Based in Senegal’s capital Dakar, Mabingue Ngom has been a champion of the demographic dividend as a catalyst for Africa’s development. His agenda: put young people first. To mark this year’s International Youth Day, he spoke with Benjamin Tetteh for Africa Renewal on the ‘Youth Engagement for Global Action’ theme for 2020. Here are the excerpts:

Africa Renewal: How important is it to celebrate the International Youth Day?

Mr. Ngom: The youth agenda is very vital, not just for Africa but for the entire world because we are talking about a population that is now almost 1.9 billion. In some places, like in West and Central Africa, young people account for more than 60% of the population. The day is important because young people not only form majority of the population but are also the greatest asset of the continent.

Four years ago, heads of State and governments in Africa decided to elevate the demographic dividend as the go-to policy. Also, looking at the current COVID-19 situation where young people are really at the forefront of the fight against the pandemic, we see why celebrating the International Youth Day in 2020 is all about youth engagement and is vital.

How has COVID-19 impacted your work with the youth?

We anticipated that COVID-19 will hit Africa harder than anywhere else in the world because of weak health systems.

Second, the region had been in a crisis already before COVID-19 having the highest in concentration of fragile states.

But thanks to young people, youth engagement and the partnership with UNFPA [United Nations Population Fund] across the region, we have been able to deploy young people to the forefront of prevention, contact tracing, and the entire spectrum of interventions at the centre of community mobilization.

How are you coping?

We have been extremely flexible and creative and able to find new ways of working. We have been able to provide the same quality of support to UNFPA country offices and I believe that country offices have been able to adapt and provide meaningful support to the member states, be it in terms of providing them with equipment, or the necessary know-how, and any other types of support for these affected communities. It was an excellent opportunity for us to discover new ways of doing things.

I can say we have been more efficient because COVID-19 has pushed us to find ways to operate by cutting most of the transaction costs. We have, for instance, elevated knowledge sharing which had been a big challenge for us, as a top priority. Sitting in Dakar, we are able to capture best practices from around the world – not only from our region, or Africa.

Africa could reap about $500bn each year for 30 years (currently about $800m a year), if it invests in the youth.

Nevertheless, you have cancelled in-person events, like the high-level youth forums against female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage. How have you been managing those events?

We have been really adaptable and flexible in finding new ways of consulting and having conversations. I can give you two or three examples. We organized, two or three months ago, a virtual press conference with over 120 participants from around the world, to have a conversation around COVID-19 response and the challenges in West and Central Africa. It was amazing because we have never had a press conference with more than 30-50 people.

Second, we were supposed to organize an event on demographic peace and security sometime in June 2020, but we decided to hold a virtual symposium which enabled us to achieve the same outcome.

So, flexibility has been key in driving our action. The biggest challenge was how to balance the need to achieve what we had planned and a new way of doing things due to COVID-19, and also, how safeguard the health, safety and wellbeing our own colleagues.

We often hear that the youth are the hope and future of the continent. In your view, are African countries placing the same importance on the youth?

After five years in the field pushing for this agenda of Putting Young People First, I can say that a lot has been done in terms of political mobilization, initiating concrete action to change things on the ground, and bringing partners on board.

At the same time, we have also experienced some unprecedented pressure, on all of us, regarding the youth agenda.

I can say that young people have done extremely well. They have been at the forefront of the change – the transformation – of the continent. They engage; engagement is not a problem at all.

Young people are on the map. What is missing is a meaningful support to young people. Meaningful because it will require more effort and much longer-term investment to transform the lives of young people in the continent, simply because for several decades, we have not been good at dealing at the root cause of the issue. We have been dealing with the symptoms, the visible ones, of bigger issues we don’t even think about.

Unfortunately, countries in Africa, especially in the Sahel region, do not have the fiscal space to address the symptoms – the fragility and the root cause of the fragility. Unless we have the kind of optimum level of engagement to deal with the emergency and to address the humanitarian needs, the security issues, and the trend we have been experiencing in the Sahel for the last few decades, we’ll not be able to see the end of the tunnel.

So, we need global solidarity, we need a much stronger multilateral system that will enable us to not only deal with the emergency and address security, but to do more on the development side too. Unless we do this, we will continue to face a larger number of crises and not have any meaningful success.

You mentioned the ‘demographic dividend’, how do you explain that concept and how can African countries embrace it?

I think it is very simple. I often refer to the Asian dragons or the Asian tigers. These countries were able to accelerate their growth by between one to two-thirds, by investing in demographic dividends. It is all about development gains you can achieve once you invest in education, health and productive jobs. Africa could reap about $500bn each year for 30 years (currently about $800m a year), if it invests in the youth.

To be honest, we have done extremely well in terms of advocacy and in making sure that there is domestication of the concept of demographic dividends. We have development roadmaps and we have developed country profiles. We have initiated projects to show that it is possible, it is doable, and we have developed tools and systems and provided guidance to countries.