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The effects on children and the youth

In Soweto, South Africa, thousands of black school children took to the streets in 1976 to protest the inferior quality of their education. Hundreds of young boys and girls were shot down by apartheid police. To honour the memory of those killed and the courage of those who marched, the Day of the African Child has been celebrated on 16 June every year since 1991. The Day also draws attention to the lives of African children today. In this article Hellen Tombo highlights the negative impact of onerous debt, unfair trade, inefficient aid and poor governance on the lives of African children and youth.

It is estimated that at least 30% of the world's population is aged between 10-24 years while nearly 12% is made up of children between 0-10 years. Out of this population, more than 75% are trapped in abject poverty and have insufficient income levels, if any, and no access to basic education opportunities. Youth and children die as a result of inadequacies in health care and other services, lack basic shelter and are orphaned at an early age. This is in violation of human rights norms as contained in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (1948).

It is now an open secret that trade injustice; insufficient aid and poor governance compounds this situation. These aspects are co-related and are all closely interlinked to debt. Studies have shown that states are subjected to unfair trade practices in return for aid, culminating in huge debts and unwise decisions from leaders. As Shridath Ramphal puts it, "debt is an oppressive tyranny that strips a country's population their rights." The discussion in the rest of this article places emphasis on how debt, unfair trade, insufficient aid and poor governance has had an impact on the youth and children of Africa.


With increased heavy dependence on aid, developing countries have been unable to create employment opportunities due to heavy budgetary allocations and expenditure. The GDP of these countries is far too low even to maintain the already existing workers. The culmination of this is borrowing.

Such monies have come with strings attached in the name of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs). One condition contained in SAPs is that nations expecting aid should cut down on their labour force. This has negatively impacted on the youth given that opportunities for public employment are nearly impossible.

Privatisation and liberalization of state owned corporations have serious impacts on the youth. Most foreign investors offer casual jobs, resulting in poor pay and exposure to health risks. Further, workers unions are often not allowed.

Child labour is common. Parents cannot afford to provide for their families, either because of retrenchment or simply because of poor pay. Such families have developed "survival strategies" of engaging their children in labour to substitute a meagre income.

Other serious consequences of the unemployment crisis are child prostitution, street children and children becoming breadwinners for their families, as they take care of their ailing parents who have lost jobs or are too poor to afford health care.


African governments have greatly reduced their expenditure on education, thus failing to commit themselves to "universal basic primary education for all".

Although donor countries have set aside money to support the education sector in many countries, to a large extent the initiative has been harmful to youth and children. Such initiatives have in most cases proved unsustainable. (For example, NARC's ''free primary education for all" in Kenya.) The government was promised funding by donor countries, only for most of them to pull out after the programme was initiated. This led to the evolvement of the cost sharing principle between the government and parents.

In Kenya, liberalization of our education system has seen foreign countries opening up their very expensive universities in our country. They have branded Kenya's public university education a sham. The expensive private universities don't open up job opportunities for our youth, despite pocketing so much money from them.

Trade and environment

Donor countries have made leaders their puppets by forcing them to sign trade agreements that only represent corporate interests. Africa depends on the export of primary commodities. Imports of finished goods expose the public to price violations and huge trade deficits, resulting in an increased debt obligation and meaning a country is unable to utilize its resources to develop the youth.

Trade liberalization and the elimination of barriers to US trade and investment has left hundreds of youth working as casuals in foreign companies. Trade agreements from the West and Europe prevent development of intra-African trade, which could easily create additional markets for talented youths. Unfair trade has also not spared youths striving to be in business. Local products have lost out as consumers prefer imported products.

Aids and health

WHO estimates that at least 30,000 children die daily from malaria and that at least 5,000 youth die daily from HIV/AIDS-related illnesses in Africa alone.

The Bush administration committed $15 billion over five years to fight HIV/AIDS. But the commitment is tied to conditions that have impeded the primary goal. The promotion of abstinence by the Bush administration is a noble cause, but we cannot ignore the fact that youth are exposed to high-risk behaviour. This calls for the distribution of condoms as a control mechanism.

With no funds, the cost of antiretroviral drugs will remain high and very few youth can afford and have access to them. Similarly, governments have had to borrow money to boost their health sectors and fight diseases like malaria.

Insufficient Aid

Donor agents have over the last 10 years been non-committal in giving aid that can sustain government's effort to meet its obligations. Varied reasons for such positions have been given. For example, donors have maintained they will not continue funding corrupt governments or governments that fail to meet their conditions. Some conditions like SAPs have been totally harmful to the people.

Insufficient aid means that a government is not able to offer services like education. Cost sharing (which is unaffordable to most parents) and cutting down on health expenditure are the solutions. Insufficient aid means that the government is unable to support youth initiatives that would help them reshape their lives.

Poor governance

There is perhaps no other better evidence of poor governance than corruption. The costs of corruption on the youth is enormous. First, bribery means that young people have to "buy" their way out through payment for services. For a youth to get a job, a bribe would come in handy. Similarly, in accessing public services like medicine from a hospital, one would be forced to bribe the pharmacist.

Embezzlement culminates in schools, health clinics, roads, sewer systems and other public amenities being in a worse state. Corruption reduces the overall wealth of a country. Thus it discourages business as well as investors from operating.


Any achievement of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP) and Millennium Development Goals (MDG) targets, especially with regards the youth, requires due attention to strategies aimed at focusing on how debt, unfair trade, insufficient aid and poor governance has impacted on this population sector.

The MDG targets relating to both youth and children (education attainment, gender balance in education, improved maternal health, combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and decent employment opportunities, sexual and reproductive health etc) have largely been made unachievable because of issues to do with debt.

The 2015 target of the MDGs is long-term, and if the youth are to benefit, then time for global justice aimed at influencing the world global agenda on how debts have negatively impacted on them is now.

2005 offers opportunities for youth mobilization. The key dates for action that lie ahead (the G8 Summit, the UN Millennium Summit, the WTO Ministerial and other local events as well as regional events such as the Day of the African child, coupled with white band days) are some opportunities for the youth to get on board en masse and add their voice.

The youth should wake up to the call and add their voice to the demand for the cancellation of debts. It is unrealistic to expect that poor countries can meet the MDGs without extra international support, thus the youth are called to mobilise and pressure G8 countries to cancel debt. In support of GCAP, the youth should develop a platform and challenge the World Bank and IMF to allow all people to make decisions on how to run their countries.

* Hellen Tombo is executive director of the Kenya Youth Education and Community Development Programme (KYCEP).

* Please send comments to [email protected]