In her first exclusive interview, Nardos Bekele-Thomas, CEO of AUDA-NEPAD, talks forcefully about the imperative to place youth at the centre of development and provides ideas on how this can be achieved.
Ethiopian Nardos Bekele-Thomas has been the CEO of the African Union’s Development Agency (AUDA) for only six months but is already getting a feel for what her job entails – which often means having to be in several places, sometimes at the same time. In the past week alone, prior to our interview, she had arrived in Egypt for COP27 from Japan where she was for the JICA Annual Meetings and was on her way to Indonesia for the G20 meetings to then finish a gruelling travelling schedule in Niamey for Africa Industrialisation Week. More engagements are rolling in as we speak.
AUDA was previously the NEPAD (New Partnership for Africa’s Development) Planning and Coordination Agency. It was renamed and imbued with a fresh mandate by the African Union’s Assembly of Heads of State as part of efforts to accelerate the implementation agenda of the continental body.
Having met, over the last six months, most of Africa’s Heads of State and criss-crossed the continent, she says Africa’s biggest emergency, the most pressing concern, is the youth challenge.
“Africa’s population is extremely young and across the continent, governments are struggling to create opportunities for them to earn a living and make meaningful contributions to their societies,” she says.
Bekele-Thomas believes that this gap, where young and energetic people do not have a stake in society or are not empowered and engaged, is a genuine threat to the peace and security of the continent and requires urgent action.
“It doesn’t make sense that having invested in the education and training of so many young men and women, countries would exclude them from the development effort. The youth themselves are becoming aware of their own power and demanding better from their leaders.”
She cites Kenya, a country she knows well, having served as the UNDP Country Director and later the UN Resident Coordinator, where President William Ruto’s campaign, based on his story of humble beginnings as a hustler, resonated with the young people struggling in the informal sector.
Citing Nigeria, she says more young people are engaged with the political process than ever before. Everywhere, the youth are associating their power to having their voice heard through the voting booths.
“They are waking up and saying we are going to hold our leaders accountable – and we can, through our votes. We are seeing this trend in America, we are seeing it in Africa. This makes the task of youth empowerment and inclusion all the more urgent.”
One area she will be focusing a lot of effort on is the continent’s ageing public service corps. “In Africa, the public service is an ageing service and that is largely so due to the wage bill restrictions borne of challenges in the fiscal space… The public sector needs to be reformed and in order to do so we are working towards infusing the youthful energies and integrating their digital minds, which are transformative,” she explains.
In practice, this idea will see young people – following a mapping of their abilities – trained and integrated into public service institutions as young professionals. This will engender a new and robust pan-African identity, a critical cohort who are proud to be agents of African excellence.
Bekele-Thomas’ proselytising missions around and beyond the continent have won the support of many, and more importantly African, leaders. President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea, has pledged $10m to support the Energise Africa flagship initiative aimed at supporting the youth through various programmes.
If she has confidence in her ideas, it is because she has seen them work. As UNDP Country Director in Kenya, between 2004 and 2008, she pioneered a national volunteer scheme which integrated young people into the public services.
“These young people really made a difference. They were there to help the government come out with frameworks, at all levels, for planning, budgeting, implementation, monitoring and evaluation, leveraging results-based management systems we had introduced at the time under the Results for Kenya initiative,” she recalls with some pride.
Even better, when she returned in 2012, a good number of the young volunteers were now CEOs in the public and private sector and leaders in their fields, clearly having benefitted from the programme.
Another path that she is championing is innovation. “African youth are creating apps and bringing in innovative solutions to the challenges they face, while just sitting under a tree with their smartphones. If they can do this under such a constricted environment, can you imagine what they can do if we facilitate and give them the space and the platform to exercise their creativity and their innovativeness?” she asks.
The development agency wants to ensure there are innovation hubs in every country on the continent and support the evolution of complete ecosystems that allow young people to create and commercialise solutions.
Naturally, there is a need for greater protection for IP rights than is currently available and Bekele-Thomas says that AUDA-NEPAD is alive to that task.
How much does she anticipate all her plans will cost? “$10bn over a three-year period,” she says. Support is being sought from governments, private sector players. Multilaterals such as the African Export-Import Bank and the African Development Bank (AfDB) have signalled their support, and the AfDB has already pledged $1.5bn in loans to start-ups.
Other players including the African Solidarity Fund, BADEA and Equity Bank Group have also earmarked support to young entrepreneurs.
“What I truly believe is that our development should be led by us and be owned by us. If we say so, it shouldn’t be just words; it should be translated in terms of putting up the resources for this purpose.
“Therefore, most African countries have agreed that they will be contributing towards that effort. If Africa puts its act together, just support from the private sector and from the governments could make this happen. It’s not a choice any more, it is an imperative. It is a survival thing,” she stresses.
Integration is the solution
Bekele-Thomas took over at a challenging moment in history, with governments having to grapple with a series of crises. “Africa’s development should never be derailed by a crisis. A crisis should be an event and not a way of life. The triple nexus of peace, security and development demands investments in institutions delivering essential services.”
Bekele-Thomas is heartened by the strong sentiment and demonstration of collaboration in addressing crises across Africa and she strongly believes that the long-term continental development agenda could only be driven and secured by integration.
AUDA-NEPAD is actively working on the operationalisation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). “Everywhere I go, I have borne witness to coordinated African responses as a solution to local, national and regional challenges. More and more inter-African trade and integration with the African Union has become the mainstream aspiration.”
One priority area right now, she says, is facilitation of impact assessment of AfCFTA on national revenues and economies dependent on tariffs, with the objective of supporting countries with mitigating measures.
Ramping up programmes
What about her predecessor’s programmes; how are they progressing? She is keen to ramp up the ongoing NEPAD programmes such as PIDA and CAADP.
She points to the upcoming Dakar Finance Summit (DFS2) taking place in February 2023 under the patronage of President Macky Sall, which, she expects, will bring financing for critical infrastructure projects. “We have got 10 projects that are really clearly ready for investment with others in the pipeline.”
DFS2, she says, will not be business as usual. It will provide the platform for concrete deals. The EU and the World Bank have committed to invest in three projects each out of the 10, she reveals.
Each country has its own vision plan, which, she believes, need to be synchronised with the Agenda 2063 Ten Year Implementation Plans.
Just as importantly, these plans have to be communicated to the public so they can own them and participate in them, rather than being some distant concepts with no bearing on the lives of people.
Another area Bekele-Thomas highlights as a priority is climate change, and climate justice. This is something that requires considerably more work. She sees the recognition of payment for ‘loss and damages from climate change’ as one ray of light from the COP27 talks but feels much remains to be agreed on, especially in terms of climate finance:
“If we really want to achieve the Nationally Determined Contributions, it requires $3tn over 10 years. The whole issue of a just transition and an equitable one is very important. The issue of compensation is one, as is also carbon credits.
“What I saw at COP27 is that Africa is now enlightened. It’s no longer a case of begging or demanding gently, it’s really about equity and commanding respect and dignity. The entire world loses and it is incumbent upon the rest of the world to support Africa in this whole just transition.”
In essence, what is her message to African leaders? In the end, she repeats, it will boil down to how the youth bulge is addressed.
“Africa should really make sure everybody understands that growth and sustainable development can only take place if we are inclusive, and by inclusivity, we mean integrating youth and women in the whole soci0-economic transformation process.”
It is a message that is likely to resonate, and with her tireless advocacy, might yet produce some significant action and results earlier than expected.