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Opinions of Friday, 4 July 2003

Columnist: Abrefah, Kwame Attakorah

Youth Development In Ghana: Challenging The Traditional Approaches And Rethinking Holistic Strategy.

Nowadays, Ghanaian youth face many problems in their development into adulthood than ever before. These problems range from participation in political violence, armed robbery, drug addiction, and alcohol abuse to lack of employment. And they affect the quality of life of our youth, making it extremely difficult them to reach their full potentials. Youth problems have also worsened due to the structural adjustment programs that were introduced in the last two decades. These economic programs have significantly altered the structure of our economy, resulting in a massive growth in service sector employment in urban areas and a corresponding reduction in non-service sector jobs. The fact is that the new economic structure has made primary production such as agriculture and semi-processing industries less attractive; hence most of the youth have migrated from the rural areas into towns and cities in search of service sector jobs, which are not enough to go around. Rural-urban migration has its own sociological problems, including the break down of the traditional kinship structure that historically has been providing nurturance and mentorship for young people to become socially, emotionally, and physically competent members of our society.
The focus of this article is youth development in Ghana rather than the enumeration of youth problems. For this reason, the article will argue that our youth needs more than English proficiency and the ability to solve intellectual puzzles in order to become competent citizens of our society. That is, academic skills alone are grossly inadequate unless they are balanced by other equally valuable competencies such as civic responsibilities, vocational, emotional, and cultural skills. These competencies are needed to help us bring up productive citizens. Therefore, the author calls for youth programs to complement the “formal skills” that our youth receive from our educational institutions.
Youth development has been defined in many ways, depending on the context and the ideological perspective of the person who is defining the term. However, for the purpose of this article, youth development is viewed as a coordinated, collective effort to nurture and support activities that promote the social, emotional, physical, cultural, moral and academic well-being of young people. This definition entails three essential elements. First, it sees youth development as a process rather than an event. Second, it involves the collective participation of parents, families, communities, the state and other organizations in the process of bringing up healthy and productive young people. Finally, it recognizes that young people by themselves cannot improve the quality of their lives and that they need the involvement of other stakeholders in our society.
Historically, the two basic approaches that have been used in Ghana to achieve youth development are economic development and education. The economic development approach is premised on the idea that, rapid economic development would foster positive behaviour and values in our young people, thereby making them productive and disciplined citizens. However, the economy policy and institutional framework for improving the quality of life for young people have failed. For example, the Program of Action to Mitigate the Social Cost of Adjustment (PAMSCAD) introduced by the PNDC government was abandoned because it failed to address the needs of our youth. As well, the government’s much trumpeted job creation strategies have not made any dent in the exponential rate of unemployment among the youth. As a matter of fact, the government continues to struggle with tens of thousand of registered unemployed youth across the country. Moreover, the free-market economic model that the government has adopted is incongruent with Ghanaian culture and values. Ghanaian culture and values promote interdependence and communalism, whereas the free-market model promotes individualism and independence. As an illustration, in Ghana we are required to provide financial support for our nephews, nieces, brothers and sisters in schools and our ageing parents and grandparents. As well, our identity is linked to our community, ethnicity and religious affiliation. Additionally, in Ghanaian culture there are unwritten rules of behaviour for different age groups, stating what kind of activities each age group can engage in. Again, the old African saying that “it takes a whole village to raise a child” suggests that youth upbringing is a collective responsibility of the whole community. These cultural norms run counter to the free-market economic model that the government has tenaciously adopted. The present economic model has created more problems than benefits for the youth. Most of our youth are now compelled to fend for themselves at a premature age and, as a result, they have become socially dislocated. As disconnected members of society, our young people have become rebellious and engaged in deviant social activities such as armed robbery, drug addiction, and alcohol abuse.
It is now crucial to recognize that our youth are social beings, who want to be connected to their communities, to caring adults, be supported, accepted and nurtured. Thus, it is imperative that we design effective youth development programs that would compensate for the deficiencies of our social and economic structures so that the needs of our young could be met. Education is also another historic approach to youth development in Ghana. Education is concerned with the provision of knowledge and skills to the youth. It is believed that education is an important tool that can be used to eradicate poverty, to provide the manpower needs of the country and for socio-economic advancement. As well, education is used as a means of providing the youth with employability skills needed by industries and commerce.
