Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Is big money distorting American democracy?


President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle applaud supporters after results showed he had been returned to the White House for a second term . Copyright Craig Warga/New York Daily News.


For a presidential election that centred on fiscal prudence, it is a telling irony that the just ended race for the White House between President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney was also the most expensive in US history. The two candidates spent well over a billion dollars each. The independent research group Centre for Responsive Politics estimated the entire election to have cost $5.8 billion, more than the entire GDP of Malawi.
 
These staggering figures do not include the very significant contributions of independent groups which cannot be legally tied to a candidate but can generally support their cause or policies. According to the New York Times, these independent groups spent at least $522 million on television advertisements and other efforts to sway voters’ choice of candidate. 

The biggest of these ‘political action committees’ can raise vast amounts of money from individuals, corporations and trade unions. And herein lies the threat to American democracy. New analysis of pre-election data from the Federal Election Commission (FEC) by the consumer group US PIRG reveals that much of the election campaign spending by independent groups has been fuelled by ‘dark money and unlimited fundraising from a small number of wealthy donors’.

“On Election Day, we're all supposed to have an equal say. However, over the course of the election a small group of millionaires and billionaires have had more influence than millions of middle class families,” wrote Blair Bowie and AdamLioz in a Huffington Post blog days before the election. It is a discomfort shared by most American citizens who believe in the sanctity of their democracy and the egalitarianism that lies at its centre. 

“It’s really not democratic, most American do not agree with the level of money in politics,” a young American studying in London told the BBC on Wednesday.

The prominence of big money in the world’s leading democracy is even more jarring when viewed from across the Atlantic. It makes UK election spending look miniscule by comparison. According to the BBC, a total of £31 million was spent by all parties in the 2010 general election, making US spending 120 times as much.

Obama and Romney both chose to refuse public funding, preferring to rely on their private efforts and avoid any caps on their spending. However, the case for public financing of election candidates remains strong if influence peddling by powerful interests is to be kept from distorting democracy. 

Without public funding or caps on private election war chests, it is inevitable that only big money candidates will ever afford to make a bid for the White House. Less resourced candidates are doomed to obscurity, regardless of how loudly their policies may resonate with voters. In the end, democracy is the biggest loser.

Friday, 30 March 2012

The Great Kony con


Kony is portrayed in this poster as the latest ogre on evil's evolutionary plane

CUE thousands of 13 to 21 year old Americans clad in t-shirts emblazoned with the image of notorious Ugandan terrorist Joseph Kony, modelled on Barack Obama’s ‘Hope’ poster from his 2008 election campaign. But Kony’s has two other figures in the background: Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden, clearly suggesting that Kony is the latest spawn on evil’s evolutionary plane. Their mission? To make the egregious Lord’s Resistance Army leader ‘famous’ and thus sustain public support of the US military’s deployment in central Africa ostensibly to help capture Kony and bring him to justice.

This is the footage from a newly released controversial 30-minute documentary produced by the American charity Invisible Children. It has since gone viral, accounting for more than 85 million views on the video sharing site Youtube. Unsurprisingly, many reviewers have roundly condemned it as a psychological operations piece for US military intervention in central Africa. Invisible Children is fronted by 33 year-old Jason Russell, whose work with children traumatised by LRA raids among the Acholi communities of northern Uganda inspired him to set up the charity.

Using slick production techniques and a simplistic narrative riding on good guy-bad guy binaries, the film invokes the default paternalism of some western humanitarian agencies towards ‘helpless’ Africa. Agency for the resolution of the identified crisis is exported to the west, and Africans appear only as victims and advocates offering plaintive calls for help. The heartrending story of its Ugandan child protagonist, Jacob Acaye, who was abducted into Kony’s army and forced to watch his brother killed, is the big stick with which the film clobbers the moral conscience of its youthful viewers. It then challenges them to assuage their assaulted sense of humanity by taking ‘social action to end the use of child soldiers […] and restore LRA-affected communities in central Africa to peace and prosperity’.

