Uganda is Africa’s, and the world’s second youngest country with a median age of just 16. It is the most youthful country in East Africa, with over 20 million young people. About 55% of the total population is aged 18 years and below, and about 80 % of the population is below the age of 35 years. This youthful population is important, but to a certain extent an untapped resource for development, due to lack of opportunities secondary to very low investment from government in sectors that pull the youths towards meaningful economic contribution. These youth are stuck, trying to choose their identity and place in society. To leverage Uganda’s demographic dividend, the youth must be properly nurtured and supported, so that they can positively contribute to Uganda’s socio-economic development.
The World Happiness Report 2017, which ranks 155 countries by their happiness levels, ranked Uganda as the 133rd happiest country overall (among the least happy in Africa and the world). The youth are cited as the unhappiest proportion of the population.
Although happiness is social, personal, subjective and difficult to measure accurately, humans are generally happy when they feel themselves reaching, or even just approaching, their idealized visions. We can measure people’s happiness by asking a comprehensive set of questions about how happy and satisfied they are with their lives in general.
Based on recent youth surveys, being mentally and physically healthy is the most important factor to Uganda’s youth happiness. When asked what they value most, 79% valued faith first. In addition, all six of the key variables used to explain happiness differences among countries and through time affect their level of happiness. These six variables include income, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on in times of trouble, generosity, freedom, and trust, with the latter measured by the absence of corruption in business and government.
So why are young people in Uganda unhappy? Here are five plausible factors that may be undermining the young peoples’ potential for happiness and satisfaction with life, according to these surveys:-
Youth unemployment is by far the major concern, with 48% of young people citing it as a reason for their unhappiness. According to the state of Uganda population report 2017, 65% of youth in the age bracket of 20-24 years are unemployed, while 90% of those above 25 years are either unemployed or underemployed. Unemployment leaves them with limited incomes, and unable to access good health and education services (ADB, 2017).
Many young people leave university with a degree but graduate jobs are in short supply. The old rhetoric told by the parents – “just work hard to get an education and get a good job” –is no-longer holding water either. The story in current day Uganda goes: “get an education, hope that a job will exist someday”. In fact, surveys put graduate unemployment at about 50%, reflecting a weak positive association between education and labor participation.
Unemployment causes a major fall in happiness, and even for those in work, the quality of work can cause major variations in happiness. Causes of youth unemployment are believed to be multifaceted, ranging from an inadequate investment/supply side of jobs, insufficient employable skills (i.e., youth possess skills that are not compatible with available jobs) and high rates of labor force growth at 4.7 percent per annum.
Uganda will need to provide jobs for its youth if it is to meet their aspirations for the good life. For the youth to be sustainably employed, they need to be empowered through skills development. Empowerment through skills development plays a critical role in providing them with better job opportunities in industries and related entities. It also enhances their business and entrepreneurial acumen.
The informal sector provides livelihood options to the people who are left out by the formal sector, but little attention has been given to its role in fostering growth and creating jobs. There is need to facilitate the formalization of the informal sector in such a way as to generate new job opportunities for young people. Uganda should rethink the country’s job creation strategy to address young people’s frustration because social and personal stagnation is the real driving force behind the various youth protests.
Uganda is lagging behind other countries in investing in its youth, and it appears there may not be time to make sufficient investment to avert a population ‘time bomb’. The question remains: when will Uganda make appropriate investments to unleash the potential of youth to innovate and become productive citizens?
Poor Education System
Young people are unhappy with the current schooling system, which they say; it leaves a lot of information to be stuffed into their brains in very little time. The system sheepishly embraces the elitist education system that the colonialists bequeathed to Uganda 60 years back. With such a massively wide variety of subjects that students need to study, it is nearly impossible to focus on one thing long enough to actually stick with it.
