Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Global Population Hits 7 Billion, Youth in Nigeria to Capitalize on New Opportunities (news via Global Press Institute)

As the world’s population hit 7 billion last month, the United Nations Population Fund held a forum for youth in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country. Youth converged with representatives from the government and local and international nongovernmental organizations to brainstorm about how to develop policies to transform the emerging challenges of the increasing population into opportunities. - Global Press Institute

ABUJA, NIGERIA – David Habba, 24, is a student at Benue State University, where he is currently studying sociology. Habba says his vision for his future is to practice what he is studying.

“I want to speak for others,” he says. “I see myself as a social engineer, proffering solutions to social issues.”

A member of various youth groups focused on political education, Habba is also passionate about increasing political consciousness among young people so they can demand their rights from the government. But combining activism and education does not come easy for him.

“It is not very easy, but being able to manage my time gives me that ability to be able to combine the two,” he says.

Benue state, where Habba lives and studies, is popularly referred to as the food basket of the nation. The state is located in the Middle Belt region in central Nigeria.
Youth in Benue state in the past didn’t have a strong inclination for classroom education, he says. Most people became farmers.

“We are rated among the educationally backward state, but all that is changing now,” he says.

He says that the trend is changing because young people are becoming more politically conscious and uniting to proffer solutions to their common sufferings.
As a part of this trend, Habba was among the 50 youth who participated in the 7 Billion Campaign Youth Forum that took place in Abuja from Oct. 31 – the day the world’s population reached 7 billion – to Nov. 1.

The United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, recently launched 7 Billion Actions, an initiative aimed at creating awareness about different opportunities and challenges that will emerge with this population increase. The advocacy effort strives to inspire citizens, government, nongovernmental organizations, NGOs, corporate sectors and others to be proactive in contributing positively to the world.

UNFPA collaborated on the forum with governmental platforms, such as the National Youth Council of Nigeria, and local and international NGOs, such as Education as a Vaccine Against AIDS Nigeria and Save the Children UK. The forum brought together emerging youth leaders in Nigeria to brainstorm about the challenges and opportunities that they face as young people in a world of 7 billion people and to share these ideas with policymakers.

Habba says youth participation is crucial to finding the opportunities in these challenges.

“I live at community level and intervene at community level,” Habba says. “Very importantly, I think in a world of 7 billion, more than the opportunities, the challenges abound – especially for young people. If there would be any gainful achievement for young people, they must be at the center and forefront of the engagement.”

Habba says that one concern is that with an increasing population, employment will be more competitive. He says he’s also worried about food, as farming profits haven’t risen because of the increased cost of agricultural materials.
“I’m also very concern about food because I come from a food basket state,” he says. “For us in Nigeria, food prices have tripled in less than five years. Government funding for investment in agriculture sector have not yielded needed result.”
He says education is another concern.

“I’m concern about the kind of education people will have to face because with increase population, there needs to be a corresponding increase in investment,” he says. “Even at smaller population, we have not seen our government do this. So who gives us the assurance that at a higher population our government will be able to do this?”

Competitive employment, food scarcity and poor education are some of the challenges Habba foresees. But he is also optimistic.

“I hope and believe that young people are well-able and will be put in a position to respond effectively and change a lot for the better,” he says.

Habba says he is increasing his efforts to tackle social challenges. After the 7 Billion Youth Forum, he plans to organize a program for farmers in Benue to discuss how prepared they are to produce food for an increasing population.

“I’m going to be doing what I have always been doing but with a more strategic focus,” he says.

The 7 Billion Youth Forum aimed to insert young people’s voice into developing policies to transform the challenges emerging with the population increase into opportunities. Many say improving services and facilities is key to development. 

Women say gender equality in accessing these services and facilities is also crucial. 
Various youth say education will enable people to help themselves. Others recommended a more grassroots approach to include marginalized communities in these initiatives. Policymakers participating in the forum insisted on a restructuring of government in order to increase accountability and to more effectively address problems.

Nigeria has the largest population in Africa and is the sixth most populous country in the world, according to UNFPA. With a growth rate of 2.53 percent, Nigeria’s population currently exceeds 166 million, with projections of it increasing to nearly 390 million in 2050 and 730 million in 2100.

