We need more grassroots movements like The Future Awards in Nigeria – Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

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 Text of Keynote Address

by Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

Celebrating the Young Nigerian Spirit

At The 5th Annual The Future Awards, Nigeria

Lagos, February 7, 2010

It is a great pleasure to be here to witness this really uplifting and hope filled event – the 5th anniversary of the “The Future Awards” – Nigeria ’s biggest youth event.

At the outset let me thank Chude Jideonwo and all his team for an excellent idea whose time has come.

Everyone who knows me knows that I believe strongly in the power of the youth. As one Japanese writer Takayuki wrote

“There’s something amazing about the passion of youth and its power to sustain. If there’s a more powerful energy source, I don’t know about it.”

I feel the same way. Over the decades, the youth have defined, directed and re-shaped life, from the baby boom generation, through to your generation – Generation Y or the Next generation as you are commonly referred to.

"The great bulk of today’s 1.3 billion youth—nearly 90 percent—is in developing countries," Eight in 10 of those youth live in Africa and Asia . SSA is home to over 200 million young people between ages 12 and 24. The number of youth in the region will peak in about 20 years," according to the 2009 World Population Data Sheet. This number is expected to grow a bit more in the next twenty years and then level out as fertility decreases.

During the next few decades, these young people will most likely continue the current trend of moving from rural areas to cities in search of education and training opportunities, gainful employment, and adequate health care.

In Nigeria , generation Y, those 12 to 24 years old -  is made up of over 30 million youths. 70% of our population of 105 million is under 30 years old. And today we are celebrating the successes of a few of you in various works of life. You represent the spirit of where collectively you want Nigeria to go. You represent the future and the can do spirit of Nigeria .

Even though over the years the Nigerian political leadership has failed you, you have been able to find a way to work your way through. I know and you know that you can do more and better things for yourselves and for Nigeria with the right leadership.

A leadership that is transformational and uses your talents for the nation’s benefit and not a transactional leadership based on self interest ends.

Today I want to challenge you to use your resources to consistently demand more of the leadership so that the Nigeria you grow old in will be a different a prosperous and confident Nigeria . A Nigeria you can all be proud to call home here and aboard; A Nigeria that can take its rightful place in world and regional fora; A Nigeria with respected and respectable leadership!

The most essential factor is persistence - the determination never to allow your energy or enthusiasm to be dampened by the discouragement that must inevitably come” said A famous American Poet James Whitcomb Riley

I will like to call you the hope generation. You are a generation of bright young people who have grown up with access to information, to technology and have the largest networks than any other generation before you in history. While many are concerned about the large number of youths in the developing countries, I see this as a unique opportunity if well managed.

What do I mean by this?

For the first time in 2009 Africa ’s population surpassed 1 billion, with over 60 percent of the population being young. This means there is a huge potential to build the basis for a solid market and consumer economy. Many studies now talk about the demographic dividend of the developing world.  But we must all work to reap this dividend. The dividend is not automatic as we have learned from the experiences of Latin America and East Asia .

In East Asia , a rapid demographic transition between 1965 and 1990 occurred at a time when a strong educational system and trade liberalization enabled national economies to absorb this boom generation into the work force.  Some argue that at least 25% of the growth during the East Asia miracle was due to this demographic dividend.

While in Latin America for example they had a similar dividend but did not build on it.  The message is the demographic dividend is not automatic. You need the right leadership and a sense of purpose to reap the benefits. With you energy and determination I hope you can help bring that about in Nigeria . You must work together to reap this demographic dividend for Nigeria and Africa . 

An Organization like yours, the Future Awards project is fully aware of this and that is why you are doing some good work to address it. We need more grassroots efforts like yours to build up a healthy and strong young generation. In the mean time, we also need to have macro-level policies in place to address the critical issues related to youth.

So far, we the older ones have failed you but with your help this can be changed. The government can and needs to play a big role in determining which way things go by investing in youth. The government has to focus on putting in place policies that empower the youth.

