Kenya’s Youth Bulge: A Dangerous Opportunity – Dorcas Sarkozy

Former US President Meets wings to fly students

Whoever wins the next general elections will be committing a grave mistake by failing to pay attention and fully understand Kenya’s demographic profile given its burgeoning unemployment AND underemployment rates.

The country’s policymakers will well-advised to familiarize themselves with and understand the following terms if they want to harness the power and energy of the ticking demographic time bomb.

Demographic Bomb: The resultant social upheaval caused by many unemployed and underemployed youths due to failure (of policymakers) to transform them into economically-productive members of their respective societies.

Demographic Dividend: The transition of a large youth population into one that is economically-productive and can drive economic gains”

Dependency Ratio: The measure showing the number of dependents, aged zero to 14 and over the age of 65, to the total population, aged 15 to 64. It is also referred to as the “total dependency ratio.”

Youth Bulge: A stage of development where a country achieves success in reducing infant mortality but mothers still have a high fertility rate.

According to the CIA Factbook on Kenya,
0-14 years: 40.87% (male 9,592,017/female 9,532,032)2
15-24 years: 18.83% (male 4,398,554/female 4,411,586)1
25-54 years: 33.54% (male 7,938,111/female 7,755,128)1
55-64 years: 3.84% (male 819,665/female 976,862)1
65 years and over: 2.92% (male 590,961/female 775,842) (2016 est.)2
Total Dependency Ratio: 80.9%
Youth Dependency Ratio: 75.8%

A thumbnail summary of the numbers above reveal that close to 26M1 Kenyans ages 15-64 years old support 21M2 Kenyans ages 0-14 and >65years old.

On the surface that sounds great because “the least among us” (children and the elderly) have enough heads (26M) to look after and care for them. However, the truth is not that cut and dry. Kenya’s demographic profile presents both a challenge and an opportunity for its policymakers.

The raw numbers, especially in the 15-24-year-old range (numbering ~8M young men), an unemployment rate of north of 40% combine with a toxic enthno-centric political environment driven by a group of opportunistic politicians to set up the perfect storm.

The high unemployment and discontent allows the affected to be easily manipulated into joining gangs, heckling and harassing the opposition or being the private militia of those with interests to protect.

Students in clasd

These same numbers present a young, literate, tech-savvy and industrious labor pool to power a country still struggling on the take-off stage phase of its transition from the Third World into the “newly-industrialized country” (NICs).
In either case, the choice is up to the policymakers AND the country writ large.

Just as easily as the Kenyan youth can foster a new paradigm of good governance, socio-economic development and safe and secure communities by being agents of change, mentors and leaders, the same energy, disaffection and malleability can similarly ignite and sustain a period of protracted lawlessness, stagnation, unstable and insecure communities as private militia, recruiters/enforcers and war lords.

The Council on Foreign Relations (CoFR) has an article titled “The Effects of ‘Youth Bulge’ on Civil Conflicts” that should be required reading for policymakers of developing countries. An easy read, the article delves into some of the causes of the phenomenon, its impact – positive and negative – and some ways to mitigate (the negative impacts).

Specifically, the author Lionel Beehner argues that a youth bulge is “not necessarily” a bad thing. That with the “right investments and progress through the demographic transition, (a) large youth population can become (an) economically-productive population that drives economic gains” – in a phenomenon known as “demographic dividend”. Mr. Beehner goes on to offer the economies of East Asia and Ireland as examples of harnessed youth bulges that “contributed to the strong economic outputs of the various countries”.

The same analysis is offered by Justin Lini in his piece “Youth Bulge: A Demographic Dividend or A Demographic Bomb in Developing Countries?”

Conversely, to illustrate the “demographic bomb” side of the equation reflected in the numbers offered above, i.e. the negative and dangerous impact of a youth bulge, all one needs to do is look at who the main participants in the various instances of civil disturbances, demonstrations and violence around the globe are.

During the Arab Spring in the late 2000s, the post-election violence in Kenya, civil wars/unrest in Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone etc., the large number of unemployed and underemployed youth, hitherto latent demographic bombs, detonated and the impact of the resultant instability is still being felt to this day – in places like Libya and Syria.

The foregoing are the two markedly different sides of the same youth bulge coin that Kenya’s policymakers should be cognizant of – beyond the August 2022 General Elections.

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