Russell, recently suffered a mental breakdown and had to be sectioned


There are other founded criticisms levelled against the film, which was both narrated and directed by Russell. The first is that it inaccurately lays all the blame for the atrocities committed against northern Ugandan civilians on Kony’s LRA alone and totally absolves President Yoweri Museveni’s government of any wrongdoing. Human rights campaigners have documented and highlighted the atrocities of Museveni’s government against the Acholi people, including his policy of forcibly herding them into ‘protective camps’, where many of them fell sick and died.

‘Young adults recall the time from the mid-90s when over 80 per cent of the total population of three Acholi districts was forcibly interned in camps – the government claimed it was to ‘protect’ them from the LRA,’ wrote world renowned Ugandan academic and Makerere University professor, Mahmood Mamdani. ‘But there were allegations of murder, bombing, and burning of entire villages, first to force people into the camps and then to force them to stay put.’

According to figures from Uganda’s own health ministry, the excess mortality rate in these camps was approximately 1000 persons per week, a staggering statistic comparable to those killed by the LRA in the worst year.

Secondly, the campaign to get Kony appears anachronistic given that conflict in northern Uganda has largely quietened and Kony himself is widely believed to have long since left Uganda. The country’s Prime Minister, smarting from the negative publicity generated around the image of his country, adopted the same social media techniques employed by Invisible Children to issue a rebuttal of their claims.

Jacob Acaye: the film looks at the plight of the children through his story
In a nine minute Youtube video, Amama Mbabazi said, ‘The Kony 2012 campaign fails to make one crucial point clear. Joseph Kony is not in Uganda.’ Proving as much a social media literate as Invisible Children itself, Mbabazi then took to Twitter to call out the same celebrities the charity had targeted in its campaign – the likes of Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Ryan Seacrest - and invited them to ‘visit our proud nation and see the peace that exists’. 

As if spurred by the Kony 2012 campaign, the African Union late last month announced the deployment of a 5000-strong force into central Africa to hunt for Kony and his LRA militants. The force, comprising troops from Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic, will be under Ugandan command. Francisco Madeira, the AU’s special envoy for the LRA, was quoted by Al-Jazeera as saying that the force would be based in the South Sudan city of Yambio, close to the border with the DRC.

In response to questions about how long the mission would last, Madeira said: ‘When we capture Kony or he hands himself in or we neutralise him in some way; that will be the end. That’s the timeframe.’ But what is the LRA that it should merit such an open-ended military campaign akin to the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, obviously at huge cost? Mamdani says the LRA is now no more than ‘a raggedy bunch of a few hundreds at most, poorly equipped, poorly armed, and poorly trained. Their ranks mainly comprise those kidnapped as children and then turned into tormentors. It is a story not very different from that of abused children who in time turn into abusive adults. In short, the LRA is no military power.’

He argues that addressing ‘the problem called the LRA does not call for a military operation’. Indeed, many observers have queried the basis of the proposed rapid military mobilisation in the central African region and feel strongly unconvinced that the LRA is the reason for it. President Barack Obama’s deployment late last year of 100 US special forces to the region to assist this would-be AU force in the hunt for Kony under the aegis of the United States Africa Command (Africom) casts a dark shadow over this Kony brouhaha.

It is in this context that Invisible Children’s role in the get-Kony-campaign becomes less a na├»ve and innocuous action than it is a deliberate call for military intervention on the pretext of humanitarianism. Adam Branch, a senior research fellow at Makerere, said because of the charity’s ‘irresponsible advocacy, civilians in Uganda and central Africa may have to pay a steep price in their own lives so that a lot of young Americans can feel good about themselves, and a few can make good money.’

And money does loom large in Invisible Children’s profile. The Guardian revealed the charity to be a ‘cash-rich operation’ whose annual income in 2011 tripled to nearly $9m from foundations as well as personal donations. A quarter of this was spent on travel and film-making, $1.7m went to US employee salaries, $850,000 in film production costs, $244,000 in ‘professional services’, and $1.07 million in travel expenses.