The World Bank WDR 2007 on youth looked at what governments and youth can do to ensure they have access to opportunity, build capability and engage in society. They broke this down into the five transitional phases of youth; education and learning, work, health, family and citizenship.  If well designed they will develop, safeguard and properly exploit the full potential of the Nigeria ’s youth

Let me discuss where as a country we stand on each of these five transitions and what everyone of you and the government can do to help steer the youth of Nigeria in the right direction.

First on education.
On education, as I have said elsewhere, Nigeria is performing well below standard. No one in this room today and especially those of my generation can deny that the education system in the country has taken a nose dive.

Nigeria used to be the educational center of excellence for the sub region.  People came from all over the continent to attend our boarding schools, colleges and universities, Lagos , Enugu , Ibadan , Calabar, Kaduna , and Zaira and so on and on were known as centers of excellence and revered.

Today the situation is dramatically different. Something is wrong In Nigeria the literacy rate is 72%. 70 percent of kids complete primary school, 30% enter secondary school and even fewer make it to university with the proportion of girls dropping dramatically to 7%.[1]  This is not good enough.

The Nigerian elite have opted out of our education system. They therefore have little experience about the poor quality of the infrastructure in the schools. Students do not have the proper benches on which to sit, classes are too full and in some cases the teachers do not even have enough chalk to teach. Some classrooms cannot hold students when it rains because of poor maintenance. In the secondary schools the situation is sometimes much worse. Many of you will not willingly spend a night in a public boarding school in Nigeria today.

Then we have a problem with the curriculum and the quality of the teachers and the school materials. Teachers no longer get the right training or the respect they deserve. Decisions on school text books are made not with the well being of the students at the center but for corrupt reasons.

Outside the schools, there is also a bigger problem in the society. My parents are both University professors as you all know. Today however if you say  -- Actually how many of you will like to be secondary school or university professors?

Well the truth is that today not many people want to teach. Basically the country and the leadership have not provided the right environment for better outcomes and when any attempt has been made to correct this, it has been met with cynicism or revolt.  This is very discouraging to the actors in the education sector including teachers and students.

It is up to the states and federal government to fix the system, physical environment and quality.  The provision of education services is the most basic of public services. It is not even as complicated to administer as health. Surely the Nigerian government can do better at this.

So how can we correct the situation in the education sector?
Basically the States and the federal government need to focus on two things; improve the quality and effectiveness of education expenditures to impact outcomes and second improve quantity of resources to increase acces

Nigeria cannot fulfill its potential in Africa let alone the world if we do not address the human capital development challenges facing us. Today we are the 2nd largest economy in Sub-Saharan Africa and contribute to 10 percent of the SSA GDP and 66 percent of West Africa ’s GDP. But if we do not continue to grow our skills educate and train our youth we will lose this position to other upcoming economies.

But it is not only up to the government, every citizen interested in the country’s future has a role to play.

First, the government is not the only provider of education in Nigeria today. In fact, over 5 percent of primary and 1/5 of the secondary school education is provided for by the private sector.[2] We must also hold the private providers accountable. You need to monitor all the schools to see if they meet the standards and if the standards are right.

If you look at the curriculum of some private schools they are taken straight from other countries. There is nothing about Nigerian history, geography or culture.

Second we must demand transparency in expenditures at the school level. How many of you know how much the budget of your local school is? How the money is spent. How transfers are monitored?

As Winston Churchill once said education is too important to be left to politicians.

But as young people you also have a role to play.  One important thing young people can help with is corruption and cheating. Do not cheat.  Schooling is about learning real knowledge, the kind of skills that are needed for jobs and opportunities in the 21st century. Cheating is self-defeating. You are wasting your own time and the resources of your family and the country if you cheat or let your parents buy off the exams for you.

Second, you can also play an important part in monitoring the performance of the government. If you demand to know how much, where, and for what resources are deployed, you will be in much better position to help improve the quality, targeting, and use of the resources. This is how I see your role today. You must be vocal and upfront about. It is your future after all and you have a right to know.

The second transitional area that is important for youth is the start of a productive working life – jobs and employment. 

The start toward a working life is considered by many social scientists as the most important mark of independence for the youth. Unfortunately, unemployment and under-employment is rampant in Nigeria today.  This is the biggest failure of leadership. Despite the fact that Nigeria has earned billions of revenue from oil, the leadership has not been able to translate the resources effectively into investment in job-generating sectors and services.

