Sierra Leoneans go to the polls in November 2012: Will youth unemployment matter?

ALPHA KAWUSU

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 10 January 2012

Growing youth unemployment in Sierra Leone will have a negative impact on voter turnout for the ruling All People’s Congress in November. Although the opposition Sierra Leone Peoples Party has yet to convince voters that it has a better agenda for the country’s youths, President Ernest Koroma’s marginalization of youths will come to haunt his party in this year’s elections.

Youth unemployment is defined in several sources as the level of unemployment among young people between the ages of 18 and 34. Its immediate cause in Sierra Leone lies in employers recruiting less, due to the financial crisis created by the APC government.

And conterminous with the current crisis, are distortions created in government expenditure as a result of corrupt public officials incurring public expenditure not on the basis of citizens’ welfare, but on the basis of the opportunity to extract bribes from shady businessmen.

Consequently, cuts in basic services have resulted in a significant rise in both high school and college dropout rates, thereby exacerbating an already chronic social malady – rising unemployment.

High unemployment is a manifestation of weak economic fundamentals. In countries where the economic fundamentals are weak, political instability has a strong impact on economic vulnerability. And increased economic vulnerability has historically served as a center of gravity for crises.

 

It is in this context that a recent UNDP article on youth unemployment in Sierra Leone observed that; “there is so much unemployment, marginalization, so many school dropouts; and all these factors helped fuel the war in the first place.”

Back in 2007, one of the campaign commitments of the then opposition APC was the setting up of a commission to tackle youth unemployment.

Unfortunately, this commitment, like many others made by the now ruling APC party, has been relegated into oblivion.

What instead has received an undue attention is identity politics – the politics that nurtures the polarity of youth groups along party and ethnic cleavages.

Yet the centrality of youth unemployment to the present crisis means that youths will be far less concerned with identity politics than with bread and butter issues, in determining who they will vote for in November.

Commenting on the Sierra Leone crisis in a January 30, 2011 report, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted that; “a number of socio-economic forces could threaten the gains Sierra Leone has made in several years of peace.”

Since unemployment remains the most excruciating concern in Sierra Leone’s post-conflict stability, the Secretary-General also admonished that; “urgent action is therefore required to create employment opportunities with a view of reducing the lingering effects of the marginalization of the country’s young people, who constitute the largest segment of the population.”

Indeed, it is this very marginalization of the country’s youths by the APC government that has led to a rise in urban crime, which in turn has fuelled discontent for the existing order.

Presently, politicized youth gangs looking for survival by any means necessary, have resorted to various criminal activities, especially in such urban areas as Freetown, Bo, Kenema and Makeni.

This has created much concern among residents of these cities, who believe that their security has been compromised by the government. But such concerns are in fact genuine in the face of mounting evidence that the Ernest Koroma government is doing very little to address youth disaffection.

For example, the government’s promise to establish a commission to look into issues affecting the country’s youths has remained only a promise. Moreover, funds earmarked towards addressing youth issues accounted for less than 2 percent of the government’s 2011 budget.

Additionally, an initiative like the establishment of the Youth Employment Secretariat (YES), with the support of the UNDP has had no impact on overall youth unemployment. Youth unemployment in Sierra Leone ranks among the highest in the world.

Given the ominous patterns outlined above, government cannot afford to remain reticent to pressing socio-economic issues.

Accordingly, any attempt at finding a lasting solution to youth unemployment must be made within the broader context of a strategy for tackling the country’s chronic economic problems. Government must partner with the private sector to stimulate aggregate demand in order to promote economic growth.

Concerted efforts must also be made, not only to attract foreign direct investments, but also to increase domestic savings, which can then be used for expansion and start-up of local businesses.

By stimulating domestic investments, citizens are encouraged to launch their own businesses and become financially independent. Moreover, government must play an integral role in mobilizing civil society to take a proactive interest in addressing issues that deal with unemployment.

Jobs must be created if the aggregate income in the economy and its circulation is to be expanded. Income earners will spend most of their earnings on consumer goods, but will save a portion.

That part of income that is spent will enable local businesses to hire more workers, thus expanding the amount of money in the economy. This, in a nutshell, describes the multiplier effect of consumer spending which emanates from job creation.

Yet the importance of job creation cannot be limited to the process of receiving wages, which allows people to contribute to economic growth through consumption spending. Jobs also provide the employed with dignity, independence, accomplishment and freedom.

Moreover, jobs destroy the feeling of social exclusion by allowing people to work and contribute to society. Thus, for Sierra Leone to become more inclusive, thereby eradicating the demeaning categories of “insiders” and “outsiders”, job creation must be at the top of the political agenda – for both government and the opposition.

The harsh reality at present is that not enough people are working in Sierra Leone. A youth unemployment rate of over 80% is frightening by all standards. This has had the consequence of creating festering poverty, ravaging inequality, and acute social inequities.

With the exclusion of the majority of the country’s population from the labour market, and the continued rise in youth gangs desperate to eke out a living by any means necessary, it will be foolhardy to expect the ruling party to triumph at the polls in November.

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