Bridging the research-policy gap: Africa’s youth employment challenge

16th June 2017

Bridging the gap between research, policy and practice is hardly a new imperative. At its heart is the virtue of research-based evidence informing policy and intervention design, which in turn increases the likelihood of desired outcomes. Seife Ayele argues that while some progress has been made, an area that urgently requires a closer research-policy-practice nexus is the youth employment challenge in Africa.

The youth employment challenge

The Youth Division of the African Union Commission notes that Africa is the most youthful continent, with about 65 per cent of the total population below the age of 35. Many foresee a bright outlook for this ‘youthful’ Africa, with investment, gross national product and per capita incomes growing. The reality, however, is that millions of African youths are unemployed or underemployed, even as Africa is said to be ‘rising. A recent report by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation (MIF) shows that 10 of the 25 fastest growing economies in the world between 2004 and 2014 were African. And yet, with nearly 30 million unemployed (and many more millions underemployed) in 2015, these fast-growing African economies are failing to create enough jobs for the young. MIF and similar reports remind us of the question raised by the World Bank’s landmark publication (World Development Report (WDR) 2007: Development and the Next Generation) - why do large numbers of young people go jobless for months and years? A decade after the publication of WDR 2007 the question unfortunately remains largely unanswered and the problem persists.

Getting evidence into policy and interventions

There are some known reasons why the youth employment challenge is so persistent. As an International Labour Organisation study shows, despite the rhetoric about prioritising the youth agenda, youth-focused policies and interventions have actually been very limited across the region. These lack coordination, with few credible efforts to generate lessons and feed back into policy making. Policies and interventions have, furthermore, drawn more from theory than research-based evidence, limiting the potential to generate more desirable outcomes.

A seismic shift is needed towards generating more quality research, developing evidence-based policies and interventions to meaningfully address youth employment challenges. Such a shift is easier floated than accomplished, but the process of conducting research needs to be more inclusive of key stakeholders, notably young people. This will bring out timely and substantive evidence while maintaining the necessary quality and independence. Besides publishing academic papers and policy briefs, getting research into policy and practice entails a wide range of strategies, including giving evidence at critical points in policy-making.

It’s abundantly clear that African researchers have a huge role to play in generating evidence and getting it into policy and practice areas. However, in addition to resource limitations, the fact that many academics are often overburdened by teaching and/or administration duties makes the production of impactful research all the more difficult. Experience shows that young African doctoral graduates produce excellent theses on frontier areas relevant to the continent’s development, including youth employment and entrepreneurship. But they often do not receive the requisite training to put their research into policy and practice arenas. They also battle to get into the fiercely competitive publishing world. Making the best use of such emerging talent in itself remains a challenge.

Matasa Fellows Network strives to get research into policy and practice

The Matasa Fellows Network is a modest initiative set up to address this very challenge. Launched in 2015 by the MasterCard Foundation and Institute of Development Studies (IDS), the initiative aims to address the youth employment challenge in Africa by supporting young African researchers to develop their skills and engage with policymakers. Its first cohort comprised 10 young researchers, who either recently completed or were about to complete their PhD studies in a range of areas of social sciences. The Matasa Fellows Network, with coaching and facilitation from IDS staff, enabled the researchers to bring a youth perspective into the analysis and discussion of their research, and to generate policy ideas. It provided researchers with exposure to policy making processes and contexts by facilitating interactions with professionals from governments and NGOs. It enabled researchers with shared interests to connect and learn from each other. In addition to exchange of ideas, real peer-support mechanisms emerged for developing academic publications and potential research projects. The initiative has been greatly valued by the Matasa Fellows and has led to the publication by ten peer-reviewed articles and ten policy briefs, all written by Matasa Fellows.

IDS Bulletin on Africa’s Youth Employment Challenge  

This week we are delighted to launch the latest issue of the IDS Bulletin entitled ‘New Perspectives on Africa’s Youth Employment’ which includes contributions from all the Matasa Fellows (this is the first academic publication for many of them). The Bulletin articles interrogate a range of pertinent issues, including the evidence on youth employment policy and interventions, and the politics of youth policy. We hope that the Matasa Fellows Network, and these articles, will make a significant contribution to both the future careers of these young researchers and the generation of quality research, evidence-based policies and interventions to meaningfully address the youth employment challenge in Africa.

This blog first appeared on the IDS website.


Seife Ayele

Seife is a development economist with over 20 years’ experience in research, teaching and development practice. His work focuses on agricultural innovations and development, technology access and adoption, biotech crops regulation, and enterprise development. He is currently a fellow in the Business, Markets and the State cluster at the Institute of Development Studies.

He has led and conducted significant research in Africa and Asia, and has extensively published in the areas of agricultural innovations and technology adoption, biotech crops regulation and enterprise development.

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