Skip to main content
January 21, 2019

WYCLIFFE MUGA: No clear path to economic opportunity


Just about any Kenyan who has held a managerial position either in the private sector or in an NGO, will have their own horror story illustrating just how difficult it is to get a job in Kenya these days. One such manager will tell of an advert for some fairly modest administrative position, which received over 3,000 applications, including from Kenyans with MBAs, who had been unemployed for the last few years.

Another will speak of a painful meeting with a Kenyan who had been awarded a PhD a few years back, and now — having failed to find a full-time teaching position in any university — was willing to take up any-part time job at all which might supplement his earnings as a part-time lecturer, and enable him to support his young family.

More recently, when the teachers’ union issued a strike notice, the Teachers Service Commission threatened to replace all those who went on strike — suggesting that there are at least 100,000 qualified teachers, either recently retired or recently graduated, available to take up any teaching positions that might arise.

All these depressing statistics and tales of misery point to one thing: That the door to economic opportunity has long slammed shut here in Kenya.

Many media commentators and government critics have repeatedly pointed out that this lack of economic opportunity for the youth is a recipe for long-term instability.

For what you have here are all those young men and women who have played by the rules, acquired the education that they had been assured was the key to future prosperity, and then found that they were ‘back in the village’ ,engaging in manual labour or walking the streets of the city hawking trinkets and fruits, as though they never once set foot in a college lecture hall.

Why would they not opt to burn down the citadel of privilege from which they have been locked out?

Like many other critics of the government’s failures in this regard, I have often pointed to India (in the ICT service sector); to Bangladesh (in the creation of Export Processing Zones); and to China (in manufacturing) as exemplars of what should be done to create new paths to individual prosperity.

So I was recently stunned to realise that India has barely scratched the surface of its unemployment problem, when I had somewhat naively assumed that India had found a way to absorb many of its college graduates into the call centres and other ICT back office support services for which it is so famous.

I will quote at length below from the news report I read in the Washington Post last week, which I found so depressing. And then next week I will explain what this means for Kenya:

NEW DELHI — Anil Gujjar arrived in India’s capital from a small village in the northwestern state of Rajasthan carrying nothing except a backpack and hopes of finding a good job.

The odds were not in his favor. In February, India’s railways system announced a national recruitment drive for the most menial positions in its hierarchy — helper, porter, cleaner, gateman, track maintainer, assistant switchman.

It attracted 19 million applicants for 63,000 vacancies.

Gujjar, the son of a farmer and the first person in his family to attend college, was one of them. At the test center in Delhi where he took a mandatory exam in November, he looked around warily at hundreds of young men like him. Nearly all were college students or graduates. Some even had master’s degrees.

The railways recruitment effort is a potent symbol of India’s employment conundrum. The country is one of the fastest-growing major economies in the world, but it is not generating enough jobs — let alone good jobs — for the increasingly educated young people entering the labor force.

By 2021, the number of people in India between the ages of 15 and 34 is expected to reach 480 million. They have higher levels of literacy and are staying in school longer than any prior generation of Indians. The youth surge represents an opportunity for this country of 1.3 billion, economists say, but only if such young people can find productive work…”

Poll of the day