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Youth Unemployment in Sierra Leone: Battleground for the 2012 Elections?

Abdul R Thomas
Editor - The Sierra Leone Telegraph

8 February 2010

There has been a disconcerting rise since 2007, in the number of young people out of work in Sierra Leone. The global economic downturn and a lack of vision and commitment, to address the labour market needs of those completing or dropping out of the university, college and school system; have ensured that young people in Sierra Leone remain trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty.     

In January 2009, the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development, in partnership with the World Bank, the African Development Bank and the International Finance Cooperation, launched the Joint Economic Assessment Strategy (JEAS) in Freetown.

The aim of the JEAS was to put in place, an effective and co-ordinated response to poverty reduction in the country. Twelve months on, effective measures and strategies aimed at tackling unemployment and poverty remain as elusive as ever; with over 70% of the country’s economically active population out of work.

But even as the government and its international partners met to discuss the joint strategy, there was and still remains uncertainty as to the exact number and demographic makeup of the country’s army of unemployed.  The Acting Statistician General of Sierra Leone disclosed that an estimated US$ 441,000 is needed to carry out a comprehensive labour force survey.

He said that: "the survey is scheduled to start in the first quarter of 2010. This survey has been lacking in the country for a very long time. We are just waiting for the funds to go ahead."

While the government and the international partners wait for the head count to take place, there is an alarmingly high and growing number of young Sierra Leoneans that have never known or experienced the legitimate world of work. This is worrying. The long and painful rebel war was caused by unemployment and young people not having a stake in society.

Ironically, there is a plethora of new trendy initiatives in the country, such as the Attitudinal Change Programme, the Diaspora Project, and the Domestic and Expatriate National Investment Programme (DENI). But there is a striking absence of any high profile national labour market and job creation scheme. Is this a reflection of the government’s ideological dogma, or a lack of commitment to tackling youth unemployment?

Since the coming to power of the APC government of President Koroma in 2007, there has been a serious national debate as to the root cause of Sierra Leone’s poor economic and social performance, as reflected in the Global Human Development Index.

There is an ideological belief held by the top echelons of President Koroma’s government that, it is the attitude of the people that is responsible for the nation’s poor performance, hence the introduction of the Attitudinal Change Programme. But very few in Sierra Leone agree with the government.

Most Sierra Leoneans view the government’s Attitudinal Change Programme with contempt if not derision. They regard the government’s call for attitudinal change as hypocritical, especially after the President’s most recent admission to serious levels of corruption at the top of his ministerial team. Others believe that the attitudinal change programme is predicated upon a simplistic understanding of, and response to the economic realities confronting the nation.

What is also certain though, is that irrespective of party political ideological differences, there is a general consensus that, unemployment is the root cause of poverty in Sierra Leone. Indeed, the main thrust and policy objective of the Poverty Reduction Strategy II - otherwise known as the government’s Agenda for Change, is to grow the economy and create employment opportunities.

In 2008 the government of President Koroma estimated the total funding required for the implementation of the Agenda for Change at $30 Billion. This figure was subsequently revised by the government to $19 Billion, and then to $3 Billion on the eve of the Donor and Investors Conference held in London last November.

In 2009, the UNDP estimated total cost of investment required for the delivery of the Agenda for Change to be $19 billion, with 60% allocated for infrastructure development, and very little cash for private sector led employment creation schemes.

During his recent visit to Sierra Leone, the World Bank Group President - Robert  Zoellick mentioned that ‘overcoming poverty in Sierra Leone will be important for consolidating its peace, because conflict had inflicted a heavy toll on infrastructure, basic services and traditional job-generating sectors like agriculture and fisheries.’ 

Zoellick said: “I appreciated the opportunity to learn more about Sierra Leone’s work on agriculture, feeder roads, youth employment and energy provision as progress in these areas will be important in overcoming poverty and supporting peace.” 

