Botswana’s economic success offers strong hope for job creation

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Investment in education is high, and the economy is booming, reports Patience Akumu. So where are all the jobs?
US President Barack Obama recently drew headlines for describing Africa as a vibrant continent on the rise, headlines that were a little surprising given that Obama’s remarks have been common knowledge for the past decade. Civil wars are declining, with infrastructure and living conditions improving for nearly 79% of countries in Africa. Technological advances, enviable resources and economic growth of 5.2% are helping the continent to rewrite its story from one of doom and crisis to one of promise and prosperity.

Yet a dark cloud seems to hover permanently over Africa’s economic potential. The positive signs mean little to the millions of Africans who not only face poverty, but who have little hope of escaping it. “Alongside new wealth, hundreds of millions of Africans still endure extreme poverty,” said Obama. “Alongside high-tech hubs of innovation, many Africans are crowded into shantytowns without power or running water.”

This puzzle of potential and reality is particularly prominent in southern Africa’s Botswana. A small, landlocked country of two million people, Botswana has transformed — since independence from Britain in 1966 — from being one of the poorest countries in Africa into one of the fastest growing economies in the world. The country boasts a functional democracy and has slashed poverty rates from more than 50% at the time of independence to about 18%.

Unemployment worst among the young

Yet the unemployment rate is among the worst in Africa, sitting stubbornly at the 20% mark, according to the Botswana Central Statistics Office. Worst hit is the 15-24 age group where unemployment is as high as 39%. When ‘discouraged jobseekers’—those who have lost hope in urban jobs and returned mostly to rural areas and subsistence farming—are fed back into the jobless figures, youth unemployment rises to as high as 58%. Unsurprisingly, income inequality in Botswana is a major concern, with 30% of the population living on less than US$1 a day.

The contradictions persist. Botswana’s investment in education — a system that’s free and nearly universal at primary level — is proudly among the highest in the world at 8% of GDP. Meanwhile, students are held back from higher education because of limitations on places, rather than ability.

Fighting the jobs scourge

The government maintains it is on the right track to fighting unemployment, particularly among the young. The Botswana National Youth Council has launched several initiatives, from direct loans, grants for sports training, and creating direct links to employers. But government-backed programmes such as the Citizen Entrepreneurial Development Agency — established to provide financial and technical support for business development — and the Youth Empowerment Scheme — a six-month boot camp coupled with a one-year work attachment for the under-30s — have been criticised for failing to deliver their promise.

Botswana’s neighbours are turning their focus to working with developed countries like the US, Britain and China to use entrepreneurship as the solution to unemployment. Where possible, the aim is to tap the continent’s potential to become the world’s food basket with ‘agripreneurship’, an approach less likely to work for Botswana, with its arid climate and desert soil, than for its neighbours.

Fundamentally, Botswana’s blessing and curse are diamonds. The deposits on which the country has relied for decades to fuel economic growth are nearing exhaustion. Pressure for Botswana to diversify is growing and essential if the country is to preserve its past economic glory and solve the thorny unemployment issue that few want to discuss.

More valuable, perhaps, than the diamond reserves is Botswana’s political stability. The country has a mature democracy, with regular free and fair elections, underpinned by fundamental human rights. With this in mind, the government is aiming to create an investment-friendly economy without the bureaucracy for which Africa is known. The country already has a proven record of good governance and sensible economic management, and it boasts the best anti-corruption ranking in Africa.

Government approaches towards improving the life of its citizens may sound home-grown and familiar: a commitment to making the private sector the engine of economic growth; a privatisation programme for telecommunications, the postal service and the national airline. Non-traditional exports — garments, textiles, tiles and crafts — are being promoted. And tourism, a labour-intensive industry and the third-largest sector in Botswana’s economy, offers strong hope for substantial job creation.

One thing is sure: Botswana is determined to hold onto its prestigious position as an African success story. The next step is to see if it can take enviable economic growth and political stability and channel these to rid the country of the scourge of unemployment.

Patience Akumu is a feature writer for the Kampala Observer in Uganda.

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