APPOINTING RETIREES

Importance of political signalling

Signalling is often far more important than data-driven analyses.

In Summary
  • What was widely understood to be signalled in this case was that potentially useful political veterans matter greatly to the President.
  • While the long-suffering, well-educated but unemployed young Kenyans – maybe not so much.

There has been a rather surprising controversy in the past two weeks, over whether or not the government is serious about resolving the youth unemployment crisis.

But before we get to the meat of this controversy, consider the valid data on youth unemployment: barely two months ago, there was a newspaper headline, “300,000 trained teachers jobless, TSC report shows”. The news report went on to explain that “The number of unemployed teachers is almost the same as those with jobs which stands at 317,069.” Then there was the headline earlier this month “100,000 eye 10,000 teaching jobs”. Only when you read the article you found that the “teaching jobs” were actually internships.

So, taking this as a snapshot of the Kenyan jobs market, it is clear that young Kenyans seeking employment are in dire straits. Teachers serve as a useful illustration of employment trends because they have their own state-designated employer, the Teachers Service Commission, which gives out regular and fairly accurate data on schools and teachers.

 

But it is not as easy to get accurate numbers for overall national youth unemployment. As the fact-checking website Africheck reported last year, “Few would dispute that many young people in Kenya are out of work. But just how bad is the problem?...A 2017 study backed by the British government put it at a “staggering” 22% of those aged 15 to 24 in 2016… two Aga Khan University scholars found the [unemployment] rate among those over 18 but under 35 to be 55%... a September 2018 statistical update by the United Nations Development Programme placed Kenya’s youth unemployment rate at 26.2% in 2017. This was for those aged 15 to 24.”

What difference would it make if the President had only appointed well-educated Kenyans under 35 years of age, to the roughly 20 or 30 state jobs he recently gave out to veteran politicians and their fellow-travellers, provoking the online fury of Kenyan youths?

This matter gets even more complicated when you consider that any social scientist studying this reported crisis of unemployment would insist on certain definitions: What really, for example, is “employment”? Who exactly qualifies as “youth”?

More precisely, if a young man or woman with a university degree or diploma ends up “back at home” helping the old folks on a modest farm and receiving no substantive income for this, just meals, an allowance for clothes and personal items, and a place to sleep, is this young person employed or unemployed?

Are we to say that a 24-year-old man who has a university degree but spends his days picking tea on his family’s farm is “unemployed”; while a neighbour’s son, of the same age, who never went beyond primary school and is now picking tea on an adjacent farm is “employed”? As I said, it can get very complicated. And that is why many of us take refuge in a generic reference to “millions of unemployed young Kenyans”.

I imagine most of the young Kenyans on Twitter who expressed outrage are people who can count. So they must understand that these appointments changed nothing in terms of the national supply of economic opportunities that the average Kenyan youth is desperate for.

Whatever the case, the question which arises is this: what difference would it make if the President had only appointed well-educated Kenyans under 35 years of age, to the roughly 20 or 30 state jobs he recently gave out to veteran politicians and their fellow-travellers, provoking the online fury of Kenyan youths? Even if he appointed 100 young people to similar positions – a board member here; a chairman there – would it even create the tiniest dent in the youth unemployment numbers?

I imagine most of the young Kenyans on Twitter who expressed outrage are people who can count. So they must understand that these appointments changed nothing in terms of the national supply of economic opportunities that the average Kenyan youth is desperate for.

But all the same they could not help feeling personally humiliated by this list of appointees.

 

It is a timely demonstration of the power of “political signalling”. And how this signalling is often far more important than data-driven analyses.

What was widely understood to be signalled in this case was that potentially useful political veterans matter greatly to the President. While the long-suffering, well-educated but unemployed young Kenyans – maybe not so much.

Thus, all that the youth could see was that jobs had been available. That these jobs were given to financially secure “recycled politicians” and not to the youth who desperately need jobs. And as such, that this was a highly provocative insult to the youth.