The theme of the 7 Billion Youth Forum was “Nigeria Demographics: Opportunities and Challenges.” Participants discussed education, health, the environment and climate change, unemployment, and information and communication technology in an increasing population.

Tope Fashola, program coordinator for advocacy, policy and campaigns for Education as a Vaccine Against AIDS, a local NGO that aims to help young people access sexual and reproductive health information and services, says that the forum aimed to address how to manage such a large population.

“Especially because Nigeria population is a youthful one,” he says. “We are saying that, how can we begin to think of policies that can protect and encourage the buildup of young people in our nation? They say youth are the leaders of tomorrow, but we need to start planning from today, and we believe it starts from the policy angle.”

Ajani Olawale James, president of the National Youth Council of Nigeria, a platform created by the Ministry of Youth to engage youth in policy formation, says the growth in population will have positive and negative effects on Nigerian youth like him.

“I think it is a big challenge [that] at the same time provides more opportunities,” he says. “In a country whereby we have a lot of young people, it should be an opportunity if we are ready to explore.”

He says youth are eager to get involved.

“Nigerian youth is always ready because every Nigerian youth want to be a responsible citizen,” He says. “We have been fed over the years, and we want to start feeding people. That sense of responsibility is always on the Nigerian youth.”

Hadija Aminu, the campaign adviser for Save the Children UK, an international children’s charity based in the United Kingdom, says that poverty is one factor that has contributed to the population increase.

“The population reduces where there is development,” she says. “People feel more confident to have smaller families. But what you see in some communities in Nigeria is that the poorer you are, the more children you have because you tend to not know which among the children would be among the one that will support you and sustain you. So you have so many of them and hope that one of them will provide for you.”
Aminu says that quality basic education and free health care will naturally lead to smaller families in Nigeria.

“So what we can do in Nigeria is to improve all other facilities and services,” she says. “It will directly reduce our population.”

Managing population growth is different from controlling population growth, says Tochie Odele, one of the organizers of the event.

“We don’t want to tell people to control population,” she says. “We want to be able to manage population.”

Women say they hope that the population growth will provide more opportunities for them.

“Young women should realize they have a role and must get up to have their voices to be heard in a world of 7 billion,” she says. “Young women can serve as community mobilizers, role models, etc., synthesize other young women on the importance of education and not feel limited by the lack of access.”

Nkiru Igbokwe, an UNFPA national program analyst, says that an increase in population is not necessarily negative if leaders are sensitive to gender equality.
“It could be positive if we direct our human resources the right way and if we plan to use the resources in a way that it does not discriminate against any sex,” she says.
She says that women need equal access to resources.

“The fact that we are 7 billion in the world ­means that we pay particular attention to devising ways to increasing women[’s] access to resources, especially productive resources such as land, labor, credit, so that it will enable them [to] create and have sustainable livelihood,” she says.

She also urges parliamentarians to implement strategies to ensure young girls have access to reproductive health services and information in order to reduce teenage pregnancy.

“Strategies that will ensure young girls get access to education and come out with strong degree that will enable them access higher employment,” she says. “Strategies to ensure human resources and financial resources are leverage[d] in a way that is gender-sensitive and does not discriminate help us have a productive population.”

Damilola Ade, an active member of the World Bank Youth Forum in Nigeria, a youth forum set up by World Bank Nigeria to engage young people in community development, also emphasizes education. She says that she and her peers have been visiting rural communities on the outskirts of Abuja to explore community service ideas that they can implement in underserved communities. She says she is appalled by the standard of education in rural areas, which the population increase would further strain.

“In terms of education, the challenge is access and funding,” she says. “I know in Nigeria, we give less than 20 percent of our budget to education.”
Ade says that countries must allocate more of their federal budgets to education if they want to build the capacity of their youth.

“We should be looking forward a minimum of 30 percent,” she says.
Ade says that school infrastructure and facilities are also not up to standard. But she says she is not waiting for the government to solve all the problems.

“Over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about [the] education process – going into rural areas to teach kids,” she says. “What I want to do more is going back to grassroots, even if it’s as little as a chalkboard I can donate. I will like to do more of that.”

