African-German Youth Initiative

“Anyone who has travelled has more to tell”

Mutual understanding starts at a small scale, and so does international cooperation. In summer 2016, Germany’s Federal Government and the African Union launched a new exchange programme called the African-German Youth Initiative (AGYI). Martial De-Paul Ikounga, the AU commissioner for human resources, science and technology, explains why youth exchange matters.

The African-German Youth Initiative (AGYI) will allow young people from Germany to spend time in Africa and for young Africans to do the same in Europe. How will African societies benefit from such exchange?
We have a saying: “Anyone who has travelled has more to tell.” African villages are small, so someone who has never ventured further afield does not have much to talk about. Persons who travel, however, return home with new experiences. They make discoveries and meet new people. African societies appreciate the importance of that, as the saying shows. Young people need to be able to travel. But only those who return can report their experiences. A society gets no input from those who do not come back. That, at any rate, is how African culture sees it.

Are you alluding to Africans who migrate to Europe for good? 
Well, when I was young, migration was not the issue it is today. Students would study abroad and return home afterwards. I went to school in Congo and later acquired my degree in engineering in Europe – in France. But I never thought of not returning to my country afterwards. One reason was that my studies were financed by the state. In recent decades, attitudes have changed. Many people leave Africa forever, taking valuable brain and muscle power with them. It is a great loss when people emigrate for good.

Why have attitudes changed?
African governments themselves are partly responsible. They fail to make sure that people have prospects when they return. They will send someone to Europe to train as a baker, for example,  but when he comes back he finds no market for his bread. So he goes away again. Yet he could have shown his compatriots what he had learned and thus helped develop skills and expertise within the country. That is a great loss. A government that sends young people abroad to study needs to make sure that they will be able to make use of the qualifications they have acquired at home.  

What difference will the AGYI make in that respect?
Above all, it will eliminate barriers. People can educate themselves by reading a lot or going to the cinema. But the learning experience is much more dynamic. I heard a young German say after an exchange: “When I went to Africa, I had lots of preconceived ideas.  But not any more.”  And that happens on both sides. Apart from that, young people will learn from the exchange that they need to return and share their experiences.

At the official launch of the AGYI, you said that the initiative would help to promote inner-African exchange. How will it do that?
Well, preconceived ideas exist everywhere, even within our continent – for example, about other linguistic groups: anglophones, francophones, et cetera. If an exchange can break down our preconceived ideas about Germany, surely it is possible to do the same in regard to close  neighbours. This initiative sends out a signal. It says let us live in peace with one another.

In Europe, one country voted against ever-increasing exchange: The Brexit referendum showed that many Britons are worried about migration and want less exposure to other European countries. Is there evidence of a similar mindset in Africa?
Yes, there is certainly some evidence of that. Sometimes countries get together to forge alliances but then one of the bigger ones says: No, I am not working with the others. But in truth, we are stronger together – and we generally do cooperate in the end. I am sure the British have no intention of moving their islands elsewhere so they are not part of Europe. No, they want to play in the European soccer championship, against the Germans and the French! They certainly don’t want to play football on their own. So they have to give something back. They will not say they are no longer Europeans.

In the case of Europe, there has already been a great deal of cooperation, yet many people now seem to want more distance. Does rapprochement lead to new walls?
The British cannot undo what European history has accomplished. Think of the great Erasmus Programme. Its trans-European student exchange programme has transformed Europe and is perhaps one of the EU’s greatest achievements. And let me give you another example, from our viewpoint. A young volunteer from South Africa told me about the importance of doing everything on time in Germany. This culture of punctuality marks the way life is structured and friendships are maintained. Having experienced things like this distinguishes those who have studied in other countries.  The Erasmus Programme has that kind of impact. Despite all the difficulties there may be between countries, it has created a European mentality. British youth showed that in the Brexit referendum: they voted to remain in Europe. They have become different people – and they think as Europeans.

Martial De-Paul Ikounga is the AU commissioner for human resources, science and technology.

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