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February 19, 2019

Flinging Cash Not A Solution To Youth Jobs

Flinging cash will not solve youth unemployment

 One column cycle later, security is still on my mind: Not that Eaton Carey’s life is inherently worth more than that of people who are shot dead without being covered in the papers.

But his killing, apart from getting media coverage, also affected me more because it was in my circle of contacts: mutual friends, mutual work contacts, the tech industry that I write about occasionally.

Silicon Savannah: yes, it’s all mobile and apps and tech hubs and competitions and M-PESA – and also yet another violent death. Not terrorism, just plain old, business-as-usual violent Nairobi crime.

 And then there was this news item, small, but amongst the most depressing things I read last weekend: a beer truck overturned and as usual (god-fearing country, this) there was a bunch of people all over it in a heartbeat to loot.

In the meantime, the driver, severely injured, was left to scream inside his cabin until he died (god-fearing country, this). There is no excuse for this. And I still struggle with an explanation.

Insecurity is, in many ways, a factor of decades of entrenched corruption and will be incredibly difficult to fix. Part of the security risk is widespread youth unemployment: I still do not understand how you would prioritise beer over helping a screaming, severely injured accident victim, but I do see how a substantial lack of opportunities, and especially decently paid opportunities, can be a factor in people turning to crime.

Especially when a good number of so-called ‘leaders’ did not exactly get to where they are now by combination of hard work and observing laws.

There are of course many different ways of looking at youth unemployment in an economy: You might think that this is an issue of treating people decently.

Of caring about providing equitable opportunities in society. Or of developing citizens’ innate potential so that the overall economy can grow faster and better and in more directions. Or, if all that sounds like fluff to you, you could look at it as a security issue.

 Most headline-making initiatives in youth unemployment consist of flinging cash at the issue, for example through youth funds, or public tenders set aside for youth. None of these will fix the problem, I suspect: even if such money were not inevitably going to go safari (a very optimistic assumption), it still does not address the capacity issue.

There is a good bit of emphasis on youth entrepreneurship, which is understandable, given that the formal labour market is still relatively small.

But again, that is mostly likely a band aid, not a solution: entrepreneurship is incredibly hard, and not for everyone. In addition, many of those young school leavers would probably benefit from a couple of years in employment to get a better understanding of how a company works – which comes back to capacity issues.

 I think there is a missing middle today: there are more and more universities, and polytechnics being converted into universities. This does not necessarily improve university education, but it churns out an ever larger number of university graduates who are not likely to find adequate employment.

On the other hand, you have the vast, low-end, hyper-hustling jua kali market (and yes, I’m generalising: there are of course people who have worked their way out of the jua kali sector quite successfully).

But there is very limited quality vocational training. And I suspect that a serious investment in this could become a game changer: For politicians, it is probably less attractive because it is not as convenient as handing out cash (through a youth fund or whatever other vehicle), but it would certainly go a long way to address the skill issue.

 I have no doubt that there is an enormous amount of talent in the country: Stories as, for example, a kid attempting to build a helicopter from junk in his back yard will always remind you of this.

What if such talent and inquisitiveness were channeled productively, and developed further? You would end up with people who have far more technical skills than what is currently available in the jua kali sector.

Who could then demand higher payment for giving you better services. Who, if vocational training included training on the basics of running a business, would find a possible transition into setting up their own business easier.

 There are no easy solutions to this, and I would love to see more input from the private sector here: Even without the governance issues in government, you can not develop such a system without the input from the private sector.

I would love to see more initiative from private-sector organisations like Kenya Association of Manufacturers and Kenya Private Sector Alliance.

I would love to see big corporates getting together to run pilot initiatives to offer more traineeships, internships, and yes, apprenticeships, and discuss how such initiatives can be developed into a sustained, independent skill-building system. Some large corporates like Tullow have announced scholarships and other training initiatives, but how can you get the mid-sized companies to get involved?

Which county governors can detach themselves from flags, aide de camps, and frivolous spending long enough to develop a county institution that will help produce skilled artisans, and develop a procurement system that incentivizes the employment of these people?

How can you realistically build and improve such a system while managing the challenge that corruption in the public and private sector can trip it up?

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