Fashola says that policies that ensure education, as well as protection and health services, to all young people are key. He says this will ensure that Nigerian youth are not dependent on stipends from the government, but rather they will have the knowledge, capacity and resources to be self-sufficient, which will spur future development of the country.

Ade says that participating in the 7 Billion Youth Forum has enlightened her more on the issues facing the education sector in Nigeria.

“A friend told me about the event,” she says. “I have been hearing a lot about 7 billion and got inquisitive. I went online but did not get as much information as I got here.”

But she says that she would have preferred a more grassroots approach to tackling issues affecting Nigeria.

“I will like to see more grassroots participation,” she says.

As one of the lead partners, UNFPA is not oblivious to the criticism associated with conferences and forums.

“The question has always been talking with no action,” Igbokwe says. “I think talk is important. We have to start talking here. We depend on participants to talk the message to those at rural areas.”

Aminu agrees with Ade on the need for more grassroots outreach initiatives.
“I met a family in one of the grassroots communities,” she says. “We were discussing family planning and family health issues. She had about 12 children, and she told me if I had come earlier, she wouldn’t have had the baby she was holding because she didn’t want to have any more children but she didn’t know what she could do.”

She says that a more grassroots approach is necessary because many people lack access to the conversation.

“Because they cannot communicate with the rest of the world, they don’t know what is obtainable,” she says. “So yes, we have a lot to do in terms of taking these awareness the poorest and the most marginalized communities.”

Aminu says these communities are most in need.

“They are the ones that need the services the most,” Aminu says. “They face the challenges the most. Thus, they are the ones that need the opportunities the most.”
Ajani says that the next step after the forum is for the government to make policies. But he says that policymakers must engage youth in this process.

“We want to talk to parliamentarians to make laws that are youth-friendly,” he says.
At the end of the forum, the participants came up with an action paper. They plan to present the paper to the parliamentarians to serve as a guide for them to make youth-friendly policies to tackle the emerging challenges.

“There is going to be a real action,” says Saheed Akinade-Fijabi, one of the parliamentarians who attended the forum.

He blames corruption in Nigeria’s system for delays in enforcing policies. To change this trend, he encourages Nigerians to be proactive in keeping the government accountable.

“We should keep an eye on them,” says Akinade-Fijabi, a new member of the House Committee on Youth. “When a law is passed, we should make sure it is enforced.”
Another parliamentarian invited to the forum, Eziuche Chinwe Ubani, the chairman of the Committee on Climate Change, agrees.

“People in office are suppose to be more accountable,” Ubani says. “But for that to happen, there needs to be a constitutional framework that allows people ask questions and get answers.”

He says questions lead to accountability.

“These kinds of governance structure where people are not permitted to ask questions or when they ask are ignored does not make people in power accountable,” he says. “So it is for all of us to stand up to it and find a way that we have a governance process that delivers on development.”

Ubani says Nigeria’s governance system must be revamped to make leaders more accountable and more effective at solving problems.

“First of all, I think we need to change the template of governance,” he says. “The governance structure, not government, is not tailored to solve any problem the way it is. The structure we have needs to change. There needs to be constitutional amendment in a peaceful way to be able to create a government that delivers. And people must be held accountable.”

Ubani cautions Nigeria not to relax as the population increases.

“If the population is increasing, other facilities and resources also have to increase,” he says. “Apart from the resources that are finite, the other ones are for individuals to be able to expand.”

He says this expansion is crucial to avoid competition.

“When many people are competing for a small resource, there is bound to be a problem,” he says. “Even for spaces, if two people are suppose to live in a room and all of a sudden there are eight people sleeping in a room, people will be cramped. There will be no space to stand.”

Akinade-Fijabi says that Nigerian parliamentarians are working to change the system.
“We have some intellect who are ready to serve the people and not there for money,” he says.

He says that parliamentarians have already begun to address employment barriers that prevent competent and skilled youth from applying for jobs solely based on their age.

“We have passed the motion about the age barriers,” Akinade-Fijabi says.
Joycee Awojoodu, one of the youth participants, says youth must continue to pass their concerns along to the government.

“Getting in contact with a legislator, even if it’s just a local government chairman, is one step in getting our issues heard,” she says. “It is one step in the right direction.”

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