The best way to create jobs for the youth is for the government to invest in the right policies and infrastructure needed to attract investment. However today in Nigeria today you still have over 26 instances of power outages in a given month almost an interruption a day. The lack of electricity as everyone knows increases our unit cost of production sometimes up to 40 percent above our competitors. This has led to either the closure of factories such as tire industries or textiles.

On my flight here I met with an entrepreneur Mr. Tayo Onadein, owner of a garment manufacturing plants in the U.S, China and Nigeria . He imported equipment here and set up a factory to employ 1000 people. Guess how many are working now, 20, because they just cannot afford the electricity to get all the machines working he says. 

 In agriculture where Nigeria has huge potential, and has been growing at 7-8 percent there is still a lot of job creating possible. Only 44 percent of our arable land is cultivated, only 3 percent is under irrigation and only 11 percent of our farmers use improved seeds compared to almost 40 percent in South Asia and more than 50 percent in East Asia .

Only about 40 percent of our roads are considered to be in good shape. With these conditions you cannot attract the right kind of investment you need to create jobs.

When we were in the government, we started to correct the past economic mismanagement, and we created an environment where investment can begin and jobs created.  We got debt relief; we got a credit rating for the country.  But we need to follow through and be consistent with our macro and micro policies, to properly manage the volatility of the oil revenue, and diversify the economy to generate jobs and multi-sectoral growth.

While it is difficult, many young people have shown they can be proactive, and create opportunities for themselves and others. You can become business and social entrepreneurs to be your own boss and create jobs for others. Your generation is or should be a generation that depends less on the government for jobs and more on private enterprise.

In the developed world many countries are struggling with how to attract and retain these new young graduates who are less likely to stay in one job for more than five years and are more interested in starting up their own enterprises. We see this phenomenon in Nigeria too but not enough. There are more and more entrepreneurs who are breaking off from the public sector to start their own businesses and create jobs for others.

To be an entrepreneur, young people must understand the importance of improving their capabilities so that you can actively participate in productive activities when opportunities rise. The growing youth population means there will be a large demand for goods but also that labor in Africa will be cheaper than in East Asia and increasingly South Asia . To take advantage of this we must help improve both the job skills of the youth but also make available better access to finance.

When I was the minister of Finance I used to say that Nigerians should stop looking to the state to create jobs for them but instead that each college graduate should ask themselves how they can create a job for themselves and five other people. I wanted to start an entrepreneurship fund or venture capital fund partly supported by government to invest in entrepreneurial youth

Of course the government has to create the conditions for you to succeed by creating the environment for business to flourish. You cannot succeed if it takes months to get all the licenses and approvals and if in addition you have to use all your start -up capital to pay bribes in order to have access to services that are supposed to be free.

We must all be bold and come up with new ideas that can support our youth under these strained circumstances.  The World Bank group is working on various approaches to support youth entrepreneurship, training, and access to micro-finance especially for girls and young women in fragile and conflict affected situations.

The third important transition stage for the youth is lifestyle management.

Mahatma Ghandi said “It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver.”

While we ask and demand more and better from the government you must also make sure you are as youth healthy enough to contribute to the development of the country.

Youth is when people’s life habits begin to take shape including smoking, consuming alcohol, engaging in sex, and having control over their diet and physical activities. Good lifestyle management benefits one’s entire life. Here again, the government has not delivered on our public health system, but I am proud to say that our youth has done well in managing lifestyle comparing to other countries. For example 2o percent of our youth are tobacco users compared to over 40 percent in the region. We have a relatively small percentage of smokers and the HIV/AIDS prevalence rate remains relatively low (1-3%) compared to the 20 percent regional average.

You must keep this up. But there are some worrying signs. For example, more and more young people start to think that smoking is glamorous. We need to be careful and avoid mistakes.  Risky health behavior in youth can and will deplete the economy of productive human capital for many years. All of us need to remember that we cannot develop a vibrant powerful economy and society if we do not have a healthy young population due to reckless lives, taking unwarranted risks, experimenting with drugs, trafficking and other things.