Branch described Invisible Children as ‘useful idiots’ who are being used by ‘those in the US government who seek to militarise Africa, to send more weapons and military aid to the continent, and to build the power of states that are US allies’. ‘The hunt for Joseph Kony is the perfect excuse for this strategy—how often does the US government find millions of young Americans pleading that they intervene militarily in a place rich in oil and other resources?’

American writer F. William Engdahl wrote recently that the Joseph Kony crusade ‘appears to be a flank in a major Africom and US State Department campaign especially to undermine Chinese influence in central Africa -- now that they have successfully driven the Chinese oil companies out of Libya, and carved out a new “republic” of South Sudan containing much of the oil that fuels China’s economy.’

‘That splitting of South Sudan and its oil, for those who did not follow it closely, was a consequence of sending in US and NATO special forces to ‘stop genocide’ in Darfur,’ he claimed.

Branch said the most serious problems northern Ugandans face today have little to do with Kony. ‘The most pressing are over land. Land speculators and so-called investors, many foreign, in collaboration with the Ugandan government and military, are grabbing the land of the Acholi people in northern Uganda, land that they were forced off a decade ago when the government herded them into internment camps,’ he said.

The US has reason to be impressed by the progress of its military and strategic objectives so far in central/east Africa. Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya have all been willingly conscripted into American proxies in its war on terror. All three countries have sent their armies into Somalia to battle Islamic extremists. Uganda in particular, has recently received $45m in military support from the US, with the promise of more. Africom is keen to move its headquarters from Germany to the continent where its strategic objectives include ensuring supply lines for energy and other materials from the continent, and to checkmate the rise of China in Africa. Africa is now a region of vital importance to national security in the US.

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Africa’s western Diaspora: To return or not to return


Unemployment in Europe and the United States is pushing many African immigrants to consider returning home.


FOR GENERATIONS now, the post-industrial economies of Europe and North America have bewitched Africans with their gleaming semblance of success, modernity and the promise of a secure and prosperous future. For the continent’s well-heeled and educated as well as for the unschooled but skilled in the arts of determination, life in London or New York, or Paris is well worth striving for. Or is it?

Since the onset of the global financial crisis in 2008, trouble has crept into paradise and the dream, either of success and happiness in the west, or of a triumphal return to the homeland, has taken on a rather disillusioning twist for many. ‘Arduous, long and uneven’ is how the governor of the Bank of England Sir Mervyn King described the British economy’s path to recovery. In the same week, the IMF also was unveiling a dampening prognosis of the global economy’s growth prospects.

The global economy’s growth forecast for 2012 had now come down to 3.25 per cent from an earlier forecast of 4 per cent, it said. From the UK’s Office of National Statistics (ONS), figures told of over 2.6m people unemployed and record numbers claiming unemployment benefit - 1.6m in all. Despite the coalition government’s austerity measures of budget cuts, no growth ensued and the economy contracted by 0.2 per cent in the last quarter of 2011.

Across the pond in the US, the same depressing numeric narrative holds sway: 13.1m people out of work despite a marginal 0.6 per cent decline in the unemployment rate since August 2011. In the EU, the unemployment rate stands at 9.8 per cent as of November 2011.Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz sums up the sense of gloom thus: ‘Fundamental problems in the US and Europe are deep. Looking at it from the point of view of the US workers, no one really anticipates us being back to normal before 2017, and that’s optimistic.’

But whilst Sub-Saharan Africa remains vulnerable to contagion from the global financial crisis and could well be sucked into its vortex if the global crisis persists, its current economic outlook is in sharp contrast to the west’s. Mouth watering growth figures litter Africa’s economic terrain, and the IMF puts average growth estimates for 2012 between 5.25 and 5.75 per cent.

In fact, across the length of the continent, several countries having been growing phenomenally and consistently over the last few years. There is a new spring in their step, with their citizens making entrepreneurial forays into the various sectors of their fledgling economies and generally loooking ahead with a renewed sense of optimism and self-belief. So, is it time for the African diapora to call time on their stay in the west and return home? Anecdotal evidence from a number of African countries shows there is a steady pattern of return which has in no small measure been bolstered by the economic recession in the west.