Some young people claim that they went to school for the sake of it, which is no education at all. Over 70% of Uganda’s youth believe that the education system is broken. It is increasingly becoming expensive for many young people, their families, and even those who go to school graduate without employable skills and hence end up unemployed. The Universal Primary and Secondary Education (UPE & USE) have proved to be a conduit for half-baked human resource & this is belittling the value of education; students go through the education system but do not actually learn.
The youth are wondering why is our education system based so much on standardized test performance; because the results on the pass slip or degree transcript are all that matters, the system is coaching students to “pass” examinations at all levels – PLE, UCE, UACE, and university—but not teaching them to develop the skills and competencies needed in the 21st century.
In addition, this anxiety is caused by the reports on how university and other key exams are cheated along other exam malpractices, thus leading to loss of faith and trust in the examination systems. The latest craze for schools to appear in newspapers among the best performing in the country and mass-production of graduates inevitably has given birth to exam cheating.
The youth are calling upon the government to transform the education system away from a product-oriented assembly line to a place where students are motivated to reach their full potential, by re-introducing competence and skills-based education as opposed to exam/papers based “education”. The education curricula and teaching methods should focus on innovation, skills development, science and technology, and entrepreneurship development. That way, we won’t bewail the very few first grades, or “As”, but celebrate that we’re making good use of every “A” and every “D”—even those in fourth grade to move the country to the next level of development.
Increasing divide between rich and poor
Frustration with a continually widening gap between the rich and the poor is a big factor undermining young people’s potential for happiness and satisfaction with life. The Oxfam 2017 report, in its study on inequality in Uganda, shows that the richest 10 percent of Ugandans have had their income grow by an impressive 20% per year, and they now own 35.7 percent of the country’s wealth. This leaves the remaining 90% of Ugandans to share the remaining 64.3% of National income.
More Ugandans are slipping into poverty with the number of poor people increasing from 6.6 million in 2012/13 to 10 million in 2016/17, according to the Uganda National Household Survey (UNHS) 2016/17 report by the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS). This implies a rise in poverty levels from 19.7% to 27%.
The youth now believe that Uganda has become a monetized society with no social mobility to talk of and, as the filthy rich 10% are getting richer every day, the rest are being driven down into poverty. Furthermore, they think that the old adage, “if you work hard you can improve your economic station,” is increasingly no longer true—economic mobility has fallen precipitously since the 80’s and 90’s. The gap between the rich and poor in the academic resources they make available to their children has expanded vastly over the last 20 years. Youth are asking the question: Where is space for young people to flower and develop in such a madhouse?
Many pro-government critics question why students and young graduates are more passionate about protesting than studying hard, finding a decent job and getting on with their lives. However, the majority of the young generation, born in the 1980s and 1990s, do not see this formula, endorsed by their parents’ generation, as a ticket to a brighter future. What they do see is the widening wealth gap and a lack of future opportunities for themselves and others around them.
When the youths are asked about one major factor that would make the greatest difference in uniting Ugandans and making them happier, most point to economic equality, for example, by focusing on increasing household incomes, especially of the people residing in rural areas.
Poor governance and corruption
Bad governance and corruption have led to the upswing in unhappiness among Uganda’s young people. Governance, which entails decision-making as well as implementation (or non-implementation) of these decisions, affects how public institutions conduct public affairs and manage public resources. Ideally, it should ensure accountability, transparency, responsiveness, rule of law, equity and equitability, inclusiveness, empowerment and broad-based participation.
However, lack of youth participation in decision-making and the gap between preference for good governance and satisfaction with its functioning depresses young people’s levels of happiness. The youth believe that bad governance in Uganda continues to breed inefficiency, corruption, and poverty, all of which have negative impacts on their well-being. Additionally, they argue that poor governance and weak institutions have acted as significant constraints on development because corruption in government affects the public sector, which delivers poor quality services, especially in health and education.
According to the World Happiness Report 2017, there is a strong link between good governance and well-being. Societies that have high levels of well-being tend to be economically developed, to have effective governments with low levels of corruption, to have high levels of trust, and to be able to meet citizens’ basic needs for food and health.
