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Youth Bulge in Cities and Towns, its Remedies

Youth Bulge in Cities and Towns, its Remedies

Tsegaye Tegenu, (PhD)


Although still a majority rural country, Ethiopia has been rapidly urbanizing in the past few decades. The urban centres have increased both in size and number. In the 1960s there were about 384 towns with a total population of 1.5 million, which increased to 925 in 1994 with the urban population of 8.5 million. Currently, the urban population has more than doubled reaching at 19 million. Over the past 30 years, Ethiopia’s annual urban population growth rate has been higher than the average in Sub-Saharan Africa, according to a report released by the World Bank Group in 2015.

The multiplication and concentration of urban centres in Ethiopia coincided with rapid population growth in the country. Total population doubled in twenty five years from 46 million (1995 size) to 92 million in 2015. Since natural increase in urban population was not greater than the rural population, the explosion of urban population was due to the migration of people from rural to urban areas.

When looking at the urban age structure, the proportions and numbers of young adults, the youth bulge, is increasing. In the 1960s and 1970s, the youth bulge in urban centres was about 30Pct of the urban working age population and in 2007 this number increased to 53Pct, according to the latest national census. The number of young adults is projected to increase as a result of continued rapid urbanization. According to official figures, the urban population is projected to increase to 42.3 million in 2037, growing at 3.8Pct per year. That would mean doubling of the current urban population by the early 2030s.

For many years to come, youth bulge is and will be the dominant age group in the urban centres. The life domains of this age group include education, employment, health, housing and infrastructure services (transportation) as well as participation. Growth in the relative number of the youthful population means the intensity of these needs, roles and livelihood positions affecting their wellbeing.

Now, the questions are do urban centres have the resources to meet the needs and demands of a rapidly growing youthful population? What can urban centres do to mitigate the youth bulge challenges? What are the policy strategies, practical tools, policy actors, governance structure and financial methods that can be used by city and urban governments?

I have not come across studies that assess the effects and challenges of youth bulge trend on sustainable urban development in Ethiopia. Researches such as the one that was published by Ethiopian Development Research Institute entitled ‘Unlocking the Power of Ethiopia's Cities’ indicate that even in developed countries, the study of urban development from the perspective of age transition is very recent. Traditionally, both in developed countries and developing countries like Ethiopia, the problems and challenges of urban development is studied from the perspectives of sectoral specialization and silo approaches in which each stakeholders prioritizes their own special interest

For instance, a study on the housing sector and associated infrastructure facilities (such as water, electricity, waste disposal) discusses the inadequacy of the social amenities and the slum environments in the urban areas. Likewise, land use planning maps the economic sectors, efficiency of transportation system, and intra-city mobility. Sectoral approaches address mainly the life quality issues of the community and they are relevant in design options. The negative side of this approach is that under conditions where system of accountability lacks, ‘sectorisation’ can give special interest precedence over others and those powerful actors with resources can advance their own interest.

The perspective of youth bulge, on the other hand, focuses on the life quality of the individual and on the opportunity structures that influence the development as well as life chances of individuals, which should be the basis of urban development planning and policy choices. The problems and challenges of youth bulge cities and towns require holistic view that crosses the border of sectors. As pointed out, youth bulge effects cover different life domains (health, education, employment, housing and transportation). Youthful population life moves between the different sectors and spheres which by their very nature require an integrated approach.

The fundamental of urban sector study and planning is difficult to move away from. ‘Sectorization’ and specialization are old phenomenon related to the society’s division of labour and need for accountability. The drawback is that a too far driven sectoral approach impedes actors to cooperate on holistic solutions to youth bulge effects.

Sustainability of youth bulge cities and towns requires holistic view in addition to the traditional sectoral approaches to urban development. Holistic view explores ways of developing good governance structure that enhance co-operation between key stakeholders from the public and private sector, youth and professionals in building sustainable youth bulge urban centres. The question is do; we have now an attempt to break the sectoral approach and initiate long term and integrated vision that crosses the border of sectors?

Another important policy strategy question concerning youth bulge cities/towns is on measures aimed at controlling and stemming rural-urban migration, which is the main source of youth bulge explosion in urban centres. The pattern, trend and characteristics of migration-led urbanization in Ethiopia, calls for program and strategy that are focused on rural industrialization. To absorb the surplus rural labour into a wage based productive economy and to avoid uneven and unbalanced growth of towns, there is a need for rural industrialization in Ethiopia.

Rural industrialization is concerned with the spread and growth of small-scale and cottage industries in rural areas. Bramall. C in his study entitled ‘The Industrialization of Rural China’ reveal that the experiences of high population density countries such as China and India shows that small scale industrial sector has vast potential in terms of creating employment and output. Small-scale manufacturing industries have the capacity to absorb the surplus labour and provide productive employment owing to their growth character.

There are two approaches to rural industrialization. The first approach defines rural industrialization as the spread of manufacturing employment and enterprise management from major cities to rural towns. This is called “exogenous model of rural industrialization”. The second approach emphasises setting up of industries based on rural local resources and skills since economic capacities of a given country may not ensure the expansion of urban industries to rural areas. This model, which emphasises the unique rural character, is called “endogenous model of rural industrialization”.

To me, it doesn't matter whether industries spread from urban to rural areas or be based on rural local resources catering local demands. What matters is the creation of productive employment for the surplus rural labour in the nearby towns and supply of consumption goods to the rural households.

The conditions of youth bulge cities and towns in the country require industrial decentralization (relocation of manufacturing industries to medium and small towns) to bring about balanced growth and absorb the rural surplus labour in its own proximate location (to curb long distance migration).

There are two policy strategies and tools that matter most for sustainable urban development of youth bulge cities and towns. First, thinking for a holistic view that crosses the border of urban sectors, there need to be a plan that enhance co-operation between stakeholders including the youth. Second, there need to be a program for the promotion of rural-town based small-scale manufacturing industries, which are not only more labour intensive but also more productive per unit of scarce capital than their large-scale counterparts in capital cities.

Source: Ethiopian Business Review, 5th Year, May 2017, No. 50.


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