In the US, there is a growing number of Africans who are courageously binning the shards of their broken American dreams and taking the brave step homewards. Others are not so lucky though, having spent years working as undocumented aliens in the shadow of Uncle Sam’s immigration authorities and living off cash in hand jobs when the economy was good. But now they can barely afford the one-way ticket back to Africa.

Packing his bags: Maina prepares to leave the US for Kenya
Sammy Maina, a Kenyan immigrant who was until last year based in the US, said chasing the American dream was so demanding that it had cost several of his African friends their marriages and even led some to commit suicide. ‘It is very difficult right now and so many people are packing and going back to Kenya in big, big numbers,’ he told the BBC. Up to one million Africans are estimated to live in the US and according to the homeland security department, 130,000 Africans migrate legally to the US each year. Some Senegalese community organisers in New York also revealed they were inundated with requests from expatriates who have lost their jobs, are facing homelessness, and who want financial help to return home.

Nigeria is one country that is receiving a steady flow of returnees from its western-based diaspora in a move that is turning out to be a brain gain for the country. Media reports suggest the return of foreign-based professionals has tightened competition on the job market, with recruiters receiving ‘a deluge of applications’ from foreign-based jobseekers desirous of returning home.

‘At the height of the recession in Europe and the US it was crazy because everyone was getting in touch saying they wanted to go home,’ says Ade Odutola from the job recruitment website Wazobiajobs.com. ‘It’s calmed down a bit now but lots of Nigerians who left in the 1980s and early 90s are now seeing other people being successful back home and that’s a real magnet pulling them back.’

Whilst opportunities certainly abound, it is no walk in the park for returnees, though, as they have to contend with basic infrastructure problems. Electricity only works for a few hours every day and the streets in Lagos in particular are clogged with traffic.
Chaotic scenes on the streets of Lagos, Nigeria

A few months ago, the BBC featured Tunde Ogunrinde, a Nigerian fast food chain operations manager who had swapped life working in management for a fast food chain in Birmingham, England, for his country of birth two years ago. ‘Growth here was going in the right direction, whereas in Europe it was flattening out. It’s time to capitalise,’ he said.

Across Africa, economic growth is riding on the back of the global commodities boom. In Nigeria, it is oil wealth that has made it possible for employers to pay top dollar to their returning expatriates. If recession elsewhere leads to a collapse in the demand for oil, Nigeria could still find itself sucked into the world’s economic problems. ‘Oil drives the economy here,’ says financial analyst Bismarck Rewane, ‘Oil revenue drives investment, oil revenue drives government expenditure and consumer purchasing power. That’s the bottom line.’

South Africa has also seen a steady flow of returnees from its wetsren diaspora. South African expatriates, often white and well-educated, are flocking back home from recession-hit UK, Australia, New Zealand and the US.  A study by recruitment agency Adcorp shows that of the 285,000 South Africans, mostly high-qualified Whites, who had left to work abroad since 1990, almost 40,000 returned home between mid-2009 and mid-2010.

Some were quite hardpressed and didn’t even have the money to move back home, according to Tyron Whitley, a returnee from London who now runs a company that ships returning South Africans’ cars from her Durban base. Her thriving business is evidence of just how many fellow South Africans are voting with their feet and returning home.

Media reports from Kenya dating as far back as March 2009 claim that thousands of Kenyans have been trooping back to their country from overseas every month, ‘broke and jobless’ as the effects of the global financial crisis continued to spread. The Nation website quoted a Ministry of Immigration official as saying that thousands of Kenyans were opting for home instead of languishing in foreign countries where the economic recession was blighting them to penury.

Following the establishment of a powersharing government and the adoption of the US dollar as the official currency in Zimbabwe, the resultant political and economic stability has drawn some of the country’s nationals back from the diaspora. The topic of return continues to animate Zimbabwean online forums, with opinion sharply divided on whether it was time for those in the west to return home and pursue the unfolding opportunities, or hold their breath until new elections promised by President Robert Mugabe this year but opposed by Prime Minister Morgan Tvangirai.