In Uganda, corruption has almost become a way of life; the vice has penetrated every echelon of society to an extent that 33% of the youth perceive it as profitable, according to a 2016 survey by Aga Khan University. Indeed, the global Corruption Perception Index (CPI) shows that corruption is getting worse. Uganda was ranked 127th in 2010, 143 in 2011, 130 in 2012, 140 in 2013, 142, 139 in 2015, and 151 in 2016. The widespread perception of high levels of corruption is eroding youth trust in vital public institutions, and their faith in government is deteriorating.
Conversations with the youth reveal their unhappiness with the current governance situation that has systematically created a patronage system, which heavily relies on increasingly narrow ethnic and political clientelistic networks. They claim that financial and developmental resources mainly go to family members, friends and companies proxy to the system. The youth strongly believe that political competition today revolves around both political parties and ethnic cleavages, and there is favoritism in government appointments, awarding contracts and the concentration of public services.
The age difference between leaders and the youth is also creating a dramatic disconnect. While the leaders’ average age is above 50 years, 70% of Ugandans are younger than 30 years. Besides, many leaders were born before the age of television and mobile phones and some before the end of the colonial era. This generation gap is causing a great mismatch between youth’s expectations of good governance, and the reality that confronts them.
Uganda’s increasingly IT-connected youth expect much more of good governance than just peace and civil liberties such as free and fair elections. They associate good governance with better living conditions—with basic public services such as clean water, electricity, good education, and housing—as with regular elections, competing political parties, and freedom to criticise the government.
Lack of opportunities amid high expectations
Today, young people in Uganda face an uncertain future, a lack of opportunities and a lack of ability to realize their potential. These youths are experiencing a dangerous mix of high unemployment, increased inactivity, and precarious work, as well as persistently high poverty. The pressure to succeed and avoid the social stigma of labeling them “failures” is making many young people unhappy. Not to mention the unrealistic expectations that their parents and government have on them, without being aware of all the challenges they face.
Youths have always been promised a bright future, unlimited opportunities, and the ability to follow their dreams and do whatever truly makes them happy. They are now unhappy because the growth, equality, and sustainable development that the current NRM government promised have not materialized. They believe that after almost three decades in power, the goal of remaining in power even longer has superseded all these concerns. For example, about 48% of the youth in Uganda would like to go into business, but lack access to capital for business; about 16% would wish to go into farming, but lack land, input & training, and access to markets. Empowering young people to find and create opportunities is critical to give them the tools, experience, and jobs they need in order to succeed in life. For example, young people at the start of their careers need support to build experience.
Many young people feel hopeless about securing a productive future for themselves and sharing in the elusive-sounding “prosperity” and Vision 2040 that politicians say Uganda will achieve. They believe that their lack of involvement in the various government decision-making platforms is limiting their chances to find and create opportunities.
For example, the youth are wondering why the government cannot institute measures to force employers, particularly foreign investors to recruit 40% native youths; and to take steps to develop the local workforce through such exposure. Additionally, all the laws and regulations lack clear allocated percentage of the quotas reserved for youth in employment and public procurement. Most youths are not actively engaged in the sectors reserved for local content by PPDA, and there is no clear evidence of how foreign companies are developing and implementing technology transfer plans as required by the Investment Code Act.
The youth call for high-level action to increase opportunities for them in Uganda. They call for inclusion, which is beyond mere representation— but in all government programs, policy formulation, monitoring, and evaluation—so that they can actually influence the future of the country.
The advent of information and communication technologies has made access to information much easier. Thus, young people compare themselves to their peers in other countries and are less ready than their parents to accept poverty caused by lack of opportunities. They have high expectations, which has led to unhappiness because of unmet expectations.
What if Uganda looks to its youth in order to realize the country’s Vision 2040? What if the youth’s aspirations and their entrepreneurial spirit were to be matched with a substantial investment in their development? Then, no doubt, Uganda would join the ranks of the world’s prosperous and happy nations.