Sunday, February 16, 2014

Reclaiming the Youth Space: The Next Agenda for Young Malawians

Keynote address given at the Youth Consultative Forum's National Consultative Meeting and Annual General Meeting
6 February, 2014, Crown Hotel, Lilongwe

Youth Consultative Forum annual general meeting
6 Feb 2014, Crown Hotel, Lilongwe
It is interestingly fitting that the Youth Consultative Forum is holding its Annual General Meeting exactly one week after Malawi hosted the BBC Africa Debate at the University of Malawi’s College of Medicine in Blantyre. Is it by design? That debate last week focused everyone’s mind in Malawi and in the BBC’s global listenership on issues of youth and what is being termed the ‘demographic dividend.’ As you may recall, the debate’s question was: ‘Africa’s youth population: opportunity or risk.’

The debate’s moderators, Nomsa Maseko and Nkem Ifejika, opened the debate by asking for a show of hands: how many people in the audience saw Malawi’s youth population as an opportunity? How many people saw it as a risk? A rough count of the hands showed an overwhelming response for the risk part. Many in that audience felt that Malawi’s growing youth population was a risk. I raised my hand for the opportunity part, although as the debate wore on, I modified my thinking and felt that Malawi’s growing youth population could be both a risk and an opportunity.  The difference lay in what policies were enacted, what resources were made available, and how much space young people were able to claim for themselves.

I got a chance to speak towards the end of the debate, and said that the statistics were depressing: Malawi has 4.2 million primary school learners. Out of a population of 14-15 million, that means more than a quarter of our population is in primary school. Now comes the depressing part: from 4.2 million in primary school, we come down to only 260,000 students in secondary school. And it gets worse. Out of 260,000 students in secondary school, we have only 13,000 in the universities, public and private combined. That is 0.4 percent of the appropriate age-cohort. The technical and vocational schools have even less, at 9,000 students.

What these numbers paint is a picture of alarming inequality in Malawi; we have an enormous gap between the rich and the poor. The education sector is both a reflection of this, as well as a catalysing factor of this inequality. Less than half of primary school learners, that is 38 percent, finish primary school. For girls, it is 35 percent. The majority of these are in rural Malawi and among the ranks of the urban poor. The most educated 10 percent of Malawians use 73 percent of the resources available. In the universities, 95 percent of students come from the wealthiest 5 percent of Malawians. Private schools dominate university selection; 80 percent of the university population is from private schools.

It is not surprising why most people in the BBC debate saw Malawi’s growing youth population as a risk. As a country, we have not invested much in the youth. At the debate, the Secretary for Youth was unable to say what the budget for his ministry was. It was both a lighter moment, as well as a serious one. The conclusion most people reached was that the budget for the Ministry of Youth is so small that it would have been an embarrassment to mention it to a global audience.

Now to be fair to the Secretary for Youth, the amount of money and resources allocated to his ministry is not representative on the total amount spent on the youth in the country. There are other amounts spent in other ministries, as well as in other initiatives, that also go to the youth. Ministries such as education, gender, health, trade and industry, and initiatives such as the Malawi Rural Development Fund (MARDEF), the Youth Entrepreneurial Development Fund, allocate money and resources to the youth. As the Secretary told the BBC debate audience, some of the ministry’s funding also goes straight to districts.

As well-meaning as are these efforts and initiatives, the investment in the youth is still very minimal, owing in large part to the small size of our economy. And then there are gargantuan inefficiencies, caused by both capacity problems, as well as politicisation and lopsided prioritisation processes. The net effect of these problems has been a massive loss of self-confidence and paralysing cynicism, understandably so. 

But this is where the youth of Malawi have realised they have to step in. This is where the Youth Consultative Forum is leading the effort to reclaim the youth space. And your work is cut out for you as you strategise on how to “Give Back to Mother Malawi.”

The country needs a different kind of engagement with the youth. The youth of today are different from the youth of the previous generation, yet the mindsets of older Malawians remain unchanged. There is a generation gap manifesting itself in a clash of mindsets. The institutional culture remains stuck in a mindset that treats young people as a tabula rasa, an empty mind that needs filling with adult advice and supervision. Unfortunately, this includes the education system.

Despite curricular changes in the education system aimed at engaging students in a more meaningful and more participatory way, many educators still believe in lecturing to young people and telling them what to do (if I seem to be doing that in this talk, it is for purposes of debate). You can see the results of this disconnect in the system itself. Hardly a week goes by without hearing of students vandalising their own school and disrupting their own learning. In the larger society, the loss of confidence in our institutions has led to an escalation of mob violence and destruction of police stations.

The challenge is for young Malawians to take charge and claim their space in a way that is constructive and forward-thinking. This was reflected in the views expressed at the BBC debate. The most important way of doing is through self-education. And the starting point is familiarisation with current research and policy formulation so as to reclaim your space well-informed and well-prepared.

Your contributions to the problems of unemployment need to be cognisant of the fact that this is one of the biggest global policy issues today. It is therefore important for you to know what the research is saying, both domestically and globally. Your contributions need to focus on how to increase the productivity of the youth. Economists say that the only way for an economy to grow is for more people to be productive. For Malawi, the question is in what ways can young Malawians be economically productive? The answers are not easy, but the type of education available to young people is the key issue.

You have to deal with the national confidence crisis. While it is true that many of us feel hopeless, not everyone is paralysed by the cynicism and hopelessness. There are Malawians, many of them young people, who are doing a lot to make Malawi a better place. It is important to identify these Malawians and celebrate them. This is the best way of inspiring ourselves as a nation and re-injecting national confidence into our society.

You need to engage with the question of what really caused the cashgate crisis, in both its historical context as well as in its current manifestation. And you can not analyse the root causes of cashgate without discussing social and economic inequality, which has reached crisis proportions. If we do not learn lessons from cashgate, and what lies at the root of the problem, we are bound to have more cashgates generation after generation. It does not need to be that way.

You will need to engage in the national discussion on girls’ education, which is now taking centre stage. While the numbers I presented earlier are very bad for most young people, they are worse for girls. And they translate into a bigger gender problem. We are a very sexist society, as is much of the world. Do not jump onto the bandwagon of painting all women with a single brush of paralytic cynicism based on what is said to be the performance of one woman.

Nor should you join those who are making the sweeping statement that in the fifty years we have been independent the country has achieved nothing. That statement is made out of understandable frustration, but if you entertain that thought you are bound to let your sadness about the country’s state of affairs paralyse you into further cynicism and inaction. Paralysis of thought impedes progressive thinking. No doubt the country has not lived up to its potential in the 50 years of independence, but it is you young Malawians who can change that and usher in new thinking and new realities.

Lastly, May 20 is approaching, and there will be a lot of drama. It has been very encouraging to see a lot of young Malawians getting involved in the process. Be mindful of the ever-present danger to get co-opted into orthodox thinking and perpetuating failed practices and beliefs about politics. 

In closing, I would like to thank the YCF executive and secretariat for working very hard to make this annual general meeting a reality. I would also like to thank Action Aid for providing much-needed sponsorship. Special thanks go to all of you who have come today.

I wish you a great time of reflection, strategizing and reclaiming your space.

Thank you very much!


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