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Youth unemployment in South Africa

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Guest blog by Denver Moses

The past 10 weeks participating in the LEG have signaled a period of personal and professional growth. Being part of a global online learning environment was a massive shift from my previous learning experiences which were almost entirely based on face-to-face teaching and group learning exercises. I have engaged in studies with professionals from the African continent, but this was my first exposure to such a diverse student population. Orientation to this approach took a few weeks but being part of a smaller peer learning group assisted greatly with the immersion into the course’s content and participatory dynamics.

There was an intrinsic value in the peer group composition and subsequent engagements that I will carry through into other problem-solving spaces. My peer group was a mix of members from the developing and developed world. Although growth problems within the group were quite different, areas of overlap could often be found in unexpected spaces.

The tools presented were well thought out and had a high degree of applicability to most countries at a national, sub-national and city level. Of particular interest for me was gaining a deeper understanding of the PDIA approach. I am part of team that is attempting to embed PDIA as a problem-solving methodology within the organisational culture of the Western Cape Government, one on nine provincial governments in South Africa.

I entered the course with some academic and practical exposure to PDIA, but the lectures and deep dive sessions served to strengthen my existing know-how on the matter. One of the critical moments for me was Matt’s exploration of the distinction between material and symbolic commitment; the takeaway was that the issue really must matter to whoever is making the commitment for it to get traction. As public officials, being able to distinguish between these categories of commitment is critical if we are to decrease the, at times, burgeoning trust deficit between the public sector and the communities they should serve.

Telling a story using data can often be intimidating for the storyteller and the listeners. The Atlas of Economic Complexity, and Metroverse have been meticulously constructed to make detailed data accessible and understandable to students and professionals alike.

As part of my professional portfolio, I am also responsible for some work with a UNDP-authored methodology called Community Capacity Enhancement (CCE), which has as its tagline, ‘The answer lies within’. This training course provides public sector officials with tools to assist them to place citizens at the centre of their own developmental processes. I found strong alignment to this CCE approach, both with the PDIA as a methodology and positive deviance as a related concept. PDIA seeks local solutions to local problems and positive deviance suggests that in any given situation there would be groupings that would be closer to solutions than others.

Pursuing my growth problem – Youth Unemployment in South Africa – started off a little shakily; I found that there seemed to be a gap between the course’s theoretical underpinnings and my problem deconstruction. I grappled with applying theoretical constructs which did not appear to adequately deal with a society that was so fractured at many different levels. Some of the risks to economic growth in South Africa are capital and intellectual flight. This coupled with the absence of policy that supports the highly skilled immigrants to enter the country means that there is limited opportunity to expand the know-how that is in the hands of a very few.

South Africa has the highest Gini Coefficient in the world meaning that a high level of inequality is prevalent. This is clearly visible for overseas visitors to Cape Town, my hometown. Cape Town has received the Dickenesque description of A Tale of Two Cities due to the stark economic disparity between its citizens. As you fly into Cape Town International Airport, you are confronted with sprawling informal settlements that are characterised by abject poverty, a strong reminder of the legacy of Apartheid. However, as you drive from the airport, the picture changes rapidly and there is a metamorphosis to an affluent global city. Within this context, any growth strategy in South Africa will have to address this gap, so that both the haves and have nots can move towards sharing a sense of us.

Equity and inclusion are at the core of my growth problem as reflected in the fishbone diagram above. For the cycle of poverty to be broken, the school dropout rate must be decreased. In South Africa, a matriculation certificate is the gateway to tertiary education and employment. In simple terms, a dropout rate of 60%, means that the number of young people able to make a meaningful contribution to the economy is low, i.e., the rate of exclusion of youth from the economy was significant.

A question that I am struggling with is the structure of the course. I feel that the content throughout the 10 weeks was extremely useful and I am left wondering whether slightly different sequencing would have clarified certain things for me a little earlier. Grappling with this conundrum, I became a little stuck as the growth strategies initially presented in the course did not appear to have a good fit with the context I was dealing with. For example, adding complexity to the export product mix was a solution several steps from where my growth problem was rooted. Clarity came with Ricardo’s statement that suggested working with the people you had and not what you wished you had. This supported Rodrik’s contention that a growth strategy should be allowed to have a internal focus by involving services such as education.

When growth and inclusion become part of the same agenda then there are other shifts in that can be made to the economic landscape. Within this framework, it is not sufficient to refer to jobs being created but the creation of good jobs. Although there is debate around what constitutes a good job, a country like South Africa should not focus on exiting primary sectors but rather dedicate resources to improving conditions of employment across the board.

As indicated previously, my primary reason for undertaking LEG was based on the intention to make practical use of PDIA in my current place of work. Already we are using the approach to address 3 very different problem statements. This pathway has emerged because of a commitment at the highest political level to develop further know how internal to the organisation and apply the approach to a broad range of problems.

It would be useful if there was a course that focused more deeply on the practical implementation of the PDIA. Whilst the theoretical and certain practical elements illuminated, there are areas that could be highlighted in subsequent courses. This could include how to build the scaffolding to support teams and different models to incentivise team members to counter notions that working on PDIA is over and above their traditional job specifications.

My challenge now is to optimise the knowledge gained over the past 10 weeks and use it to further the growth agenda of the Western Cape Government! In doing so I will have to unlock the vowels so critical to supporting the scrabble theory of development.

This is a blog series written by the alumni of the Leading Economic Growth Executive Education Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. 61 Participants successfully completed this 10-week online course in December 2021. These are their learning journey stories.

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