how.

Africa boasts a large and creative labor pool, buttressed by a youth population that is expected to double, to over 830 million, by 2050. That should be a boon for economies across the continent. But African policymakers confront a serious problem: they do not know how many people they are dealing with, where they live, or how they earn a living. Simply put, they don’t have enough data.

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In 46 of 54 African countries, official tracking of vital statistics such as birth, marriage, and death is limited. As the Mo Ibrahim Foundation reports, only “a third of all Africans live in a country where a census has been conducted since 2010,” and the census programs that do exist are often underfunded and unreliable. More than half of all Africans live in countries that have not conducted a labor-force survey in at least a decade.

Meanwhile, young Africans are largely working in the informal economy, where they enter into ad hoc arrangements that lie beyond the purview of government regulation and taxation. They may be doing productive work, but in economies where informality is effectively institutionalized, owing to a lack of data-collection mechanisms.

Without an accurate picture of the state of the labor market, governments are hamstrung in their ability to respond to the challenges afflicting it. Initiatives aimed at reducing youth unemployment, while numerous, can only be so effective if we don’t know which types of jobs already exist and which are needed. With an estimated 122 million people expected to join the African workforce by 2022, keeping up with labor trends – and delivering enough good jobs – will only become more difficult.

Bringing the picture into sharper focus through improved data collection does not mean simply imitating the labor-tracking methods used in OECD countries, where the informal economy does not account for such a high share of employment. Instead, African governments, with the help of private-sector actors, must develop methods for understanding how the informal economy works and how it can be improved. Only then will it be possible to address unemployment and poverty effectively and unlock the potential of Africa’s youth.

To be sure, some high-potential approaches are already apparent. The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa reports that, though the continent boasts 60% of the world’s uncultivated land, it spends $60 billion per year on food imports. Investing in the development of Africa’s agricultural resources is thus a no-brainer.

Young people could play a central role in that effort. By identifying and investing in those parts of agricultural value chains where young people can contribute, African leaders can create decent formal job opportunities in, say, light manufacturing for relatively low-skill workers. Only a small amount of skills training would be required to lift workers – such as the 120 now employed at a tomato paste factory in Nigeria – from the bottom of the value chain.

Another promising approach is exemplified by Johannesburg’s Vulindlel’ eJozi program, which aims to eliminate barriers to entry-level employment for young people by providing skills like digital literacy. Such skills enable young people to move not only out of the informal sector, but also out of undesirable formal jobs, such as in South Africa’s private-security industry, which employs more than 412,000 people. The industry has faced criticism for poor working conditions; even where that is not the case, it does not develop the types of skills that can support stable and sustainable economic growth.

As more people gain the skills and access the opportunities to fill productive jobs in the formal sector, where they are registered and recognized, governments will get a better sense of the labor market. But to maximize the effectiveness of efforts to provide those skills and opportunities, not to mention ensuring that those who remain in the informal sector are not invisible, initiatives aimed directly at improving data collection are also needed.

One such initiative is the Africa Programme on Accelerated Improvement of Civil Registration and Vital Statistics, which was formally launched in 2011. While it may not provide instant results, it begins to lay the groundwork for the development and implementation of programs based on hard data about African populations.

Reducing unemployment and poverty are not the responsibility of governments alone. Private-sector actors and ordinary citizens can also help. For example, we can support informal activities, such as waste recycling, that give low-skill young people a chance to earn money. And we can encourage and facilitate apprenticeships that provide technical skills and opportunities for civic education.

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Africa has addressed complex and far-reaching problems before. For example, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which once seemed insurmountable, has now largely been brought under control. The key to tackling that challenge was cooperation among governments, development partners, and local communities in collecting, processing, and using data to adjust strategies.

We should be doing the same to address the job shortage. If Africa’s economies are to absorb the 122 million young people expected to enter the labor force in the next few years, we must get the accounting right – starting now.