Rachel Blum has over 20 years of international development experience, specializing in youth-inclusive economic growth. She currently works for Education Development Center (EDC) where she designs, evaluates, and provides technical assistance to youth workforce development programs. We touched base with her to unpack some of her current efforts to facilitate systems change in countries that seek to improve youth employment and educational outcomes.
Rwanda is an interesting case study to learn about how low-income countries can transform their workforce development systems for the better. I first started working in Rwanda in 2008 with a US-based NGO that asked me to conduct an assessment of the economic opportunities of economically disadvantaged youth. At the time, technical and vocational education and training (or TVET) had recently become a national priority. Only about a third of the country had completed primary school, and nearly 57% were living in poverty, presenting a challenge for the President’s vision of being a middle-income country by 2020.
These same challenges have similarly occurred across Sub-Saharan Africa, which is now experiencing a “youth bulge” (See Figure 1)—a term that refers to a phenomenon in which a large proportion of the population is represented by children and young adults. With 62% now below the age of twenty-five and a population that is projected to double over the next three decades, it is estimated that by 2035, Africa’s working age population will grow by 450 million people.In fact, around the globe an estimated 40 million new jobs are needed each year in order to meet the growing workforce.
This three-pronged paradigm—significant demographic shifts, economic growth, and persistent poverty— presents a unique development challenge for Sub-Saharan Africa. For one, it means that the emerging workforce must innovate and be adaptable to the changing demands of the global market. Moreover, people working in the informal sector need entrepreneurial skills to be able to shift and/or upgrade their activities to take advantage of employment gains from growing sectors. In this dynamic environment, evidence shows that transferrable skills—also known as “soft skills” (such as critical thinking, communications, and teamwork)—are critical to youth’s success in the workforce and across many dimensions of their lives.
However, most formal education systems in low- and middle-income countries are ill-equipped to prepare young people to succeed in this environment. Ten years ago in Rwanda, for example, education and training providers were not connected with employers, they used outmoded pedagogical approaches that did not provide youth with soft skills or practical demand-driven skills, and the many youth who had dropped out of school (largely due to conflict) were not able to re-enter the education system.
So in 2009 Education Development Center (EDC) teamed up with the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to introduce new ways of delivering youth skills development and employability services in Rwanda. EDC’s approach to its workforce programming is akin to the concept of an “attractor.” The term “attractor” was developed by social scientists and has been used in systems thinking literature to describe “a powerful idea [that] resonates deeply within a system and shifts its trajectory toward new possibilities.” Unlike a pilot project, which is a demonstration to see if something can work, an attractor approach aims from the start to influence behaviors that are eventually embraced, adapted, and expanded by multiple actors across an entire system.
In order to improve outcomes for large numbers of youth at scale, EDC has worked alongside Rwanda’s system actors to take up and sustain several new behaviors, including:
- Those in the formal education system, from policy-makers to school administrators and teachers: EDC integrated soft skills curriculum and new pedagogical approaches across 438 schools (25% of all secondary & TVET schools), and now the government has plans to roll it out nationwide.
- Informal education institutions and private service providers: EDC has strengthened a network of over 50 private organizations to deliver high quality work readiness training, work-based learning, and job intermediation services that historically were not offered by the formal system.
- The private sector: Over 2,500 employers have contributed to TVET for the first time through work-based learning, internships, job-placement, and curriculum development, with additional new employers adopting these practices outside of project support. Moreover, two financial institutions have developed new youth-friendly loan products and linked with 5,500 young entrepreneurs.
- Youth: 1,000 youth are now part of a peer-based mentoring network, supported by 75 youth leaders. An additional 15,000 youth have mobilized savings groups, raising a total of USD $115,000.
- Local public-private Youth Development Alliances are being formed by municipal leaders, service providers, youth-serving organizations, the private sector, and youth and families to coordinate their youth employment efforts at the district level.
As a result of EDC’s efforts over the past decade, roughly 200,000 vulnerable youth have received workforce development training (about 10% of the national TVET system). Randomized control trials and other evidence confirms that program graduates experience a greater likelihood of employment, greater gender parity in employment, increased savings, and increased levels of confidence and work readiness skills. But just as important are the changes we are seeing across Rwanda’s entire workforce system to better prepare its workers for the future. Government and service providers have cited EDC’s efforts for shifting the national mindset around soft skills. Today we see more linkages between service providers and employers, especially compared to the small handful that existed in 2008, and the government of Rwanda is now working with employers to institutionalize work-based learning in its TVET programs. Continuous learning and earning pathways are now accessible to out-of-school youth. And youth have more confidence in themselves and a more positive outlook on their education and employment opportunities.
Currently, I am doing research for EDC to further unpack these systems-level changes. In doing so, we want to determine the appropriate role of donor-funded projects in promoting workforce systems transformation. Some of our emergent findings on EDC’s attractor approach highlights three key ideas for implementing organizations:
Part of my research effort is to build out these lessons beyond Rwanda, to understand how donor-funded programs can promote workforce systems transformation in different contexts around Sub-Saharan Africa and globally. For instance, what should donor-funded programs do when a common vision or clear leadership isn’t in place? How do programs in less robust economies engage the private sector at scale? Which workforce development strategies are appropriate in countries affected by conflict? While I have outlined some initial findings, I look forward to sharing more as we dig further into the data in the coming months.
 World Bank. 2017. The Africa competitiveness report 2017 – Addressing Africa’s demographic dividend (English). Africa competitiveness reports. Washington, D.C. : World Bank Group. http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/733321493793700840/The-Africa-competitiveness-report-2017-Addressing-Africa-s-demographic-dividend
 ILO (2014). “Global Employment Trends 2014. Risk of a jobless recovery?”
 ILO (2019). World Employment Social Outlook. Trends 2019. Retreived from: https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—dcomm/—publ/documents/publication/wcms_670542.pdf and United Nations. World Economic Situation and Prospects Monthly Briefing, No. 125. (1 April, 2019) Retrieved from: https://www.un.org/development/desa/dpad/wp-content/uploads/sites/45/publication/wesp_mb125.pdf
 ILO, “Five facts about informal economy in Africa.” (https://www.ilo.org/africa/whats-new/WCMS_377286/lang–en/index.htm)
 For instance, refer to Gates, S., Lippman, L., Shadowen, N., Burke, H., Diener, O., and Malkin, M. (2016). Key Soft Skills for Cross-Sectoral Youth Outcomes. Washington, DC: USAID’s YouthPower: Implementation, YouthPower Action.
 Seelos, Christian and Johanna Mair. Mastering System Change, in Stanford Social Innovation Review. Fall 2018.
 Three randomized control trials have been performed on the EDC project in Rwanda: (1) Alcid, Annie (2014). A Randomized Controlled Trial of Akazi Kanoze Youth in Rural Rwanda. (https://www.edc.org/randomized-controlled-trial-akazi-kanoze-youth-rural-rwanda) (2) Alcid, Annie and Gayle Martin (2017). Akazi Kanoze 2: Randomized Controlled Trial of Secondary Students in Rwanda. (https://www.edc.org/sites/default/files/uploads/AK2_RCT_Year1.pdf) (3) Innovations for Poverty Action (results forthcoming). Benchmarking Cash to an Employment Program in Rwanda. (https://www.poverty-action.org/study/benchmarking-cash-employment-program-rwanda)