Harnessing the population dividend has become a continental struggle as the Africa is dominated by the youth.
In the country, half of the population is aged under 18, with almost 73 out of 100 Malawians below 30.
Increasingly, policymakers are discussing how to harness this temporary opportunity for accelerated economic growth made possible by sustained decline in fertility and mortality that heralds a change in the age structure.
In their talk, nations and international agencies envisage more investment in the youth transforming the economy from one dominated by child dependents to one dominated by healthy and productive working age adults.
With President Peter Mutharika as the global champion for population dividend, the country seems spurred to reap the economic benefits of transform the chances of the bulging young population.
The road map to maximise the demographic dividend includes a three-E approach that prioritises policies and greater investments to empower, educate and employ all citizens, including the youth.
“It is very important and urgent to figure out how to fit the large population of the people in the country’s political and economic structure,” said Mutharika when he met a delegation of population and development experts at Sanjika in July last year.
The President said as much when he hosted African heads of state on the sidelines of the United Nations Summit in September last year.
However, all the talk at the historic summit, where world leaders adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), must give way to concrete action to catalyse the required change.
This viewpoint was apparent once more at the conference on population and development held in Lilongwe last week.
“The growing youth bulge is not a problem. It presents a rare opportunity which takes between 30 to 40 years. However, the demographic dividend will not happen automatically. Like the Asian Tigers, we need to invest in uplifting the youth from dependency to productive citizens,” African Institute for Development Policy (Afidep) executive director Dr Eliya Zulu challenged decision-makers.
The three days of talk, talk and more talk strengthened the certainty that it is time all sectors started taking life-changing actions to build the Malawi the youth deserve.
To the concerned Malawians, including the youth crying for quality education and relevant skills, the quest for population dividend should be grounded in good governance and accountability in use of public resources and in public delivery.
The economy has suffered several economic setbacks, including aid cuts, due to corruption.
However, transforming the youth into productive citizens offers a new reason for authorities to take decisive action to close the leaks.
The voices envision accountability resulting in savings of resources for youth empowerment and ensuring that the investments, policies and interventions are effective, efficient and equitable.
The country, whose population has jumped from four million to 17.7 million since independence in 1964, has become famous for Cashgate—the massive looting of billions of kwachas in public service.
If the country factored in the corruption-related losses, what will the country look like by 2054 when population experts expect it to have about 43 million people if the status quo persists and 33 million if there is a social shift?
Experts glossed over this question as they churned out the road map towards reaping the benefits of investing in the youth now.
However, Mzimba North legislator Agnes Nyalonje, the deputy chairperson of the Education Committee of Parliament, likens the state of affairs to a leaky bucket.
“What we keep doing is like trying to fill a leaking bucket, but the calls for increased funding for family planning, prevention of unwanted pregnancies and youth empowerment will mean nothing unless we start mending the leaks,” she said.
The parliamentarian is convinced that if the billions that are squandered were factored into the four policy scenarios, the development trajectory would look rosier.
She argues: “When the billions that are poured down the drain in government’s offices through ‘designer inefficiencies’ and bare-faced fraud and corruption, you know the country has had a better chance to do better and we have thrown it away. Unfortunately, we continue to throw it away.”
Cashgate has become a cliché in the country.
Lately, tongues have been wagging about a suspected K577 billion scandal in which some Cabinet ministers were allegedly involved. Government refutes the existence of any report implicating the ministers, saying the money suspected to have gone unaccounted for actually totals K238 billion.
The loss is worth five times the K45 billion government needs to increase the modern contraceptive prevalence rate for married and unmarried sexually active women to 60 percent by 2020.
The Family Planning 2020, which former minister of finance and economic development Ken Lipenga signed at the London Summit on Family Planning, primarily focuses on the youth aged 15 to 24.
Despite the global promise and the existence of governmwent’s Costed Implementation Plan for Family Planning, ensuring no parenthood before adulthood continues to receive low funding.
The London commitment triggered an increase in funding for contraceptives from K26 million in the 2012/13 financial year to K70 million in 2014/2015.
The budget line has hit K75 million this fiscal year. At this rate, government would need 345 years to raise the K2.59 billion necessary for meeting the FP2020 target.
Minister of Health Peter Kumpalume is pleased with the increase in funding, saying it has considerably reduced fertility rates to just about four children per household from seven in 1992.
“The preliminary findings of the 2015 Malawi Demographic and Health Survey show we are doing well. Access to modern family planning methods have increased to about 60 percent. Five years ago, an average Malawian woman used to have five children, but the figures are dropping,” he said.
But the contraceptives prevalence rate only holds true about women, says FP2020 contact person Mary Mulombe Phiri.
The hugely quoted survey shows the number of teen pregnancies soared to 29 percent from 25.6 percent in the past five years.
With one in two Malawian girls likely to marry before their 18th birthday, the high incidence of teen pregnancies is one of the reasons many girls drop out of school. When girls are able to stay in school, they are less likely to get pregnant and more likely to delay the first childbirth.
However, rural areas-where sexually active Malawians, including the youth, endure long walks to access schools, health facilities and contraceptives-are home to high dropout rates.
Kumpalume says: “When you talk about increasing funding for improved service delivery, you are talking about increasing taxes. Every sector is crying for more funding, but the tax base is not growing.”
The narrow tax base has left the country dependent on aid-and the donors are quick to close the taps in protest against corrupt practices.
However, the scarcity of resources offers a compelling case to cut back on corruption and invest more in creating jobs, commodity markets and growing the youthful majority into a productive workforce.
Political analyst Dr Henry Chingaipe backs the calls for good governance and accountability in use of public resources and efficiency in service delivery to maximise the demographic dividend.
“We need a political programme of transformation from the politics of narrow, partisan and short-time interests to the politics of wider interests, national in outlook and substantively inclusive and empowering,” says the political scientist based at the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College (Chanco).
He rates the performance of both public service and private sector as largely subnormal, saying it is not uncommon to hear Malawians complaining about dwindling standards in the education and health facilities that are key to the race for demographic dividends.
The country may have won some battles, but the academic says the battle is not won yet.
Said Chingaipe: “We seem to be focusing on individual trees while losing sight of the forest. Politicians are quick to proclaim their triumphant battles from mountaintops and Malawians clap hands for things that should make them angry.”
He urges against winner-takes-all electioneering to the politics of “greatest good for greatest numbers for the longest period”.
The political shift requires a national vision of development and with political party manifesto spelling out how to deliver the desired results, he reasons.
“Harnessing the demographic dividend is a subject of collective action. But collective action does not just happen. We need a shared ideology of development, technical competences and political push,” he explains.
He advocates a developmental coalition involving private sector, the State and non-governmental organisations “while cutting down on collusive and corrupt coalitions”.
For accountability and responsiveness, he says, the country needs a transformative leadership and a citizenry based on active citizenship.
However, he finds the Malawian society weak, generally passive citizenship “with a great deal of civic incompetence and high levels of tolerance for things that should not be tolerated”.
Equally fragile and ineffective are the parliamentary and local government mechanisms of accountability, he says.
Although there has been reasonable progress over the years, he is worried that calls for accountability initiatives mostly point towards government spending, rarely taking stock of the results in service delivery, development outcomes and similar leakages in NGOs and private sector.
“We need better integrity-promoting strategies in the public service, NGOs and in the private sector as well,” he says.
Like his fellow Chanco-based political scientist Dr Michael Jana, Chingaipe advocates anti-corruption strategies free from partisan and narrow considerations.
Echoing the voice of Malawians calling for independence of the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB), the commentators appeal for an anti-corruption strategy that aims beyond ‘tickling donors and tackling political opponents’.