Speech

Demographic Dividend Roadmap for Africa: Moving from Commitment to Action

20 September 2017

Opening Statement by Dr. Natalia Kanem, Acting Executive Director of UNFPA, during the African Union side event "Demographic Dividend Roadmap for Africa: Moving from Commitment to Action" on the margins of the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly.

[As prepared for delivery]

Your Excellency, President Alpha Condé, Chair of the African Union
Excellencies, Heads of State and Government gathered here today,
Distinguished guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,

I thank His Excellency, President Alpha Condé, and the African Union for convening this important event here today. It is a decisive moment for the African continent, for its young people, women and girls; and for the prospects for people-driven – and youth-driven – sustainable development for the world at large.

Despite erratic economic growth over the years, many African countries through enormous efforts have achieved considerable progress in expanding access to education and health. It is appropriate to pause for a minute and recognize these efforts and this progress.

Amidst a rapidly growing cohort of primary school age pupils, countries have managed to increase enrollment and completion rates. And amidst a growing number of people who require medical attention, they have managed to increase access to essential health care services.

Yet, gains in education and health do not reach those lagging furthest behind, and opportunities are not able to satisfy the growing population of young people.

Unemployment and under-employment remain massive challenges. And every day thousands more young people enter the labour market looking for productive and remunerative employment. The majority of them will not find it.

Some countries are facing conflict and related displacements, and many are already starting to experience the impacts of climate change, which is adding to instability and undermining gains already made.

According to a recent World Economic Forum report, competitiveness on the continent as a whole is relatively stagnant, propped up by successful social investments early in life, but held back by lack of infrastructure, limited opportunities for labour-driven growth, and challenges in keeping pace with rapid technological change. Some of Africa’s young people are in turn looking to other countries and continents to fulfil their aspirations.

But there is hope on the horizon. Heads of State and Government in Africa have committed to harnessing the Demographic Dividend through Investments in Youth and proclaimed the upcoming decade as the “African Decade for Technical, Professional, and Entrepreneurial Training and Youth Employment”.

I was at the African Union when the theme of the year on demographic dividend was deliberated upon, and was struck by the fervent and robust debate and the clear desire of African leaders to tap into the potential of youth, women and adolescents in order to grow their economies.

It is vital that countries invest in human capital development throughout the life course of their people. While hardly anyone would take issue with this recommendation, it is a fact that in many countries this recommendation has not yet been translated into policies and programmes. The lion’s share of education expenditures are allocated to the first phase of life, whereas the majority of health care expenditures focus on the later phases. To some extent this imbalance is natural and it will never completely change, but the imbalance is simply too large. We need more investment in life-long education, and we need much more investment in a healthy life course.

While it is generally recognized that human capital requires good education and good health, I often observe that the subsequent discussions focus on education and neglect the health aspects. This may be because we often are not entirely clear about what good health means, and how good health is to be promoted from early ages onward.

Let me just emphasize here that good health throughout the life course begins even before a child is born with the nutrition of the mother, and it includes maternal, newborn and child health. Later on in life young people, especially adolescent girls, experience significant challenges to their health due to inadequate access to sexual and reproductive health care, information and services.

If a teenage girl becomes a mother, or if she is married off as a child bride, she is also unlikely to complete her education and fully develop her potential. She will be less than she can be. She will find it hard to find work and make an independent living. She will live a life of diminished opportunities, will be more dependent on others, and she will be vulnerable to abuse and discrimination.

In short, we must rethink human capital. It is not enough to focus on the right kind of education, we also must get serious about the promotion of life-long health. Sexual and reproductive health and rights is particularly important for the empowerment of girls and women to fully develop their human capital.  

Along with this accelerated development, African leaders understand that addressing the concerns of youth, ensuring that they are well-educated, healthy and empowered, is the most important prevention mechanism and one of the surest ways to improve peace and security on the Continent.

Actualizing this vision demands an integrated approach to development policy, linking health and rights, skills development and the labour market, social investments in young people and targeted investments in labour-intensive growth. To be able to harness this synergy, the necessary infrastructure has to be in place to follow up on and coordinate the work at the country level, as committed to by African leaders three months ago in Addis Ababa.

Today we are all eager to hear from Heads of State and Government who have guided their countries forward in making the institutional changes and fostering the partnerships necessary to deliver such an integrated approach.

We will also hear about the social investment packages on the ground that are helping people navigate critical transitions from childhood to adolescence and adulthood, that are delivering advances right now to help young people deliver for themselves, their families, their communities and indeed society.

Together, African leaders are truly moving their populations “from Commitment to Action” on the Demographic Dividend, the path that the African Union’s Roadmap has so effectively charted.

I pledge the support of UNFPA in this journey. We look forward to hearing from you, Excellencies and Partners, that are working together to implement the Demographic Dividend Roadmap on how we can ensure that African countries are able to maximize these efforts in order to realize the hopes of their young people and fulfill their legitimate aspirations for better lives.

Thank you.