Youth unemployment is one of the most pressing issues in sub-Saharan Africa today. There is broad agreement that the issue is intensifying, in large part, due to inadequate efforts to mobilise idle youth. This paper argues that artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) could offer an interim solution to the issue, enabling the time and space necessary to re-evaluate current approaches and generate solutions that better address youth employment. It draws on research undertaken in rural Ghana over the past decade. It calls for governments and donors to critically re-think their stance towards artisanal mining and increase efforts to formalise and support the sector.
Variations on the Sierra Leonean ‘youth question’ can now be found across sub-Saharan Africa. While there is no single explanation for the regional youth unemployment crisis, the paper explores two main strands: education and the labour market. The literature suggests that the poor quality and delivery of education services and labour market interventions focused on vocational skills training instead of job-creation have contributed to, rather than addressed, the crisis.
The livelihood dimensions of ASM have been overlooked. Host governments and donors have largely marginalised ASM operators and, until recently, perceptions of ASM have been unfavourable, casting those involved as rogue entrepreneurs looking to get rich quick. In Ghana, for example, small-scale mining regulations have discouraged operators from securing a license and the government has used negative labels such as ‘armed robbers’ and ‘criminals’.
Further, government officials and, to some extent, donors have little idea about the role ASM has played in reinvigorating the lives of discouraged youth. While calls for the formalisation of ASM began with redundant large-scale mine workers it expanded, attracting masses of youth, as the price of gold rose. Over the past decade a number of studies have drawn attention to ASM’s resilience to economic hardship and its ability to absorb scores of people made redundant in other industries. Although relatively unsupported and largely outside of the formal economy, it has provided a source of stability for youth and their families.
The paper challenges the common misconception that the region’s ASM sector only provides low-skilled positions to job-seekers by highlighting examples from the literature of those who are graduates working the sector and the range of roles available, from diggers to technical and managerial positions.
Formalising the ASM sector is not the solution to the youth employment crisis, but it is a potential opportunity to capitalise on the sector’s popularity and provide short-term relief to the issue of young unemployment.