Addressing youth unemployment has become increasingly urgent in the face of a deteriorating security situation where criminal and radical groups have penetrated many parts of Mali. They go largely undeterred by the Malian government and continue to recruit youth who see no viable alternatives. Past efforts to address youth employment yielded few results. The international community can make a difference by helping Mali create better conditions for youth entrepreneurship.

One important condition is tackling bad governance and corruption that, if unaddressed, will attract more illicit trade, crime and terrorists. The February attacks targeting Westerners forced Mali to awake to the new reality that terrorist groups have settled in the capital Bamako. While negotiating the Algiers peace accord, the UN stabilization mission in Mali (MINUSMA) issued several warnings, yet it was up to Malian government – its army and police – to address the situation. The government seemed preoccupied however with fending off scandals, including the recent purchases of hundreds of new vehicles for the president’s son and an airplane. It infuriated Malians, especially young people. According to last year’s perception survey Mali Mètre by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, almost three quarters of Malians feel their country is badly governed, with the police as one of the most corrupt institutions.

Not finding a formal job
There is a link between unemployment especially among youth and insecurity in Mali. More than half of its population is currently under the age of 35 and, according to the African Economic Outlook for Mali 2014, this group is expected to almost double by 2030, due to the high fertility rate of 6.7 children per women. The number of young workers entering the labour market is pushing towards 250,000 a year and will double by 2030. The formal sector, including government and medium to large companies, is only expected to create a small percentage of jobs, at best 10%. Frustration among educated young Malians is widespread and caused by the fact that most have unrealistic expectations of getting a formal job (Dougnon, 2013). This is even more unlikely for young people from less privileged ethnic groups especially with increased discrimination in recent years. Many are finding ways to move to Europe instead.

Turning to crime
A recent interview by the author in Mali revealed that, faced with few remaining economic alternatives, many young people from the northern city of Timbuktu are opting for criminal and radical groups for their survival and livelihoods. Some groups seem to have been well rooted in these communities for over a decade. They strike at the most vulnerable moment, recruit youngsters and lure them with short-term cash or goodies. Whilst, as the 2014 AFDB report shows, poverty and unemployment are well-known breeding grounds for extremist groups, a perception of injustice and inequality can prompt young people to join them, as a recent Mercy Corps report found in a number of fragile states. Perceptions of injustice, bad governance and corruption are widespread among Malians, including young people.

Finding economic opportunities
There is an urgent need to actively engage Malian youth in economic life. Past efforts to improve their employability and access to financing to set up businesses have, however, not produced the desired effects. The institutions created to achieve these goals have suffered from nepotism and clientelism (Dougnon, 2013) and are financially unsustainable. Neither have employment projects financed by the state helped to structurally include youth, as they cannot be sustained and fold when the funding stops. While most of Mali’s economic potential is in agriculture, this sector only generates a small percentage of GDP due to underdevelopment. According to the 2014 report of the African Development Bank’s High Level Panel on Fragile States, as in many other African countries, Mali’s agricultural sector employs the working poor.

Most young people migrate to urban centres and survive by working in the informal sector. There is a lack of economic opportunities for youth in both the countryside and the cities (Dougnon 2013) and this is not improving, despite the country’s growth rates. This provides a breeding ground for well-funded criminal and radical groups, which is penetrating further into Mali despite the presence of the 12,000-strong MINUSMA mission. Viable economic alternatives such as formal jobs and businesses are needed to prepare Mali for the youth bulge expected in 2030. There are no shortcuts for achieving this outcome. It requires a holistic, long-term and politically courageous approach from both the Malian government and the international community. It is clear what should be done. A recent book by Malian expert Hammou Haidara discusses how to promote micro enterprises as a motor for development and lays out a set of measures. They range from value chain development in agriculture, investments in infrastructure and formalizing and fiscalizing enterprises to tailored training for different groups of young Malians.

Overcoming challenges
The most challenging and important measure for promoting entrepreneurship however is ‘gouverner autrement’. This focuses on decentralization, valuing local ecosystems and last but not least, accountability and transparency. Addressing this requires political courage. However, according to a 2014 research report, many of the people the international community has partnered with in the quest to rebuild Mali – politicians, local leaders, the military – might have been linked to illicit trade and crime. If the international community is serious about promoting work for youth in Mali then it should show the political courage to promote gouverner autrement. This is absolutely the key to winning back the trust of the younger generation to work for – instead of turning against – Mali’s future.

(this blog was published earlier on The Broker on 23 April 2015)
(picture credit: Ruud van Soelen. Image of Malian students in Segou, 2014)