Sierra Leone’s agriculture sector employs 60% of people living in the rural areas. It accounts for about 50 percent of the nation’s GDP. President Koroma’s government aim of achieving food self-sufficiency is yet to be matched by the necessary level of investment to improve the capacity and capability of farmers to increase their farming acreage and yield.

The government has imported a few tractors and small scale farming machinery, which are being made available to farmers on a lease basis through a commercial bank.  But there are rumours that access to the farming machinery is limited to farmers with government connections.

Large-scale mechanised farming has the potential to create employment opportunities for the growing number of long-term unemployed youths, but the capital investment requirement is very high.

While the presence of foreign investors in Sierra Leone’s farming industry remains significantly low, the scope for indigenous entrepreneurs to invest in large-scale mechanised farming is being hampered by the lack of finance.

Interest rate on commercial banks lending is over 20%. With the absence of a government backed business loan guarantee scheme, Sierra Leone’s farmers are far from realising their ambition of expanding their acreage and employment capacity.

The government’s announcement to build a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) on a fifty acre site near Waterloo, Freetown, that will attract and stimulate the growth of agro-based processing and manufacturing businesses, is encouraging. But without a flourishing mechanised farming sector, the viability of the Special Economic Zone is questionable.  

Similarly, the Sierra Leone Agricultural Research Institute (SLARI) in collaboration with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and Unleash the Power of Cassava in Africa (UPoCA), have established five cassava processing centres in Waterloo, Bo District, Njala Agricultural Research Center, and Makeni.

Although these cassava processing centres will help to boost the country’s drive towards self-sufficiency and add value to cassava, their capacity to create significant employment opportunities will always be limited by the country’s cassava growing acreage and production yield.

The British government’s Common Fund for Commodities (CFC) is providing $1.6 million in support of this project.

According to the Director General of the Sierra Leone Agricultural Research Institute - Dr. Alfred Dixon: " cassava production in Sierra Leone has maintained an upward trend, climbing from 178, 200 metrics tons in 1990 to over 1million metrics tons in 2007". But with increased investment in mechanised cassava farming, both acreage and yield can be expanded, thus increasing the number of cassava processing plants and their job creation capacities.

The country’s mining sector directly employs or provides means of livelihood for over 250,000 people - 15% of the nation’s work force living in and around the mining conurbations. However, the decline in mining export revenue experienced in 2008-2009, has sent alarm bells to policy makers to refocus government’s efforts towards a much more diversified economy. 

With average daily wage less than $1, the mining sector continues to attract a high number of young unemployed people, especially in the diamond fields where they hope to get rich quick. But with the global economic downturn, the diamond bubble has certainly burst – leaving behind many broken dreams.

The recent surge in investment deals by London Mining Ltd., and African Minerals PLC, has brought a resurgence of hope and some optimism, as thousands of local jobs have been promised by both companies. But production is not expected to commence substantially before 2012, following the construction of vital infrastructures. 

Although the country’s fishing sector makes a 10 per cent contribution - US$75 million to GDP - its full potential with respect to job creation and government revenue is also yet to be realized.  According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), artisanal fishing currently provides livelihood for 30,000 full-time and 200,000 part-time workers.

There is little doubt that with a coherent national fishing strategy and a concerted programme of private sector led investments, this potentially lucrative sector can provide employment opportunities for over 600,000 unemployed youths. 

According to the World Bank – ‘local fishing businesses are struggling with stiff competition from industrial-scale trawlers that fish illegally, depressing local fish stocks, and from high fuel prices.’ Lack of investment capital is also limiting the capacity of local fishing boat owners to expand their operations and create jobs.

Although the government credits itself for having youth unemployment at the top of its agenda, without a national coherent youth employment strategy, the government will continue to grope in the dark, searching for excuses to placate the youth. But with 2012 elections just eighteen months away, the battle for the hearts and minds of young people will determine the outcome of those elections.     

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