22 - 28 August 2002
Issue No. 600
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
Developing labourInternational Labour Organisation's Abidjan Regional Officer Regina Amadi-Njoku talks to Gihan Shahine about the different challenges facing development in Egypt and Africa
Juan Sumavia, director-general of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has stated that "the whole community should work together to ensure that parents are at work and children are at school." As such, unemployment, poverty and child labour are key concerns for the ILO, underscoring Regina Amadi-Njoku's recent visit to Egypt.
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Women's development is a major issue in Africa: (above) an Egyptian woman with her children
During her stay, she met with Minister of Labour Ahmed El-Amawi; Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Fayza Abul-Naga; Secretary- General of the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM) Moushira Khattab; Head of the National Council for Women Farkhonda Hassan and the secretary-general of the Egyptian Fund for Technical Co-operation with Africa, Ambassador Soaad Shalabi.
The economic integration of Africa and Egypt, and the ILO's role in the process, were at the top of Amadi-Njoku's agenda. Amadi-Njoku also stressed the empowerment of women during her visit. Her gender concerns are not unfounded. The recent Arab Human Development Report (AHDR) has painted a bleak picture of the conditions of Arab women. According to the report, a glaring deficit in women's empowerment has manifested itself in women's political and economic participation, which remains the lowest in the world in quantitative terms. Women occupy only 3.5 per cent of parliamentary seats in Arab countries, compared to 11 per cent in Sub- Saharan Africa, and 12.9 per cent in Latin America and Caribbean countries. One in every two Arab women can neither read or write and, in many countries of the region, women suffer unequal citizenship and legal entitlements.
In the face of these challenges Amadi-Njoku appears confident. "The picture is bleak worldwide. What matters, is that there is now a global initiative being pushed by civil society."
Globally, the participation of women in decision making stands at a mere three per cent. This is a far cry from the nine-15 per cent target set by the UN Gender Development Index (GDI).
"In Africa, women have traditionally been partners in development, but the adoption of Western models have eroded the strength of that partnership," Amadi-Njoku says. "Now we have to rebuild it."
Egypt is no exception. "What I see in Egypt is that uneducated women working in the informal sector are marginalised, while educated ones do well, exploiting their strategic entry point," Amadi-Njoku adds. "But what matters is that in Egypt there are attempts and policies to tackle the gender gap. Egypt has a strong political will to empower women, embodied in the government and the First Lady. It has an action platform that has a cabinet rank and features in the budget."
Women, however, have to do their bit. "There is no doubt that Egyptian women participate in many fields like pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, electronics, manufacturing and textiles, but the question is whether they have decision-making positions," Amadi-Njoku adds. "It's only then that they can fight for their own rights."
Amadi-Njoku stresses that the empowerment of women is an integral part of human development. "When women are uneducated, they have no access to income, which, in turn, perpetuates poverty," she says. "We, as UN agencies, have the policies and conventions, but countries have to do the work. During my talks with Egyptian officials, I was impressed by the compassion everybody, ministers as well as community leaders and businessmen, have for the poor."
Not that the picture is all that bright. "I may sound a bit utopian, but what I'm talking about is a story of hope," she adds. Amadi-Njoku saw poverty in Egypt, but was also impressed by the large number of girls in universities.
"Women do have equal chances in university education, even the poor, since education is free," she says. "So the field is open, but young women have to do their bit. And nothing is won so easily."
This is particularly true when unemployment prevails. According to the AHDR, open unemployment in the Arab region has been estimated to be 12 million in 1995, around 15 per cent of the labour force. This is the highest figure in the world. At present rates, this figure is expected to rise to 25 million by 2010. Unsurprisingly, half of young Arabs polled by the report wanted to emigrate from the region. If the current annual growth rates of 0.5 per cent continue, it will take the average citizen 140 years to double his income.
Egypt is part of this trend. Despite recent official statistics claiming a fall in unemployment from 8.2 per cent of the workforce in 1997/8 to 7.9 per cent in 1998/9, many experts insist that these figures are inaccurate. Egypt's population is growing quickly (at a rate of 2.2 per cent a year). The labour force is growing even quicker (2.6 per cent a year). However, the economy is growing at only 4.4-five per cent per annum, according to government statistics. Over half a million people reach an employable age each year and the economy is growing too slowly to provide them with work.
