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A generation without work

By Eriasa Mukiibi Sserunjogi

Why President Museveni’s promises on youth jobs must mature soon

Since childhood, James Sekitooleko’s mother implored him to study hard, get a good job and be successful. After 17 years in school, Sekitooleko graduated with a bachelor of Tourism degree and thought he was prepared for success.

But when his job search didn’t bear results for a full year, Sekitooleko took to boda boda riding, at first as a stopgap. He rubs shoulders with school dropouts and they have little regard for him. They wonder why he went to school at all. Having started with one motorcycle, he has since bought two more, which he hires out to others at Shs 10,000 each per day. Plus the Shs 20,000 he makes from the one he operates, he makes a modest Shs 40,000 per day.

After five years as a boda boda rider near Crested Towers in Kampala, Sekitooleko has lost any hope of getting an office job. He speaks resentfully about his disillusionment, saying he was born in the “wrong country, at the wrong time”. The only person who still nurses that dream is his mother, who insists that her son will get an office job befitting of the graduate she pushed through university.

Sekitooleko doesn’t want to tell his mother, who he says spent about Shs 7m of her hard earned money on his university education, but he has lost hope of ever finding the job she wants. He feels unemployable after six years on the street and his new dream is to raise money and venture into the import business.

Sekitooleko feels he can hardly compete with his former peers in the job market and is probably right. Research by the Economic Council of the Labour Movement, a think-tank based in Copenhagen, Denmark, found that 15 years later, young workers who remained unemployed for at least 10 months after school in 1994 earned 14% less than their peers who were employed right after graduation.

Ali Mpaata, a human resource expert in Kampala, says that remaining unemployed after school means one misses opportunities to gain experience, connections and confidence, which are critical for his career development.

Makerere University’s Prof. Augustus Nuwagaba says part of the problem is the high cost of the education system, yet its products hardly get jobs. Nuwagaba, who heads the consultancy firm Reev Consult, says many Ugandans are losing faith in education because the investment they make isn’t recouped.

In the end, says Nuwagaba, households which sell off family property like land and livestock to educate children end up poorer, especially if the children fail to secure jobs.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO), the UN agency responsible for labour issues, says youth employment is a big global problem, with some 75 million youths between 15 and 24 out of work. ILO warns that “an entire generation” unemployed does not bode well for economic and political stability.

Museveni’s attempts

Political leaders around the world have recognised that it is their responsibility to ensure work for young people. Yet this does not usually happen without political a shake-up.

In November 2011, after destructive youth-led riots in London, British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg launched a 1.6b Pound Sterling fund to subsidise companies that employ young people. But youth unemployment in Britain still stood at 22.4% last month and Clegg may need more drastic action.

In a speech to Parliament on the heels of the September 2009 Kayunga demonstration in which about 30 people were killed, President Yoweri Museveni identified unemployed youths as the main cause.

“The youths are yearning for employment,” Museveni said, “and the NRM is now in a position to address this problem.”

His solution: Artisanship, cottage industries and small and medium enterprises. Museveni identified a host of enterprises he thought fit for the youth: wine-making, cheese-making, juice-extraction, rice-hurling, milk-processing, silk-rearing and weaving, handloom-weaving, bread-baking, flour-milling, fruit-drying, wood-work, welding, poultry, tailoring, spice-processing, pottery, etc.

Museveni went so far as to describe the “unemployed, landless youths are a blessing (in disguise)”, seeing them as the beginning of a proletariat and lower middle-class that would be nurtured by ensuring that each trading-centre in Uganda had cottage industries to keep them busy.

“Money for this is not a problem,” the President said.

That year, the government had earmarked over Shs 134b for the National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS), more money for the Poverty Eradication Action Plan (PEAP), Northern Uganda Social Action Fund (NUSAF), Peace Recovery and Development Plan (PRDP), and other programmes.

“Can we fail to get Shs 30 billion from all these monies to support cottage industries of the youths? I do not think so,” Museveni said.

In his 2011 manifesto, Museveni made further promises to boost youth employment, notably a Youth Enterprise Capital Fund to provide start-up capital for entrepreneurs on concessional terms. The fund, the manifesto said, would be accessed by youths of all levels of formal education after they have got training in business and managerial skills from Enterprise Uganda.

In line with this pledge, the government recently entered a partnership with three banks to create a Shs 25b fund from which youths can borrow to do business. But there are already complaints that the qualification requirements, particularly the O-level certificate that borrowers need, will leave out many. Others say the sums they are offered are too small.

Museveni’s manifest had promised that big businesses which deal with youth-owned companies would be “given special incentives”, while youth-owned enterprises would be given “preferential treatment” in supplying government.

James Kaggwa is one of hundreds of youths that last year received training in Information and Communication Technology skills, hoping to benefit from a Business Outsourcing Programme based on opportunities from developed countries, which was promoted by government. They are still waiting. Sometimes Kaggwa is called for small jobs in internet cafes in town, but the big projects government promised have not come.

“Every time I ask about it they tell me to wait,” Kaggwa says.

It comes as bad news to Kaggwa and his colleagues that the BOP programme might be dead in the water, as high youth unemployment in rich countries has spurred a campaign against exporting jobs to poor countries.

In President Museveni’s recent speeches he accuses his opponents, especially FDC President Kizza Besigye, of mobilising unemployed youths to destabilise the country through protests. Some NRM functionaries have referred to these youths as lumpens, hoodlums.

Youth Minister Ronald Kibuule is now most fascinated by the Youth Fund. “Borrowing Shs 5m at a fixed interest rate of 15% per year is the best deal the youths can get and many of them should be able to make it,” says Kibuule. He says they are also lobbying for the academic requirements for borrowers to be removed.

But, as Kibuule will realise, the success of these stop-gap measures will remain limited as long as the education system, which is the root cause, is not addressed.

“You can’t imagine that everyone can start and run a business,” says Nuwagaba. He argues that only a small percentage of people are interested in entrepreneurship and others must find jobs elsewhere. One problem with the education sector, Nuwagaba argues, is the lack of manpower planning and prioritisation, with many people trained a few areas while other critical fields lack manpower.

There are no recent figures on youth unemployment in Uganda but a 2006 estimate by the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development put youth it at 22%, while overall unemployment rate stood at 3.5%. The actual figures, Nuwagaba opines, “are now much higher given harsher economic conditions and the fact that the economy is slowing down”.

Uganda’s population, estimated to be growing at 3.2% per year, is among the fastest growing in the world, with young people constituting about 78% of the total. To avoid a crisis, the economy’s capacity to generate jobs must grow at an equal rate. The Uganda Bureau of Statistics says over 7 million Ugandans are unemployed or underemployed, earning less than US$ 1 a day.

Writing in 1970, Walter Rodney argued that one of the reasons Africa is underdeveloped is because at a time when human labour was the most important factor of production, Africa’s able bodied men were taken as slaves to develop other parts of the world. This time around they have stayed home, but their country remains unable to engage them. The repercussions may turn out to be as bad, or even worse than slavery.

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