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Xth African Regional Meeting

Decent work for Africa’s development: Signs of hope

Article | 14 November 2003

Half of Africa’s population, over 300 million people, live in extreme poverty on the equivalent of US$1 a day or less – the highest intra-regional poverty level and the widest gap between rich and poor in the world. Strategies for reducing such poverty and closing this gap through a job-centred development agenda are the main items on the table at the ILO 10th African Regional Meeting, on 2 to 5 December, in Addis Ababa. What are the key issues facing Africa today and what can be done about them?

Africa today is a continent in search of decent work. It is shouldering a huge poverty burden and battling the barriers of an unfair system of international economic rules while tackling the massive challenges of job creation and poverty reduction.

And yet, there are signs of hope. African nations are forging a new dynamic development process founded on their own collective endeavours. Community-based projects are improving skills, spawning small enterprises, extending microinsurance and microfinance, eliminating child labour, and ending gender and other forms of discrimination.

Ratifications of the eight fundamental Conventions of the ILO are remarkably high. And in manufacturing, for example, inroads are being made against discrimination which shuts women out of the workplace.

"The tripartite constituents of the ILO in Africa are meeting at a time when the nations of the continent are creating institutions that promise to set in motion a dynamic process of development founded on their own collective endeavours," says ILO Director-General Juan Somavia in his report, "Decent work for Africa's development" 1, prepared for the Addis meeting. "We need to make sure that a decisive step is taken in Africa's struggle to gain control of its own destiny, realize the full potential of its people and natural resources, and break out of the trap of widespread and debilitating poverty."

The launching of the African Union (AU) in 2002, and the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) in 2001, are among such dynamic new developments. The ILO report notes that the decision by the AU Heads of State and Government, in Maputo in July, to convene an Extraordinary Summit of Heads of State and Government on Employment and Poverty Alleviation in Africa, in 2004 in Burkina Faso, holds the promise of connecting the new regional initiatives to the daily experience of Africa's working families

African employers, unions and employment and labour ministers who will gather in Addis Ababa for the ILO Xth African Regional Meeting, know better than anyone the challenges of creating opportunities for women and men to work productively and earn a decent livelihood for themselves. What is the situation they face today?

Building on the Director-General's report, "Working out of poverty"

"Working out of poverty", is based on three fundamental points:

•  First, the poor do not cause poverty. Poverty is the result of structural failures and ineffective economic and social systems. It is the product of inadequate political responses, bankrupt policy imagination and insufficient international support.

•  Second, poverty is expensive. It hinders growth, fuels instability, and keeps poor countries from advancing on the path to sustainable development.

•  Third, there is another face to poverty. People living in conditions of material deprivation draw on enormous reserves of courage, ingenuity, persistence and mutual support to stay on the treadmill of survival. Simply coping with poverty demonstrates the resilience and creativity of the human spirit. In many ways, the working poor are the ultimate entrepreneurs.

Eradicating poverty is the biggest social challenge we face today, but it is also the biggest economic opportunity. Employers, workers, labour ministries and community leaders know better than anyone the challenges of creating opportunities for women and men to work productively and earn a decent livelihood for themselves.

The face of poverty in Africa today

In contrast to other parts of the world, Africa's poverty level is high and getting higher. Across all points in time, close to half the region's population - or about 300 million people - live in extreme poverty on US$1 a day or less. The percentage of poor people in sub-Saharan Africa is close to twice that of the world average of 24 per cent. In northern Africa, some 2.8 per cent of the population, or about six million people, live below the poverty level of US$1 per day or less.

Unemployment in formal sector jobs is increasing, from 13.7 per cent in 2000, to 14.4 per cent in 2002. This sector has been unable, over an extended period of time, to create long-term, sustainable employment, a challenge which will grow enormously since the regional labour force is expected to double in 25 years from its current 34 per cent of the population. What's more, sub-Saharan Africa has the second-fastest growing labour force in the world (2.6 per cent, on average, per year). These factors bring forward issues relating to low-income job security, poor conditions of work and similar concerns.

The ILO report highlights that "unemployment is a serious problem in most African countries. However, equally if not more disturbing is the high incidence of underemployment characterized by low productivity and inadequate income. Poverty in most African communities is less the outcome of unemployment than it is of the inability of work to secure decent wages. This is particularly the case in the informal economy, the agricultural sector and rural economies."

