Uganda and the Youth Bulge

According to the United Nations, Uganda has the world’s youngest population, with over 78% of the population below the age of 30. Uganda’s youthfulness may become an enormous advantage in the future as the country will have a large workforce to contribute to household incomes and GDP. The present, however, holds challenges.

Children under 15 years old need education. They also need health care, the cost of which is far higher in the first few years of life.  Youth older than 15 need secondary, vocational or university education, and once finished with school they will need jobs, houses, transportation to and from work, and many other services. Some of these costs can be borne by parents or by youth as they begin earning a living, but much of this falls on the government.

Uganda has made great strides economically over the past few decades. GDP has had impressive growth, and according to The World Bank, it has surpassed the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target on halving poverty by 2015. However, educating and keeping its enormous youth bulge healthy come at an enormous cost, especially as the population continues to grow at a rate of 3.2% annually.

Despite these challenges, UNESCO notes more than 90% of Ugandan youth aged 15-24 are literate, which is a testament to the government’s early adoption of universal primary and later secondary education as well as high investment in universities and a push to expand enrollment. Unfortunately, far more youth graduate each year from universities than can be absorbed by the job market. The result of Uganda’s enormous youth population is unemployment that is among the highest in Africa. The economy simply cannot keep up with the number of youth entering the work force.

Expanding productive employment opportunities for youth has been one of the government’s most important national objectives. Over 2.5 million jobs in the formal and informal sectors were created in the last five years.  The Youth Venture Capital Fund gives young people startup capital for businesses. There are programs to fund youth who are not in the formal economy to help them create jobs for themselves and employ others. The government has entered into partnerships with private companies to help train youth to set up businesses, and the government continues to encourage the continuation of an enabling environment in the private sector to facilitate job creation, particularly in manufacturing, tourism, ICT, trade, mining construction and agriculture.

The government has made it a priority to align the education system with the skills needed for employment. In a speech last year, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said the government had a duty to ensure its graduates get skills. He pledged to send youth who graduated with “irrelevant courses” back to school to acquire the skills they need.

President Museveni appears to have a special affinity for Uganda’s youth, as evidenced by the recent release of Yengoma, his latest hit rap song based on traditional stories. His first rap released in 2011, U Want Another Rap, delighted crowds and became an instant hit.

“He was given a knife/Gave it to the people who harvested millet/Gave the millet to the cattle keepers who gave him a cow /Which he took to the king/ The king gave him a wife,” rapped the president in Runyankore. The lyrics highlight what is found in so many Ugandan youth today: ingenuity, optimism, and a confidence to create a better life.

The difficulties are many, but it appears Uganda’s youth are up for the challenge. Youth policy.org noted in a recent report, “…many youth spoke of their high energy, resilience, and a strong desire to receive education, find work, and contribute to peace and development in their communities.”  This energetic, driven, and development oriented youth, points towards the future economic advantages of Uganda’s large youth bulge.