‘It’s the basics that we need in place; the politics can sort itself out,’ said UK-based Zimbabwean, Nate Ncube. ‘[First we need] reliable services like the supply of clean water, electricity, sewage and waste removals, reliable service provision like affordable health, education and a secure environment where the rule of law is respected by all. Also, it’s difficult to plan or budget when there’s constant price fluctuations and talk of a change of currency.’

Another UK-based Zimbabwean who had just returned from a visit to the country said his trip had brought his repatriation plans into sharp perspective. ‘The longer one stays in the west the more difficult it is to reconcile oneself to the poor standards, like living for long stretches without electricity or running water, for instance,’ he said. ‘You’ll need thousands of dollars per term for decent private school education, and if you have family you’ll need to run two cars as public transport’s pathetic. In short, you can only return to Zimbabwe if you’re truly sorted, otherwise it’ll be like jumpinmg into the deep end.’  
Prime Minister Tsvangirai was booed by Zimbabweans in London in 2009
after he had called on them to return home to rebuild their country.

Lance Mambondiani, a UK-based Zimbabwean investment excutive and blogger, recently observed that for those Zimbabweans who had migrated to the UK for better prospects, the economic advantage of being in the diaspora was premised on a crumbling economy back home where the pound earned a fortune on the parallel market. But this advantage had vanished with dollarisation of the Zimbabwean economy, and the European economic downturn had now driven the final nail in its coffin.

‘To migrate or not to migrate remains an intimately personal decision. The choice, however, maybe be easier if the global economic crisis continues to bite,’ concluded Mambondiani.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Time for Africa's demographc dividend?

Africa's young population holds the promise of a brighter future, if the necessary investment in their education and empowerment is made today.
 In a world of seven billion people, Africa stands out as a strapping teenager brimming over with youthful energy and optimism and yet also prone to impetuosity, frustration and disillusionment in the absence of a sufficiently supportive environment. With a median age of just under 20, the continent's growing young population holds a 'compelling and conflicting array of opportunities and challenges' for its 54 nations.

The question confronting many African governments is: what must be done to harness and unleash the potential and creativity of the biggest youth cohort the continent has ever seen? And with fertility rates falling steadily and health improving in many countries amidst a burgeoning working age population, is it now time for Africa to cash in on its demographic dividend?

At the end of October, the UN published its State of World Population, which revealed that global population had surged by a billion to seven billion in little more than 12 years. Africa's own share of this increase is no less staggering- since 2000 the continent's population expanded by 200 million to reach just over one billion in 2011. Future projections for the next decade envisage an average growth of 2.2 per cent to reach two billion- or one-fifth of the global total. This rapid growth also suggests that Africa's population is remarkably young. For instance, out of every 100 Nigerians, 55 are under 20 years old.

UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon greeted the world's seven billionth baby with a sombre warning about the state of the world today, from failing economies and growing inequalities and stretched natural resources on a climatically fatigued planet, to the clear and present risks of crisis and collapse as a result of exhausted trust in leaders and institutions to deliver a better life.

Referring to the widespread popular protests and uprisings against bankerinduced economic recession in the west and democratic deficits in the Arab world and Africa that dominated 2011, Ban said, 'The gathering force of public protests is the popular expression of an obvious fact: that growing economic uncertainty, market volatility and mounting inequality have reached a point of crisis.'

He added, 'Too many people are living in fear. They are discouraged by uncertainty and angry at their diminished prospects. Around kitchen tables and in public squares, they are asking: who will deliver for my family and my community? In these difficult times, the biggest challenge facing governments is not a deficit of resources; it is a deficit of trust. People are losing faith in leaders and public institutions to do the right thing.'

