Posted: April 29, 2019

This post is the first of a 3-part series on Uganda’s employment challenge.

The question of jobs has slowly but surely risen to the top of the public discourse in Uganda. Safety, corruption, oil, sexuality, infrastructure, government reshuffles and a host of other issues come in waves to dominate headlines. But most analysts agree that the big elephant in the room is this: how will Uganda’s economy create enough decent jobs to ensure the prosperity of the country’s already massive and bulging youth population?

The jobs issue is economically, politically and socially complex. An evidence-based public discourse is needed in order to build consensus among a wide range of stakeholder groups on (1) what exactly Uganda’s employment challenge looks like and (2) what should be done about it. But the prevailing debate has done little to achieve this.

Let us first look at the discourse around the nature of the employment challenge. This news article concisely, though unintentionally, illustrates exactly what is wrong with this first part of the public discourse on unemployment in Uganda:

As of 2012, youth unemployment in Uganda was said to be the highest on the African continent. Findings of a study, “Lost opportunity? Gaps in youth policy and programming in Uganda” conducted by ActionAid and published in 2012 put youth unemployment at 62 per cent, but that was much lower than figures from the Netherlands-based nonprofit International development organisation, SNV, which put the figure at 80 per cent and the African Development Bank, which put it at 83 per cent.

Figures from the 2014 national census showed that 58 per cent of the population in the productive age bracket of between 14 and 64 years, about 10.4 million people, is unemployed. 

It is easy to empathise with the journalist behind this piece: in the heat of the daily news cycle, what he needed was one reliable, easily accessible source to provide him with key unemployment statistics. What he found instead was a confusing clutter of reports and articles citing conflicting figures and definitions. The safe option was clearly to cite all the statistics.

Unfortunately, none of them is correct. Here’s why:

ActionAid (2012): 62% youth unemployment. First, this report is a rather dated source for a 2018 news article, given the fact that the 2016/17 national household survey had been released by this time. Second, the figure is based on a survey of youths aged 12 – 30, an age bracket that does not correspond to any official definition of “youth”. Third, the sample size of 1,035 was too small for any statistically significant conclusion to be drawn for a total population of over 10 million people aged 12 – 30 years.

SNV (2016): 80% youth unemployment. This article does not cite any source at all for the 80% figure, which should raise alarm bells. The claim is further called into question by the fact that another, more recent article from the same organisation puts Uganda’s youth unemployment at 11% – though again without a source.

African Development Bank (2014): 83% youth unemployment. This is an egregious misreading of the cited paper. The only time “83%” appears in the African Development Bank paper is in this sentence: “The share of unemployed youth among the total unemployed can be as high as 83% in Uganda…” In other words, of the total unemployed population, 83% are youth. The African Development Bank is definitely not claiming that 83% of all youth who are available and searching for work are unemployed. This becomes painfully plain on the following page of the report, where a graph clearly illustrates that Uganda’s youth unemployment rate is below 10%.

National Census (2014): 58% unemployment. The news article misquotes the “NEET” as the unemployment rate from the UBOS National Census 2014 report. NEET stands for Not in Employment, Education or Training. Unfortunately, no full definition is provided by UBOS. The International Labour Organisation and others define NEET as “the percentage of the population of a given age group and sex who is not employed and not involved in further education or training”. Crucially, NEET includes not only unemployed people but also those who are not at all engaged in the labour market (also known as “non-participants”) or in education. This includes people not seeking for work by choice (e.g. stay-at-home spouses) and those not able to work. It also includes one particular group that has an immense skewing effect on labour market statistics in Uganda: subsistence farmers. UBOS counts this group as labour market non-participants because their primary productive activity is not for profit or income but rather to produce agricultural produce that is consumed within the household.


Mobile Money stand in Kabale, Uganda. Photo courtesy of Flickr User adamcohn

The 83% figure comes from the clumsiest misreading of Uganda’s labour market statistics, but it is also the one that has received the most traction, perhaps because it is the most shocking. This figure has been cited – erroneously – as Uganda’s youth unemployment rate, in Uganda’s biggest media outlets (for example here, here, here & here), by international NGOs (here, here & here), by local government watchdogs, by globally recognised volunteer agencies, by the Wikipedia article on “Youth in Uganda”, and even by internationally respected media houses like Al Jazeera and The Guardian.

The truth is this: according to the latest available and most reliable official statistics, Uganda’s national unemployment rate is 9.2%. The unemployment rate for youth aged 18 – 30 is 13.3%. These statistics come from the UBOS Uganda National Household Survey 2016/17, which is based on a sample size of 15,672 households. With an average household size of 4.7 persons, the total sample covers 73,658 people.

But something else is wrong with the discourse on unemployment in Uganda: the official unemployment rates, which discussions so often focus on, are some of the least helpful pieces of information in characterising the country’s employment challenge. This World Bank report explains:

Unemployment as defined by ILO is increasingly seen as inadequate to characterize low income countries’ labor markets… Youth unemployment does not provide a full and adequate description of the difficulties youth face in the labor market. In fact, in countries with widespread poverty, looking at the unemployment rate may be misleading because most youth cannot afford to be unemployed. The difficulties in the labor market may be better reflected by measures of quality of employment or measures of underemployment.

Focusing only on Uganda’s unemployment rate essentially ignores millions of subsistence farmers who are counted as neither employed nor unemployed, as well as millions of people who are underemployed. It also fails to draw the crucial distinctions between formal and informal employment, between decent and vulnerable employment, and between working for someone else and working for yourself.

But the World Bank quote aptly summarises the most important point: most Ugandans cannot afford to be unemployed. In the absence of a publicly funded welfare system, those unable to secure decent employment cannot sit around and be unemployed: they resort to survival tactics, either by joining the “hustle” of underemployment in the informal sector – doing odd jobs or helping out with the family enterprise – or by going (back) to subsistence farming.

Woman working in Kapchorwa district. Photo credit: ©FAO/Matthias Mugisha

So if the public discourse has not helpfully interpreted the available statistics, how should we tackle them? The next post in this three-part series endeavours to answer that question. In 2017, the CDA team, with support from the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, grappled with the question of how to best characterise Uganda’s employment challenge, and what to do about it, through the publication Reality Check: Employment, Entrepreneurship and Education in Uganda.

The next post presents updated statistics to give a full, and hopefully clear, picture of Uganda’s employment challenge. The third and final post explores the underlying drivers of Uganda’s employment challenge and presents the contours of a strategy to tackle the problem.

Cover photo: Construction in Kabale, Uganda / Flickr User Ben Harries (CC License)