In Africa, the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified a number of economic challenges that were already being faced by young people. These include difficulties in transitioning from school-to-work and searching for more stable employment and livelihood opportunities. As youth are concentrated in seasonal or temporary work, they are more likely to be laid off during a lockdown. Many entry-level or low-skilled jobs held by young people on the continent are in retail, hospitality and the service sector, which have been extremely hard hit.
Despite the urgency, rigorous evidence on the extent to which youth’s livelihoods and economic opportunities have been affected by the pandemic is not yet available. This leaves governments in the dark when designing policy responses. Given the large disparities in the spread of the virus and differences in socio-economic conditions between countries, context-specific knowledge on the impact of the virus is scarce. A swift collection and consolidation of knowledge on the full impact of the crisis is, thus, urgently needed to inform policy responses for Africa’s youth.
Boosting Decent Employment for Africa’s Youth is a research initiative aiming to provide knowledge to scale up action on youth employment. Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the Dutch Knowledge Platform on Inclusive Development Policies (INCLUDE) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) launched the initiative in 2019 under the umbrella of the Global Initiative on Decent Jobs for Youth. In response to the current situation, the initiative and its research partners are joining efforts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Adapting research strategies to generate novel evidence
Boosting Decent Employment for Africa’s Youth currently supports eight youth employment research projects in Benin, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda. They represent a network of 65 multidisciplinary researchers who gather evidence on how soft skills development and work-based learning may boost economic opportunities for young people. Given the current unprecedented context, some groups are refocusing planned activities to better understand the challenges exacerbated by the pandemic. For instance, in Uganda, survey modules were added to gain a better understanding of how the lives of youth are affected by the pandemic and shed light on the role of soft skills in how they weather the crisis. In South Africa, a dedicated COVID-19 employability survey will be implemented to learn more about the post-pandemic employment landscape, including whether or not, and how, companies’ demand for young workers and skill requirements, as well as appetite for providing work-based learning opportunities, are evolving.
Preliminary findings from the research projects, combined with lessons emerging from other IDRC-supported research, speak to three topics crucially relevant to the COVID-19 response and recovery: decent jobs, gender and intersectional approach.
First, researchers found that the pandemic exposed the risks and fragilities associated with informality for employers as well as workers, underlining the urgent need to create more decent jobs for young people. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) now recognize the importance of registering their activities in order to benefit from safety nets and financial incentives put in place by governments. SMEs are the largest employer of young people in Africa and will need to be the engines of its economic recovery. These businesses need to bounce back quickly after the pandemic, and incentives like tax relief or cash incentives to create opportunities for internships and apprenticeships could stimulate recovery.
Second, the evidence on the impacts of COVID-19 shows that labour market outcomes for youth are profoundly gendered. Young women, being over-represented in informal jobs, face a greater risk of losing their jobs and are more exposed to negative impacts associated with the shutdown of small enterprises and harassment as small vendors. Research also found an increase in levels of violence, including domestic violence against women, and in fertility rates, which lead to a reduction in the economic opportunities for women in the long term.
Third, and alongside gender considerations, inequalities exist across intersecting categories of identity, including ethnicity, sexuality, class and citizenship status. These findings point to key factors that will affect how youth from diverse genders, ethnicities, backgrounds and experiences access new job opportunities after the pandemic and that must be considered when designing policy responses.
Synthesizing existing evidence: examples of good practices
In parallel, the initiative started collecting evidence on good practices from current interventions in the area of COVID-19 in Africa. A series of news items explores how youth from different groups are being affected, and how different actors are working to help young people build their livelihoods and have their rights and voices heard, both during and after the crisis.
What emerges from this exercise is that COVID-19 poses additional challenges to education, employment, entrepreneurship, and engagement for Africa’s already vulnerable youth population. Nevertheless, the active participation of Africa’s youth in multiple aspects of the COVID-19 response has been critical. Among other things, young people are actively engaging in fighting misinformation in recognition of the importance of reliable data and robust evidence.
Boosting Decent Employment for Africa’s Youth has published a series of evidence synthesis papers that reiterate the importance of distinguishing youth-specific issues within relevant policies, as well as involving youth more broadly in decision-making and accountability processes, both during the crisis and beyond, in order to fully shape their own future. The 2020 call for papers included as one of the key themes the impact of different types of crises (including COVID-19) on youth employment outcomes.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a global problem, but recovery solutions must be grounded in specific contexts, including fragile and conflict-affected states across Africa. Despite the contextual and methodological challenges related to this unprecedented situation, the initiative continues to support rigorous and solution-oriented research and evidence synthesis in order to help mitigate the negative socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic on Africa’s youth.
Stay tuned in the coming months to learn more about emerging findings and innovative strategies to share good practices and evidence on effective crisis responses that boost youth employment. These will be published, along with insightful resources and event notifications, on the initiative’s website.
By Mylène Bordeleau, Program Officer, Employment and Growth, (International Development Research Centre, IDRC) and Agnieszka Kazimierczuk, Knowledge Manager, (INCLUDE Knowledge Platform)
This article is part of the Decent Jobs for Youth Blog Series: Youth Rights & Voices. The Blog Series highlights the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on young women and men in the world of work and discusses action-oriented policy responses and solutions. If you would like to comment or contribute, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
 ILO (2019). A quantum leap for gender equality: For a better future of work for all. International Labour Organization, p. 32