"The unemployment problem is critical," Amadi-Njoku says. "If you look at Africa as a whole the formal sector provides only 20 per cent of employment. 80 per cent of the labour force works in the informal sector, with no access to stable jobs, little social protection, collective bargaining, credit, technology or education. That not only perpetuates poverty, but also fuels conflict and crime. Having a job is an issue of human rights, but up till now, 70 per cent of African youth aged between 15 and 24 are either unemployed or underemployed. They cannot get jobs in the globalised formal economy since they have no skills or education."
This has been a major concern for the ILO. The organisation has a global employment forum and a global employment agenda. Both are currently focussing on African problems. The agenda looks at issues of productivity, technology, competitiveness and sound management.
"Africa is not an island: we are part of a global economy," Amadi-Njoku says. "Thus, our main project focuses on areas of knowledge and technology which is where most jobs are being created. Information Technology (IT) is our answer to the unemployment problem and low income growth."
The ILO has also been taking part in producing the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which mainly focuses on halving extreme poverty and hunger by the year 2015.
"The only way to attain that goal is to maintain economic growth, which, in turn, cannot be achieved except through productivity gains and increased employment," Amadi-Njoku says. "But, how can we create employment and increase productivity when 80 per cent of the labour force work in the invisible, informal sector?" "That is why ILO policies focus on creating what we call 'Decent Work' -- work that is safe and where employees have social protection and a say in what they do."
The key question is: How should this work be generated? Experts seem to agree that the private sector should play an instrumental role. Amadi- Njoku feels that governments also have a crucial role to play in creating an 'investment-friendly' environment.
"The private sector is, without doubt, the engine of economic growth and the generator of employment," Amadi-Njoku says. "Yet, private investors cannot take risks, and to attract them, governments should provide an enabling environment of stability and transparency."
"Airline ticket fares, for instance, should be reduced for businessmen and governments should consider fiscal and tax reforms, develop infrastructure and telecommunications to attract more private investment," she adds.
Amadi-Njoku also feels that the private sector should develop from selling raw materials to more sophisticated products and expand from internal markets to regional and continental ones.
"While businessmen should collaborate to create jobs, governments have to get involved in knowledge-based programmes," Amadi-Njoku says. "The labour force should be skilled and familiar with the latest technology -- an objective that should be integrated with the school syllabus."
"In Africa, most curricula do not prepare youth for a lot of jobs simply because they haven't learned the requisite skills," Amadi-Njoku adds. "Can you imagine that a country that has been producing cocoa for 50 years is still unable to produce chocolate and, instead, is lamenting the fall in the price of their raw product? We still have a long way to go in the field of education and capacity building."
Child labour is another key concern of the ILO. According to its first-ever global report, launched in May, some 246 million children aged five-17 years are engaged in child labour around the world. Of these, roughly 180 million children are engaged in the worst forms of hazardous child labour, while two thirds are under 15 years old. One of every eight people in the world is working full time in a hazardous and exploitative environment.
"In Africa, child labour is a major issue," Amadi-Njoku says. "And it encourages child trafficking. Therefore African countries look at child labour not as a developmental issue but as an issue of community, human rights, gender, and security. It is clearly a regional, rather than country-specific, issue."
Fortunately, African countries are admitting that they have a serious problem with respect to child labour and are showing the political will to address it.
"We are no longer ignoring the issue," Amadi- Njoku says. "We all know that children are being trafficked and that child labour is an educational issue. Many families may not want to send their children to work, but have little choice in the face of extreme ignorance and poverty. Many children are forced to contribute to their household income, and, more often than not, get involved in hazardous activities without even knowing it. Often, their parents have no idea of the hazards that their children are being exposed to. For example, they are still unaware that mining without gloves is hazardous. However, African countries are now addressing the issue as a violation of human rights and a constraint on human development."
Then there is the issue of war.
"In Africa, many countries are engaged in conflicts, internal or external, which is a major obstacle to development," Amadi-Njoku says. "Look at the amount of destroyed infrastructure. When countries are in conflict women and children suffer the most and the human capital is devastated. Development can never be achieved in the absence of peace, which, in turn, cannot be realised in the absence of dialogue or under the grip of poverty. It is a vicious circle. The only way to break it is to empower people and help them to become productive citizens."
Letter from the Editor
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