06/04/2012 04:54 EDT | Updated 08/04/2012 05:12 EDT

In Uganda, Unemployment Comes at a High Price

What is the price of unemployment? Ask the family of 26-year-old Justine Nalugya who killed herself this past March. She had been unemployed for five years and her suicide was the result of her despair about being perpetually unemployed. According to Nalugya's relatives, the young woman was "disgusted with life."

Despair is a terrible thing because it robs people of a vision of the future. And a vision of the future is something Uganda so desperately needs right now. The country is celebrating 50 years as an independent nation this year and yet, despite the numerous advances, it is facing a crisis that will determine its future. Over half of the country's population is under 18, and 78 per cent is under 30. And yet, youth unemployment stands at a staggering 80 per cent, the highest in the world. This is bad news for the country, for the government, but most of all, for the millions of youth facing an uncertain future.

One problem is lack of investment in youth. The education system, it is widely agreed, is failing to prepare students for the workforce, despite having one of the highest rates of primary school education in Africa. A recent report from USAID suggested that youth are concerned about the lack of practical training in post-secondary institutions. In infrastructure-deprived regions, such as the Karamoja sub-region in the north east of the country, these problems are exacerbated.

For years, the primary activity of youth was violent cattle-rustling. With the recent demobilization and de-escalation in violence, the youth have been given few alternatives. Lacking skills, education and opportunities for training, they are forced to engage in dangerous employment such as artisanal mining. Miners are at risk of being crushed by rock, being trapped in collapsed tunnels or exposed to dangerous toxins. They are paid pennies for nuggets of gold. Without money to buy proper equipment or pay for an education, the cycle of poverty and danger just continues.

In Kampala, I have been approached several times by polite, well-spoken people asking for a job. One woman assured me she would be happy to work anywhere, as a cleaner in my office, if need be. Many young men often turn to boda-bodas, offering their services as motorcycle taxi drivers. It is impossible to walk more than a few feet without being accosted by a boda driver. It is possible to cross the city for a few thousand shillings (less than two dollars), yet the job risks are high; many don't wear helmets or even have formal driving training.

Uganda desperately needs to create jobs. As the cost of living keeps rising, something will have to give. The consequences of youth unemployment go beyond economics; it deprives a generation of a sense of purpose and pride, of hope and a sense that they can change the future. Without purpose or pride, Uganda cannot hope to harness the energy and enthusiasm of the youth to create a better future.

A Ugandan man wrote to me last week after reading an article I wrote on national cohesion that was published in the local papers; he told me that Ugandans "cannot be proud of being Ugandans, or of our government or the marvelous mosaic of our unique cultures when we are poor, hungry and miserable." And it's true. He is very, very right.

The organization I work for, the Uganda Youth Network, is leading several campaigns to raise awareness about youth unemployment. The good news is that the wisdom exists in this vibrant country. The talent exists. The country is blessed with a young and dynamic population. But the challenge is bringing these positives to bear in order to prevent the calamity of a lost generation. This is an issue for both Uganda and the international community as the country looks forward to its next 50 years.