What, then, are Africa's prospects in such a prevailing economic and political state across the world, given its massive, young and restless population? It is of some significant reassurance that the UN Economic Commission for Africa (Uneca) and the AU in their joint economic report on Africa for 2011 observed that 'African economies have recovered from the global financial and economic crisis better than expected'. Their aggregate GDP growth is forecast to rise to 5 per cent in 2011, up from 4.7 per cent in 2010, the report says, adding that the exports of African economies suffered in 2009, with a decline of 32.4 per cent, but the rebound of commodity prices and strong demand from developing and emerging economies propelled a sharp upswing in their exports in 2010.


Ban Ki moon: 'People are losing faith in leaders and public institutions to do the right thing'.
Simon Freemantle, a research analyst with South Africa's Standard Bank who has embarked on a series of reports unpacking what he sees as the five main trends driving Africa's ongoing economic and commercial reinvigoration, has identified the continent's 'larger, younger, and more affluent population' as a primary driver of its enduring economic allure. Freeman de argues that first, 'when coupled with robust economic growth, population growth will support the emergence of the continent's consumer base, providing support to local firms, creating economic opportunities, and inspiring foreign investment'.

Secondly, he argues that for countries that are able to provide the necessary institutional support, a youthful, and rising, population has the potential to yield economic benefits. He explained that locked within the convergence of a rising population, declining fertility and improving healthcare systems is the potential for a demographic dividend, where countries witness a mechanical appreciation in the size, and vigour of the working age population. With low dependency ratios, the working classwhich also includes more women due to falling fertility rates - is able to save and invest a greater amount of its income thereby increasing prosperity.

'Thus, shifts in a country's age structure can, and have in virtually all large economies in the world, produce profound economic gains, fundamentally supporting the development of an industrial and man ufacturing base, and vastly altering economic performance,' Freemantle said.

The concept of the 'demographic dividend' is an interesting one for researchers and policymakers alike. Lori S Ashford of the Population Reference Bureau points out that East Asia's 'economic miracle' provides the best evidence of the potential impact of the demographic dividend.

As early as the 1950s, she said, East Asian countries developed strong public health systems that ensured child survival, promoted smaller families, and made contraception acceptable and easy to obtain. While in the 1950s the typical East Asian woman had six children, by the mid-1990s she had only two. 'A strong educational system and sound economic management made it possible to absorb the large generation of young adults into the workforce. From 1965 to 1990, growth in [GDP] per capita averaged more than 6 per cent per year[ ... ] Researchers have estimated that the demographic dividend accounted for onefourth to two-fifths of this growth,' Ashford wrote in a paper examining prospects for Africa's demographic dividend.

In Freeman tie's view, the coupling of economic and population growth to facilitate the emergence of Africa's consumer base is already evident. 'Within the next five years Africa's spending power will increase by 25 per cent. And, private consumption in Africa's 10 largest economies will more than double to $1.8 trillion by 2020- the same level as China's private final consumption in 2009,' he says. This consumer growth is being supported by a rising middle class, which is estimated to have grown to 150 million Africans since 1990, with a further 40 million households projected to become middle class by 2015.

Nigeria and Egypt alone are expected to add 20 million new households to Africa's middle class in the next decade, whilst disposable income in Africa's five biggest economies- South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, Algeria and Morocco - will grow at an average rate of 8 per cent, reaching a collective $650bn by 2020.

Although there's no agreement on the precise income levels requisite for middle class classification, it is clear that the nascent development of a segment of the population increasingly freed of the poverty trap- measured as those living on less than $1.25 per day- is gaining momentum.
Africa's middle class is set to fuel economic growth as it expands
Four decades from now, Africa's working age population will swell to 1.2 billion, which translates to a quarter of the world's workers. But according to Ashford, reaping the demographic dividend will not necessarily occur as a matter of course. It will likely depend on several factors, such as strong public health systems that improve child survival and health in general; widespread availability and social acceptability of family planning; rapid and steady declines in childbearing; improvements in educational enrolments and quality; and stable economic conditions conducive to growth and job creation.

