Op-Ed: Unlocking Africa’s potential for decent work through trade and investment

Gilbert Houngbo

Africa’s rapidly growing workforce needs decent work. Increased trade and investment can help drive inclusive growth for sustainable development but we need more integrated policies to realize that potential.

It could prove vital for the creation of decent jobs, especially for millions of young Africans, and this is the message that the ILO is bringing to the 14th United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD 14) being held from 17 to 22 July in Nairobi, Kenya.

How to translate decisions into actions after the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development? That’s what will be at the heart of the conversation among Heads of State and Government, ministers of economic affairs and trade, accompanied by leaders from international organizations, business, civil society and media.

After decades of assuming that sound economic, trade and investment policies would automatically deliver growth and thereby employment and decent work, the world has come to know better. That is why all Member States explicitly made inclusive growth and decent work for all one of the 17 global sustainable development goals (SDGs).

The 2030 Agenda is an integrated approach to development where economic growth, environmental protection and social justice shall go hand in hand.  Full employment and decent work for all is placed together with inclusive economic growth as SDG number 8, at the very heart of the 2030 Agenda.

Harnessing the potential of trade and investment as an important stimulus for the generation of decent work opportunities and sustainable development is a crucial component of the global partnership for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. The ILO and its Decent Work Agenda brings several interconnected policy tools and supporting evidence-based research to such a new global partnership.

The Decent Work Agenda has four strategic objectives, considered equally important and mutually reinforcing: To set and promote standards and fundamental principles and rights at work; to create increased opportunities for women and men to decent employment and income; to enhance the coverage and effectiveness of social protection for all, and to strengthen tripartism and social dialogue – that is, to strengthen trade unions and employers’ organizations and their capacity for dialogue with each other and with governments.

Working women and men across Africa recognize the need for such policies. The Addis Ababa Declaration at the 13th African Regional Meeting of the ILO in December last year spells it out:  In spite of high and sustained growth over the past decade – in fact six of the top ten fastest growing economies were in Africa -progress has been lacking in diversifying productive capacity, inequality is increasing and poverty remains among the highest in the world.

Lack of employment and decent work for young people is the continent´s most pressing challenge. The ILO´s report on Global Employment Trends for Youth 2015 pinpointed the fact that North Africa has the highest youth unemployment rate in the world, at more than 30 percent, a majority of them long-term unemployed.  While sub-Saharan Africa fares better, at 11.6 percent youth unemployment – the long-term figure there of 48.1 percent is also very serious.  And this does not count the millions of young people who have given up to look for a job altogether.  If they are included, the figures nearly double in low-income countries.

With high unemployment and underemployment depicting a bleak scenario, employers including foreign investors are also concerned that they cannot find the skilled workers they need. This indicates a serious skills gap – which certainly is a barrier for African countries to take successful part in global supply chains, the dominating mode of production, trade and growth in the globalized economy.

The ILO is assisting our member states in addressing this multifaceted challenge by leading the Global Initiative on Decent Jobs for Youth. This is a unique partnership developed by 21 United Nations agencies as a platform to engage all partners investing and supporting youth employment around the world. Better skills development and linkages to global markets and investments are key among the actions to be taken under this initiative.

Meeting the challenge of assuring progress towards decent work throughout global supply chains will require the strengthening of a range of labour market institutions, including the capacity of public authorities and employers’ and workers’ organizations to effectively monitor and enforce compliance with laws and regulations. This was one of the conclusions of the discussions on the ILO´s International Labour Conference, which met in Geneva, Switzerland last month.

These conclusions can instil new life into the trade and investment outlooks of the African continent. They urge governments to adopt a more integrated and coordinated approach to policy-making.  It is crucial to ensure that all relevant ministries are involved across their respective portfolios when their policies influence each other – and that is certainly the case for trade, investment and labour policies.

Ed’s Note: Gilbert Houngbo is Deputy Director for Field Operations and Partnerships at the International Labour Organization (ILO)

Cover Photo: Ethiopian President Mulatu Teshome and U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia Patricia Haslach examined merchandise from one of the expo exhibitors at the fifth Origin Africa Trade Expo held on OCt.21, 2015.  In one year, U.S. Trade Africa project facilitates $80 million in exports to the U.S. under AGOA 

Photo: US Embassy/Addis Abeba

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