It should be noted that education as a youth development strategy is premised on the assumption that, as long as the schools are able to direct the youth and be a magnet for their attention, the energy of the youth would be channeled into productive activities. However, recent evidence of the inability of our educational institutions to absorb secondary school leavers suggests that education, as a development strategy is a failure. According to World Bank Report in 2000 (cited by Rev. Charles Gyan-Duah) 200,000 students graduate from the Junior Secondary School every year in Ghana but only 30% gain admission to Senior Secondary School institutions. Again, the report suggests that of 72,000 students that graduate from Senior Secondary School each year, only 25% find spaces in post-secondary institution (Chronicle, Thursday April 10, 2003, Vol. 3 # 45). What happens to the mass of young people who are unable to find employment or continue their education? The answer is they get absorbed into unproductive activities that eventually create problems for the whole country.
Another weakness of education as a youth development strategy is that, it is manifestly a middle class institution and therefore transmits middle-class ethos. For example, the language of instruction in our schools is English. In view of this, children from families with limited exposure to English language invariably are unsuccessful in the school system relative to those with a large socio-linguistic exposure. Besides, our education system does not prepare our youth for life in an economy that is basically agrarian with patches of local mercantilism; nor does it give them tools to eke out a living from productive activities other than petty trading and clerical employment.
Having enumerated and critically evaluated the deficiencies of our approaches to youth development in Ghana, the question is what are the alternatives? Of course, we need programs that would provide the youth with emotional, civil, and social skills to enable them cope with the pressures that our current social and economic policies have brought upon them. As well, we need social programs that would give training to our youth so that they grow to become responsible, confident, and productive citizens. Third, we need a new crop of citizens who are nationalistic in their thinking and attitude, and tolerant of our ethnic, religious, and linguistic diversity. In the 21century, we should have youth who have outgrown petty ethnic and tribal bigotries.
It follows that Youth Programs such as national service programs, intercultural exchanges, community development projects, peer counseling, mentorship, youth leadership activities and vocational training will equip our young people with the requisite skills they need to function in our market-driven economy. Again, research and empirical studies have shown that when young people are supported by society and provided with the social, economic, cultural and, educational tools they need to succeed, they would have a sense of attachment to the society rather than the feeling of alienation and resentment.
Since political independence was attained, the state, political parties, religious organizations, communities and schools have attempted to develop youth organizations such as the Young Pioneers, Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) Young Christian Students, Boys Scouts, youth wing of various political parties, Ashanti Youth Organization, and Wenchi Youth Organization with the goal to promote the interest and the well-being of our youth. However, these organizations are fragmented and their objective are narrowly defined. For example, youth wing in churches are designed to help young people to develop moral discipline and also to attract families into the church. The youth wing of political parties also aimed at attracting young people into a political cause as well as to canvass for political support. Community Youth organizations too have become interest groups engaged in political and legal litigation either to destool a chief or get rid of a District Chief Executive. In fact, the National Youth Council remains oblivion to millions of young people in the country, because it is under-funded and its objectives do not meet the needs of an overwhelming majority of our youth.
A national Youth Development Strategy is what is required, one based on mobilization of resources through a partnership with the parents, communities, and other organizations in our society. Youth infrastructures such as Youth Centre, Skills Centres, Volunteer Programs and Cultural Exchanges that would assist our young learn employability skills, social skills, and emotional maturity to become healthy and productive adults. However, I should stress that the establishment of these social programs would require the development of relevant legislation, administrative support and effective delivery system.
The government must set up youth centers across the country staffed with social workers, youth counselors, special needs teachers, equipped with computers and games to engage our youth in healthy activities. These centres would provide alternative education for students that have difficulty with the mainstream education system. The center would also provide counseling, health information like HIV/AIDS to high-risk youths, juvenile offenders, run-away youth and homeless youth.
Skills Centres would help unemployed youth facing barriers to employment develop the appropriate skills and work experiences they need to succeed in the labour market. The center could also provide programs for the youth to learn negotiation and communication skills. For example, the government could pass a legislation that would require all state institutions like the Hospitals and District Assemblies to recruit youth volunteers in order to enhance their educational and employment skills. The private sector could also be encouraged to participate in a similar program.
This would also enable our youth to travel across the country to learn about other regions, cultures and, tribes and to help their social integration as well as enhance their understanding of our tribes. This would not only foster healthy cultural understanding, but also increase ethnic tolerance and peaceful interaction between the various ethnic groups.
Many Ghanaians recognize that youth problems in Ghana are enormous and complicated. Nevertheless, the social programs I have suggested, if properly implemented, could make a huge dent in the youth problems confronting the nation. This action plan would shift the policy fragmentation that has characterized government approach to youth development to one of policy co-ordination I should add that it is believed in both the intellectual and non-intellectual circles that our youth problems cannot be solved unless we attain a prosperous economy. We cannot wait any longer for economic boom to dawn on the nation before we make any efforts to solve the youth problems that are beginning to engulf the entire nation.