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For college grads in the DRC, sky-high unemployment rates make life hard

Commentary: Congolese youth await concrete commitments from government to put an end to the poverty that has affected the country for decades, despite having exceptionally rich soil and geological resources.
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(Emily Judem/GlobalPost)

GOMA, Democratic Republic of the Congo — For many African countries, the problem of unemployment is a major concern. This is the case in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where unemployment is seen as a curse, and the situation runs the risk of becoming a new post-war plague if we don’t find urgent and lasting solutions.

The population, especially Congolese youth, is waiting for adequate policy and concrete commitments from the government to put an end to the poverty that has affected the Congolese for decades, despite the country’s soil and geological resources being exceptionally rich.

In Goma, located in eastern DRC, and throughout the country in general, many young adults find themselves without work after finishing their studies. Those who are more creative throw themselves into a career in salvaging or sort themselves out while waiting for a good job opportunity to present itself, or for a successful family member to offer them help.

According to recent studies, more than 80 percent of young Congolese are underemployed and 58 percent are unemployed, even though the government claims otherwise.

Each year, Congolese universities pump thousands of young graduates into the job market, creating a real paradox as these graduates are left to their own devices while the government continues to operate without any policy to create opportunity.

Consequently, millions of young adults without employment or supervision are at the mercy of those who have little to offer or become recruiters for the rebellion.

A young, unemployed graduate who goes by the name Jackson told me that he received his master’s degree five years ago, and has yet to find a job.

“In order to avoid the temptation of the rebellion, I lend my uncle a hand in his jewelry store,” he said. “It’s not paid, but it allows me to buy a little bit of credit for my phone and to survive a little while I wait until I can find something better.”

Today, eastern DRC is overflowing with young adults in the same situation as Jackson and others who are in worse situations.

To survive, some will pursue manual labor despite their diplomas.

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Amani has just received his degree in public health, but he is working as a motorcycle taxi driver while waiting to find something better.

“I earned my graduate degree eight months ago, I couldn’t continue living without resources,” he said. “Fortunately, I can drive a motorcycle, while waiting for an organization to hire me as an intern, I am a motorcyclist. I earn the equivalent of five dollars a day and I survive like that, but it’s really hard.”

In any case, ‘hard’ is the word that best describes the current situation in which the young Congolese are trapped. Jean de Dieu Amisi, a teacher and supervisor to young adults, told me that “high unemployment affects young Congolese by creating a true desperation and, as you can imagine, this desperation pushes them to do unfair things and kills their inspiration.”

In addition to a lack of institutions ready to welcome new graduates, a lack of retirement options also contributes to the unemployment problem.

In the DRC retirement pension is almost nonexistent.

In large state-run institutions, like “la SNEL” (National Electricity Company) pensions are rarely offered. The same is true in the public sector including the mayor’s office and different public administration services.

In these offices, the elderly continue to work. Why? Because the government is simply struggling to implement serious reforms to replace the aging administration.

The young adults refuse to work for a public service that pays ridiculous salaries and does not respect the rules and principles of work.

In brief, the Congolese state has abandoned its administration and no one wants to interfere.

“I’ve worked at the mayor’s office in Goma for almost 35 years,” Mr. Juvénal, a septuagenarian, told me. “I will work until I use up my strength, the state is trying to get me to retire because there’s nothing to pay me,” he added, smiling.

Because around 80 percent of public administration personnel are elderly and because they are unable to retire, there is no space to increase the percentage of younger personnel.

The only place where these young adults can hope to find work is with non-governmental organizations. There, at least they are looking for young employees.

The problem: it’s often the case that in order to find a job, you must be able to pull some strings or offer bribes.

The whole endeavor can become a real puzzle. You have to have an “in” — your brother, your father, your sister someone you know well or an influential friend who can speak highly of you — to dig up any job.

These days, qualifications don’t matter.

Selection criteria have become jumbled across sectors, from government institutions to private enterprises and non-governmental organizations. Bisimwa, who is going on three years without a job, said “you have someone connect with you and they hire you,” that’s the new hiring system, “everything has become so hard that I don’t waste my time applying to jobs anymore.”

People who have no strings to pull or money with which to bribe often take on odd jobs to survive.

Others have transformed the system into a web of scams. A poor unemployed person, without any other option, pays money to a supposed employer who promises a job opportunity.

“Before I pulled some strings, a friend of mine asked me for some money, he promised me that I’d get hired within three days, but I didn’t see any results, and I spent another six months searching for work with another acquaintance who also asked me for money,” Jérôme told me. “In these kinds of stories, it’s confidence that works, there’s no other option, if not we, have nothing.”

Since the 2011 installment of the current government, certain reforms aimed at creating work opportunities for young adults have been introduced, but that is just a drop of water in an ocean of problems.

Since 2011, the government has started annually recruiting 50, 100 — sometimes 500 — young graduates to fill certain posts in public administration. The World Bank has also made some efforts, yes, but the impact of these efforts is very weak compared to the number of young unemployed.

The unemployment crisis in a country where purchasing power is already frail and relatively unstable is making the lives of young Congolese increasingly difficult.

Although those of us living in the DRC have generally good institutional conditions — the creation of enterprise and the protection of workers’ rights — a reduction of unemployment will undoubtedly require some hard work.

What is more than necessary is urgent reform for these institutions. Last December, the president promised that reform, saying “we will recruit new state agents and will send those of retirement age into retirement.” But the reality of that actually playing out comes down to a question of political conviction.

Like most decisions made in the DRC, young adults are still waiting to see it in order to believe it.

This piece was translated from its original french language by Karen Kirk.

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This piece is part of a new GlobalPost Special Reports/Commentary initiative supported by the Ford Foundation called "VOICES." The mission of VOICES is to present the ideas and opinions of those who are less frequently heard in the media, including women, people of color, sexual minorities, citizens of the developing world and young people. These voices will consistently discuss topics important to GlobalPost Special Reports including human rights, religious issues, global health, economic inequality and democracies in transition.

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