Recently, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) highlighted an exciting skills development program being implemented in Eritrea. Undertaken in collaboration with the National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students (NUEYS) and the Norwegian Government, the program, specifically targeting youths, was scaled-up from a pilot project that was conducted from 2007 to 2011. The skills development program, which aims to enhance the capacity of various vocational training institutions and to equip Eritrean youth with tangible work skills, is significant for several reasons.
First, the program is another example of effective cooperation and positive engagement between the Eritrean Government, local organizations, and international partners. For many years, a range of important regional and global institutions and organizations have worked closely with the Government and local organizations or stakeholders to meet various development objectives. While Eritrea is often derogatorily described as isolationist, secretive, the “North Korea of Africa,” or even the “hermit kingdom,” the considerable and increasing number of international partnerships and cooperative programs active throughout the country suggest that such labels are clichéd, cursory, overly simplistic, and incorrect.
As well, it is important to note that the nature or character of the skills development program. Traditionally, foreign donors and “partners” have both “driven” and “owned” technical and development initiatives within Africa, often leading to stagnation and disappointing outcomes. Notably, such an intrusive approach is not found, and would not be tolerated, elsewhere in the world (Helleiner 1994: 10). In contrast, cooperative development programs in Eritrea are largely locally driven and guided by the Government’s stated national priorities, receive close, vital support from international partners, and are playing a positive role in enhancing the wellbeing of the Eritrean people.
Second, the skills development program is significant because of what it offers to Eritrean youth. Skills acquired or honed within technical and vocational programs are especially significant for youth since young people frequently remain at the end of the job queue for the formal labor market because they lack adequate skills and experience (Boateng 2002). With little access to formal employment, youth may instead turn to the informal sector. While the informal sector can frequently offer certain tangible benefits, it can also be characterized by long, unpredictable hours and limited protections, returns, safety, or security. More problematically, youth unemployment also poses severe economic and social costs. It can potentially lead to crime or other harmful or dangerous behaviors, such as sex work or illicit drug use. Furthermore, it can encourage emigration; much literature on migration details the significant influence of factors like wage differentials, employment prospects, cost-benefit calculations, and returns to investment, amongst others.
Accordingly, through developing critical work skills within the training program, young Eritreans are finding more opportunities to work. To date, more than 1,500 youth have participated in the programme (38% of them women), acquiring training in an array of sectors, including graphics, videography, metalwork, woodwork, pottery, and electricity installation. Quite impressively, approximately 65% of participants have secured permanent jobs.
As well, technical skills development programs are key since they can help build and refine the population’s skills and capabilities to compete within fiercely competitive markets. Notably, advanced skills are not just a requirement for “hi-tech” sectors; even supposedly “simple” areas such as apparel, footwear, and basic engineering products require a degree of skills to compete. A skilled, knowledgeable workforce dramatically improves the investment climate since a trained, skilled labour force that adds value to goods and services creates an attractive economic environment for investors. Greater investment can support economic growth and play a positive, influential role in poverty reduction. One lesson from East Asia’s developmental experience is how the emphasis on skills development (and education) proved essential for technological change and economic growth (ADB 2004).
Finally, beyond their necessity for competing in regional or global markets, the Eritrean government, local and international partners, and other relevant stakeholders should continue to support and invest in skills development programs since they greatly help in the fulfillment of a range of fundamental human rights and significantly contribute to social inclusion, ultimately serving to empower individuals to fully develop their capabilities and tangibly improve their lives (AfDB; BCG; World Bank 2014).