There are wide disparities in fertility rates across the continent and for many countries their significant gains in economic growth are likely to be weighed down by a dramatic explosion in population size. On average, a woman in sub-Saharan Africa will give birth to about 5.2 children in her lifetime, with at least nine countries having an average of six children per woman, in comparison to 1.7 in western countries. It would be far easier for many of these countries to develop and progress with low rates of population growth.

One such country facing massive population growth in future is Uganda. John Baliruno, from Mpigi in the country's central region, has fathered nine children but says he had never intended to have so many. '[My wife and I] had no knowledge of family planning and ended up producing one child after another. Now I cannot properly feed them,' he lamented. On account of lack of access to family planning knowledge and gender inequalities among other factors, Uganda's population of 34.5 million is expected to treble by 2050.

However, there are more encouraging stories from other countries on the continent. Assefa Hailemariam, the former director of the Population Studies and Research Centre at Addis Ababa University's Institute of Development Studies, said that young urbanites are bringing fertility rates down very fast for economic reasons.

'Urban life is demanding,' Hailemariam said. 'You can't count on relatives to look after your kids. You can't have too manybringing them up, taking care of them. Also urban people have access to communications [media] so they are aware that having a smaller number of kids is better for their future you can educate your children, buy them clothing and so on.'

Ethiopia's national fertility rate has been 3.8 for the period of 2010-2015 whilst in Addis Ababa, the capital, Hailemariam said, the rate has fallen below 1.5. 'In 2000 it was 1.9 or so; now we expect that it would be much lower. This is not necessarily just because of contraceptive use, although contraceptive use has played a role, but because of a number of development issues- a higher age of marriage in Addis, education, health improvement, [and] contraceptive access,' he said.

Freemantle observed that 'enhanced peace and prosperity across the continent are colluding, with a range of similarly supporting factors, to reduce fertility rates - in some instance dramatically'. He identifies Mauritius as one country where dramatic reduction in its fertility rate against improved health is holding out the promise of economic returns.

The drop from a fertility rate of 6.2 to 2.3 took just 20 years, from 1960 to 1980. The UN's population report corroborates this case, noting that some rapidly developing lower-income countries are following the trend in middle income countries whose fertility rates are falling significantly. It adds that the number of years in which a large, young working population can be counted on to fuel development may be fleeting, and governments and the private sector need to act now to prepare the young for productive roles and create jobs for them early in their working lives.

In sub-Saharan Africa, where economic growth rates remain relatively high as noted in the joint Uneca/ AU report, this performance is not being translated into needed jobs. The report urges more effective government intervention through the adoption of the 'developmental state' model to create employment-building policies and programmes. 'The improved economic performance achieved over the last decade has not been translated into commensurate reductions in unemployment and poverty, nor significant progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and the continent is experiencing a jobless recovery, apparently perpetuating a fundamental feature of its previous growth spell,' the report says.

Where employment has been created, this has been limited in many countries and economic recovery has been driven by capital-intensive extractive sectors that have few forward and backward linkages with the rest of the economy.

Only a few countries, such as Egypt and Mauritius, made marginal reductions in unemployment in 2010, due to their relatively strong expansion of the labour-intensive services sector. Woefully, public expenditure on social spending falls below the level needed to achieve the MDGs.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has warned that youth unemployment and situations where young people simply give up looking for work 'incur costs to the economy, to society and to the individual and their family', adding that 'there is a demonstrated link between youth unemployment and social exclusion'. In 2011, amid revolutions on the streets of Arab countries, the ILO also suggested that a 23.4 per cent youth unemployment rate in the Arab world was a major contributor to the uprisings.

In South Africa, one of the most economically unequal societies on the planet, unemployment stands at 25 per cent, rising to 57 per cent among township youth. The increasingly militant ANC Youth League and its suspended leader Julius Malema seized the country's political centre stage fronting the anger, disillusionment and growing militancy of South Africa's youth who feel betrayed by 17 years of majority rule.

