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Youth Skills Development in Eritrea: Employment, Growth, and Wellbeing

Recently, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) highlighted an exciting skills development program being implemented in Eritrea. Undertaken in close collaboration with the National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students (NUEYS) and the Government of Norway, 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 Government of Eritrea, 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 the particular nature or character of the skills development program. Traditionally, foreign donors and “partners” have both “driven” and “owned” technical and development initiatives within Africa and across the Global South, often leading to stagnation and disappointing outcomes. Notably, such an intrusive, paternalistic 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 noteworthy 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 Government of Eritrea, 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).

Youth in Eritrea Gain Skills to Unlock Employment Opportunities

Woodwork has long been considered a man’s job in Eritrea. But Tsega Teklemenot, a trainer at the Keren Centre for youth skills development, is living proof that women can also thrive in this field.

“Most ladies prefer to work as waitresses and make quick money, but I hope that they will realize that time spent in training actually pays off once you start working,” she says.

Eritrea faces wide scale youth unemployment, pushing many young people to brave their chances and migrate in search of better opportunities. To address these issues, a project by the National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students (NUEYS), with financial support from the Norwegian Government and UNDP, is providing youth with vocational skills and training to help them find jobs.

The trainings take six months and range from graphic design to metalwork, woodwork, beekeeping, hairdressing, pottery and electric installation. The trainings take place through all six regions of Eritrea. Candidate selection takes into account gender balance, youth from female-headed households, youth who have been demobilized from military service, internally displaced people and youth who have special needs.

Tsega Mekonen, who is 22, chairs the Association of the Deaf in Anseba. For her the training provides renewed hope for the future – especially for people with disabilities. Out of the 21 trainees in her pottery class, 10 are deaf. Tsega is thrilled to start teaching pottery classes after her training so that more association members can benefit from the initiative.

“There are many young [disabled] people who have no jobs. I see this as an opportunity to learn a new skill, so the members of our organization can be empowered,” she says.

At the metal and wood workshop in Keren, 18-year-old Daniel Kitre has just completed his six-month training in metalwork. He says the training exceeded his expectations and is confident that his newly acquired skills will enable him to have his own workshop afterwards.

“I would recommend this training for my friends who are looking for jobs,” he says.

The youth employment skills project was scaled-up from a pilot initiative between 2007 and 2011. Since its inception in 2014, more than 1,500 youth have participated in the programme; 38% of them are women, and 63% of these youth have found a permanent job.

Bierhane Teare, a former woodwork trainee who also became a trainer for the project, is grateful for the regular income.

“I would have loved to start my own business but I didn’t have the capital. I am glad to be using my skills to teach others,” he says. He adds that most of the furniture built at the workshop has been sold and that there is adequate demand for their products.

One of the challenges facing the project is the limited space, as the centres can only admit 50 people at a time. Recently, the training centres have been expanded to admit more trainees, and they also offer a revised curriculum, modern equipment and updated training manuals.

The project has also created a platform for dialogue on youth and migration issues, and provides start-up financing for young people with potential. This includes those voluntarily repatriating from the diaspora and those residing in the country.


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