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Euroviews. Africa's youth is a geopolitical force courted by Europe, the US, Russia, and China

Children sit on the floor of classroom during a language class at Chipala Primary School, in Lilongwe, Malawi, October 2018
Children sit on the floor of classroom during a language class at Chipala Primary School, in Lilongwe, Malawi, October 2018 Copyright AP Photo/Euroviews
Copyright AP Photo/Euroviews
By Stefano Manservisi, Mehari Taddele Maru
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

The European Union should increase its investment in the next generation of African leaders, Stefano Manservisi and Mehari Taddele Maru write.

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Africa’s influence on the world stage is growing. Not only does the continent play an increasing diplomatic role in the Ukraine war; its membership of, and participation in, multilateral forums such as the G20 and BRICS is growing, and it demands a place in the UN Security Council. 

Amid the global scramble for influence, and in another sign of Africa's new-found importance, the continent has recently received a flurry of high-level visitors. 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, and Chinese and Russian foreign ministers Qin Gang and Sergei Lavrov, have all visited Africa during the past year. 

The EU also recognises Africa's rising importance on the world stage, made evident in the bloc's substantial investment in the continent through its €300 billion "Global Gateway" initiative, of which half is explicitly designated for Africa.

This EU focus goes beyond economics; Brussels sees education and engaging with Africa’s youth as a pillar of this partnership. As part of the Global Gateway initiative, the first EU Youth Action Plan aims to empower young Africans to shape their future. 

This focus on youth development is strategic in nature: Africa has the world's youngest population, a demographic trend that will shape global economics and politics in the coming decades.

Africa is growing — and the EU should take notice

In less than seven years, 20% of the world’s 8.55 billion people will be African. Over 55% of the continent’s population will be younger than 20; 75% of the world’s under-35 population will be in Africa. 

This means that about 20 million jobs will have to be created annually, with implications for mobility in search of education and higher living standards. By 2030, Africa could have more people employed than either China or India.

Africa’s youthful demographic can be turned to advantage only if its people are educated and skilled. In addition to creating markets, enhanced education raises incomes and facilitates skilled labour mobility. 

If harnessed through education, skills and job training, this untapped workforce can change from a demographic burden to a robust resource that fuels sustainable human development.

A well-educated, young African population is the foundation for a stable economy; moreover, it is less vulnerable to radicalisation, extremism, and foreign interference.
A teammate shouts out as youth play football underneath a highway bridge on Ikoyi Island, Lagos, February 2023
A teammate shouts out as youth play football underneath a highway bridge on Ikoyi Island, Lagos, February 2023AP Photo/Ben Curtis

European Commissioner Jutta Urpilainen viewed education as her personal priority: young people, she said, must involve themselves in driving policy that shapes the future. The first EU Youth Action Plan is thus "a toolbox to engage, empower, and connect youth around the world".

There are several reasons why the EU is looking to cultivate closer ties with Africa's youth. In the first place, a well-educated, young African population is the foundation for a stable economy; moreover, it is less vulnerable to radicalisation, extremism, and foreign interference. 

The EU and its member states can help ensure that young Africans are given the opportunity to develop skills that are in high demand across the African continent. This task encompasses support for African universities and educational institutions, as well as promoting opportunities for dialogue, and business partnerships between young Europeans and Africans.

The union's tools to help already exist

There are other concrete ways the EU and Africa can work together to empower young Africans. The EU can provide funding and expertise to help African universities improve their curriculums, develop research programmes and train teachers to help create a more skilled workforce and open a pipeline of future leaders.

In recognition of Africa’s increasing geopolitical significance, various training programmes have already been established under partnerships between the EU and its member states, the AU, and individual African countries. 

EU-funded programmes such as Erasmus Mundus and Erasmus+ attract tens of thousands of African students. In 2020, more than 230,000 Africans — around 16% of its total foreign students — were enrolled in schools within the EU.

A strong and prosperous Africa is in everyone's best interests. By investing in Africa's youth, the EU is investing in its future.
Activists hold a sign reading "African youth climate justice" during a demonstration at the COP28 UN Climate Summit, in Dubai, December 2023
Activists hold a sign reading "African youth climate justice" during a demonstration at the COP28 UN Climate Summit, in Dubai, December 2023AP Photo/Peter Dejong

Aside from formal education, short training courses in leadership, transnational governance, diplomacy, civil society, and business contribute to forming a critical mass of young African leaders that can transform the EU-Africa partnership. 

These courses introduce young African leaders to contemporary global policy debates and professional networks helping prepare future African leaders to deal with their countries and regions more effectively. 

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In addition, establishing cultural exchanges fosters understanding and collaboration between young people, over time helping build more bridges between the two continents.

Others are already there — Brussels can't afford to lag behind

Nevertheless, the EU lags behind China and the US in this sphere. The latter's Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), with around 700 participants a year, boasts an annual budget of over $60 million (€56.2m). 

YALI operates regional training centres throughout Africa. China also has stepped up its focus on training new generation African leaders, pledging to train "1,000 high-calibre Africans, provide … government scholarships, sponsor [workshop] opportunities for 50,000 Africans, and invite 2,000 African youths to visit China for exchanges".

While Europe has similar programmes, the Young African Leaders Programme deserves special attention. Developed by the Florence School of Transnational Governance at the European University Institute, the programme equips young Africans with the tools to become effective leaders. 

It is managed in partnership with African governments and has attracted more than 20,000 expressions of interest in only a few years. Despite this high demand, present EU funding allowed only 72 fellowships in 2021-2023. 

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This gap between the EU's strategic partnership with Africa and its action on the ground should be closed as a matter of priority. It is time to pass from a pilot project into a fully-fledged, long-term, financially sustainable programme.

A strong and prosperous Africa is in everyone's best interests. By investing in Africa's youth, the EU is investing in its future. 

The onus is on Africa and its partners, including Europe, to equip young Africans with the necessary resources for effective leadership. This process will increase clout on the global stage for Europe and Africa alike.

Stefano Manservisi is Adjunct Professor at the European University Institute’s Florence School of Transnational Governance and former Director-General at the European Commission. Mehari Taddele Maru is Adjunct Professor at the European University Institute, where he is in charge of the Young African Leaders Programme at the Florence School of Transnational Governance.

At Euronews, we believe all views matter. Contact us at view@euronews.com to send pitches or submissions and be part of the conversation.

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