In neighbouring Mozambique, Rui Pedro, a 24-year old geography student at the University Eduardo Mondlane in Maputo, is equally despondent. 'It's hard to be a young person in Mozambique,' he said. 'Normally in youth, you're supposed to gain experience for the future ... But here you have more problems than opportunities. There's no way to overcome the obstacles.'

So, can Africa reap the demographic dividend? Experts concur that there are a number of preconditions that must be fulfilled before countries can reap the advantages of youthful and growing populations, the main one of which is institutional quality. This refers to maintaining the rule of law, efficient bureaucracies, government stability, lack of corruption, and a stable business environment that encourages domestic and foreign investors.

Political and economic freedoms must also be supportive. 'Overall, North African countries, particularly Egypt and Morocco, rank favourably on most metrics, with countries such as Ghana, Mauritius, Senegal and South Africa also displaying structural potential,' says Freemantle.

Uneca's Africa youth report for 2011 calls for more investment in education and skills development for young people beyond merely increasing basic literacy rates to ensure dynamic, multifaceted knowledgebuilding at higher and tertiary levels. This will go a long way in preparing young people for the evolving labour market, the report says. Depressingly, despite increase in school enrolment, access to post-primary schooling is still a challenge for most young people in Africa.

Uneca says a change of attitude towards young people and by young people in Africa is essential. Many initiatives have been put in place, but much remains to be done. 'Clearly, as with the lessons learned from gender and development, stereotypes and the attitudes of both young people and the general population slow progress towards youth development in Africa,' it says in the report.

Secondly, Uneca says that in an era of the promotion of regional integration and rapid globalisation, African governments should take proactive measures that harness the potential and competitiveness of their young people in the global economy. 'These measures [ ... ] include: enhancing infrastructure; training and retraining to address skill shortages in the region; reforming immigration policies; promoting policies of inclusion and the right to education and work; and strengthening social protection systems, which would increase demand, protect people and support change in society'.

UNFPA's report, The Case for Investing in Young People as Part of a National Poverty Reduction Strategy 2010, advocates for investment in the youth. 'Adolescence is an important time to acquire the skills, health, social networks and other attributes that form the social capital needed for a fulfilling life. The fact that the human capital formed during adolescence and in youth is also an important determinant of long-term growth makes a strong macro-economic argument to support investing more in young people,' the report noted.

Social investment in young people's education, health and employment can enable countries to build a strong economic base, thereby reversing intergenerational poverty, said the report, adding that enhancing young people's capacities can yield larger returns during the course of their economically active lives. 'Young people are also an enormous resource for growth in the short run. Having young people sit idle is costly in foregone output ... The loss of income among the younger generation translates into a lack of savings as well as a loss of aggregate demand.'

To combat rising population against low economic growth, the need for reproductive health services, especially family planning, remains great. The attainment of a stable population is necessary for accelerated, planned economic growth and development.

And governments that are serious about ending poverty should also be serious about availing the services, supplies, information that women need to exercise their reproductive rights.

In countries like Ethiopia, where many girls are married off before they reach 18, child marriages are declining. 'Child marriage undermines nearly every Millennium Development Goal; it is an obstacle to eradicating poverty, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality, improving maternal and child health and reducing HIV and Aids,' the Population Reference Bureau survey says. Child marriages are a violation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and many countries in Africa have signed up to these international instruments.

Across the continent, many African youth are refusing to sit idly and risk their future being frittered away by unresponsive politicians. In Nigeria, where the median age is 18.5, young people have been taking an increasing part in political life in order to make their voices heard and their presence visible, including through the country's Youth Parliament.

The youth-registration and voting drive mounted by Fauziya Abdullahi and her colleagues for elections in 2011 is continuing as a civic awareness campaign, and Abdullahi said the elections showed 'a need for intensive civic education and capacity building that empowers young people to be at the driver's seat of their destiny.'

On the peripheries of the Egyptian city of Ismailia, on the Suez Canal, a teenage boy reflected the excitement of his generation and its hope of building political influence after the uprising in his country: 'We have made this revolution. Our families were used to keeping quiet. We didn't keep quiet. We went out to get our dream.'