The report also warns that the concentration of productive activity in rural areas should not be overlooked, and that rural-based employment and labour market initiatives may be bypassed in the haste to concentrate solely on urban-based activity.

Rural poverty is particularly acute among women and girls - many of whom work in the agricultural sector. Despite evidence that sub-Saharan Africa has a fairly large proportion of women in the labour force - in fact, higher than the international average - women and girls are frequently trapped in the lowest paid, least skilled and most precarious occupations. In addition, despite increases in the share of women's wage employment in the non-agricultural sector in sub-Saharan Africa, from 18.9 per cent in 1990, to 28.6 per cent in 2001 (rates are lower in northern Africa), deep-seated gender discrimination remains a major constraint to growth and development. This compares with male participation rates across the region which were, until recently, above 80 per cent.

Youth unemployment is another major concern. It is very high, representing nearly 80 per cent of the unemployed in some countries, while the female share of youth unemployment is consistently higher in all countries. In countries where data are available, it is estimated that only 5 to 10 per cent of new entrants into the labour market can be absorbed by the formal economy, while the bulk of new jobs is generated by the informal economy. Overall, about 55 per cent of Africa's population is under 18 years of age.

One of the most serious challenges to African policy makers today is the epidemic of HIV/AIDS.Within some countries, the overall labour force participation is beginning to show sharp declines. In South Africa, male labour force participation rate went down from 79.1 per cent in 1995, to 63.3 per cent in 2002; in Lesotho, it declined from 85.2 per cent in 1995, to 69.2 per cent in 1997, while in Botswana, the drop was from 83.5 per cent in 1995, to 60.1 per cent in 1999. If these trends continue and spread, the prospects for reducing poverty could worsen dramatically.

Seeking solutions

In order to halve poverty by the year 2015, as set out in the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), Africa's economies will need to grow by 7 per cent a year, nearly double the current rate.According to the United Nations Economic Community for Africa (ECA), growth levels picked up from 3.2 per cent in 2002, to about 4.2 per cent in 2003. However, except in a handful of countries, it will be very difficult to reduce open unemployment, underemployment and poverty, unless growth perspectives improve dramatically.

"Although poverty has many facets, lack of access to income is one of the main determinants of household poverty and inequality," the ILO report says, noting that millions of Africans are caught in a "household poverty trap", spending up to 70 per cent of their income on basic "livelihood security"; i.e., food.

In response, recent political developments, such as the creation of the AU and NEPAD, together with global initiatives, have paved the way for a reorientation of the development strategies, with a new focus on productive employment and decent work.

"Together we must continue to build support for our basic premise that decent work is the main route out of poverty," the ILO report says. "Over the course of next year, the ILO and its tripartite constituents have the opportunity to help shape the African Union Extraordinary Summit of Heads of State and Government on Employment and Poverty Alleviation."

"African social partners and governments should make employment a priority item on the development agenda," the ILO report adds. "In the fight against poverty they need to make a long-term commitment to take common initiatives on all levels for a continuous increase in productivity. The foundations of a decent work approach to strategies for the reduction of poverty must be laid - and this is an urgent task.Priorities include employability, entrepreneurship, equal opportunity and employment generation, and can best be achieved through participatory consultation on national development policy making."

Progress on four key objectives will provide a way of breaking out of the cycle of poverty:

• Ending the discrimination and social exclusion which marginalizes millions of African families and hamstrings economic development

• Raising the productivity and earning power of work on the farms and in the small businesses which are the heart of Africa's production system

• Uniting to win a better deal for the continent in the world trade and financial system

• Strengthening the mechanisms of social dialogue, representation and accountability at the workplace, at the national level and in the emerging new structures for regional development cooperation "Employment is at the core of the ILO mandate," Mr. Somavia says. "In all economies, the labour market remains the key access point for accumulating income. Employment in the form of more and better jobs; i.e., decent jobs, should be an integral part of any development strategy for Africa."

"Employment is at the core of the ILO mandate," Mr. Somavia says. "In all economies, the labour market remains the key access point for accumulating income. Employment in the form of more and better jobs; i.e., decent jobs, should be an integral part of any development strategy for Africa."

1 "Decent work for Africa's development", , Xth African Regional Meeting, Addis Ababa, December 2003, Report of the Director-General, ISBN 92-2-114841-6.