Demographic shifts throughout sub-Saharan Africa are reshaping the continent. One in five Africans are now between the ages of 15 and 24. This generation of more than 200 million people — known by demographers as Africa’s “youth bulge” — raises critical social questions: what can be done to harness the energy and talents of this generation to promote social equity and economic growth, and what can global policy do to take advantage of surging population trends?
“Every country reaches this point in history just once,” says Parfait Eloundou-Enyegue, professor of global development in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and a leading scholar of the demographic dividend. “We are in a unique time where African countries can make a major leap forward, should policies take advantage of these emerging population trends.”
This historically large generation of young people now entering the labor market puts policymakers and development practitioners in a unique position to accelerate economic growth in the global south. For Eloundou-Enyegue, a demographer who explores how changing demographics impact not only economic growth but inequality, gender, environment, and political security, these coming years for sub-Saharan African countries are a time of great opportunity and great risk.
“In order for African countries to take advantage of this moment, they have to cultivate the Gen Z population, many of whom are currently without work,” says Eloundou-Enyegue. “Youth could transform economies across Africa if given the opportunity, or an entire generation could be forced into stagnation if the moment is missed.”
Empowering Cameroonian youth
Eloundou-Enyegue sees this as a time to transform Africa’s largest generation into its greatest generation. He founded a long-term research project in his native country of Cameroon called PICHNET, which uses a three-pronged approach — youth capacity development, research and policy communication — to boost and leverage Cameroon’s human capital, particularly with youth ages 18 to 25.
Like many of the countries in Africa experiencing a surging youth generation, Cameroon’s own demographic boom comes with dangers. PICHNET was originally funded by the U.S. Department of Defense in recognition of how a failure to integrate and empower this youthful population could lead to violence and destabilization. Eloundou-Enyegue sees risks not only of physical violence, but also psychological, social and economic structures of violence that threaten daily livelihoods across the region.
“With high rates of unemployment, youth fear they will lose skills or become outdated in their field, or that they will get involved in violence, alcohol or drug activity,” Eloundou-Enyegue says. “So many choices are made during this period: Will you emigrate? Start a family? Start a new career? This time is a pivot point for millions of people, and it will help determine Africa’s trajectory for decades.”
To confront the opportunities afforded by a dynamic cohort of youth in Cameroon, PICHNET created a capacity building program that targets professional and personal growth. “We want to encourage this youth bulge to build their character from the inside out. We want them to open their minds and spirit, and consider how they can contribute to their community as a well-rounded person,” Eloundou-Enyegue says.
Youth in the program participate in courses in four core areas — professional, personal, domestic and community service — wherein they learn about topics ranging from entrepreneurship, sign language and music to mechanics and cooking, all of which target both young men and women.
Eloundou-Enyegue and Sarah Giroux, professor of the practice and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Global Development, are currently conducting an evaluation of randomized policy experiments to assess the program’s effectiveness and return on investment. As part of Cornell’s Africa Dividend Generation Project, the research team selected 5,000 high school graduates to participate in interventions ranging from motivational messaging and mentoring to site visits, capacity building and internships.
“For me this work is heartwarming. Having a forum where these youth, most of whom are very underprivileged, feel heard and are encouraged to grow is so meaningful,” Eloundou-Enyegue shares. “During the summer camps that are introduced as part of the research, It is beautiful to see youth break down barriers, change their mindset, and love this community so much that they don’t want to go home at the end of the day.” Over the coming summer, four Cornell students, funded by the Einaudi Center for International Studies, will join the project to learn about research, but also gain a virtual international experience by working alongside these youth during the summer camp.
As the program’s evaluation determines which interventions have had a low-cost impact, the researchers will consider how the model could be replicated on a larger scale.
On the global stage
Eloundou-Enyegue’s expertise on population trends has been in high demand across the globe. Over the past decade he has consulted on initiatives with the United Nations, numerous national governments, international NGOs and the U.S. Population Bureau, and has also worked as an international professor in Cameroon, South Korea, China and Europe. He has advised policymakers on how they can take advantage of the demographic dividend in the Philippines, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Benin.
When the United Nations put together a Secretary General Panel to analyze the first five years of progress on the UN’s Sustainable Development, Eloundou-Enyegue was among the 15 scientists selected. The group’s 2019 report on the Sustainable Development Goals provided key findings into the progress — and lack of progress — on the biggest global challenges. Additionally, Eloundou-Enyegue led strategic planning for the UN Population Fund, integrating Cornell students in the project’s research, presentation and debrief.
He also partnered with the Hewlett Foundation to support and train institutes on demographic research and policy analysis. Over ten years, the outreach program united 150 individuals from 25 institutes throughout Francophone Africa.
Eloundou-Enyegue transfers global research lessons from the field into the classroom. He teaches courses at the undergraduate level, such as Introduction to Sociology, Social Indicators, and Education, Inequality and Development, as well at the graduate level, such as Empirics of Development and Inequality.
“In the field of development, we need to think holistically. How does food relate to reproductive health? How do efforts to combat poverty impact security or the environment?” Eloundou-Enyegue says. “We must have a greater capacity to integrate disciplines and learn from the global terrain to compare experiences in a fast-shifting environment.”
Kelly Merchan is a communication specialist in the Department of Global Development.