You must ask this of your selves, of your class mates, of your brothers and sisters and your peers. As a collective, you must say no to these ills that hold us back. You as a group must be the most vocal voice against unhealthy lifestyles. It makes economic sense and it is common sense. A healthy country needs a healthy population. In addition a healthy population also means the government can allocate more resources to building the infrastructure needed to generate jobs.

Information is the most important element in this case. Again organizations such as yours are best placed to help educate the rest of your peers. A recent study of of hospitals in three cities in South Africa found that 61 percent of the patients admitted to the trauma units were alcohol positive, including  74 percent of violent cases, 54 percent of traffic collisions, and 30 percent of trauma from other accidents.

Substance abuse is a major contributor to violent crimes and thefts. We all know that these have been increasing in Nigeria . We need to do more to help the youth stay away from this and for those who unfortunately are already addicted we must demand that the government provide services to rehabilitate these youth so that they can once again become productive members of society.

As youths you can work with the government to design and disseminate health information material which speaks to the youth in a language they can understand and relate to. Next year I hope more of your winners will take up this challenge.

The Fourth transition youth have to deal with is that of beginning a family.

Statistics show that by the time girls in developing countries reach 25, nearly 60 percent of them have become mothers. Boys make this transition later. But both face the same issues of adequately providing for their children. According to the World Development Report 2007, the ability and willingness of young parents to invest in their children is the single most important factor determining the outcomes for future generations.

Young people’s transition to parenthood can have a lasting impact on the economy and the demographic trends of the country.

Nigeria has one of the highest maternal mortality ratios in the world. With 1,100 women dying during pregnancy or childbirth for every 100,000 live births.  While the government has adopted policies aimed at reducing maternal mortality by 75% by 2015, those policies have not yet been implemented effectively and are seriously underfunded.  As a country we need to step up action.

More than 40% of Nigerian women still do not visit a trained health care provider during pregnancy. And while the proportion of women whose delivery is attended by a trained provider has increased—to over 30 percent—Nigeria still has one of the lowest rates of births assisted by trained health providers in West Africa. The government needs to do its part in this and you can help by becoming advocates to reduce maternal and infant mortality in this country. You have to advocate because it directly affects you. Even if 10 percent of the population- the elite can afford to go elsewhere to have babies, what about the other 90 percent? What becomes of them? Their future is in a sense also in your hands.

Finally the fifth transition is that of exercising citizenship.

This is easy to talk about but hard to do in Nigeria .

But, your voice must be heard in Nigeria today! You must participate in the political space and leadership going on in the country. Youth is the period when people start asking questions about their governments and institutions around them. They start wanting to participate in the society and politics, and they want to have voice and express their opinions.

This brings me back to the point about holding governments accountable. Without opportunities for productive civic engagement, young people’s frustration may boil over into violent behavior. Things go wrong when people do not exercise their citizenship. That is why I find your organization very important and useful. It provides a platform for civic and meaningful discussion.

To exercise your citizenship, you must work to support policies that encourage participation and provide access and opportunities. You must continue doing what you are doing today and every day—celebrating excellence, asking the government to be more accountable for its policies. Involving yourselves in shaping policies and helping to support those not quite so fortunate is a wonderful way to begin. Too often Nigeria ’s followership is docile and accepting. We grumble and mutter but do nothing much about it. When citizens disapprove of things in other countries they are not violent. They protest peacefully like in the Philippines . Our youth must not be violent but youth should not be docile either. Ask questions find peaceful means of protest when you don’t agree.

Be persistent in your engagement with the leadership and vote for the right leaders, those who will transform the economic and political space not transact with it.  You must be steadfast in your pursuit for a better Nigeria . Denounce the scourge of corruption. Hold your leaders to a higher standard.  Change does not come about as quickly as we all will like but with sustained effort and work I am sure you the youth of Nigeria can demand better and obtain change from your leadership.

After all, we are counting on you winners and participants of The Future Award and your peers, you have demonstrated that you can succeed, and you can lead despite the odds. The country depends on you to demand a higher level of excellence from your leaders.

You can be the transformational generation of Nigeria . !  I know you can do it.

Thank -you

[1] 2004 WDI data

[2] Ibid.


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