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A Call for Action for the World’s Youth

September 16, 2006

September 16, 2006—In countries like Ghana and Zambia, nearly half of all young women can’t read a simple sentence even after six years of schooling.

It’s a finding which illustrates one of the key challenges facing governments in the developing world today – delivering quality education to young people.

A new World Bank report says governments in developing countries should invest more in their young people, or else run the risk of dealing with social tensions and dropping behind in the global economy.

The World Development Report 2007: Development and the next Generation points out there are now more than 1.3 billion young people in the developing world – the largest number ever in history.

The report says the sheer number of young people can stretch the capacity of governments to deliver services and jobs, “which poses risks for their countries and the world at large.”

“The young generation today is extremely big and probably the biggest it will ever be in many countries,” says Francois Bourguignon, the World Bank’s Chief Economist.

“And this offers a fantastic opportunity to countries because they can invest in this young generation, which will be responsible for future development.”

However Bourguignon says: ”if governments are not able to satisfy – to meet – the expectations of the young people, then most likely there will be social tensions in many countries.”

The World Development Report 2006: Development and the next Generation points out that the lack of quality education is not the only barrier facing young people today:

  • Globally nearly half of all unemployment is among young people
  • Unemployment rates for youth are two to three times than those of adults
  • 500,000 young people under the age of 18 are recruited by military and paramilitary military groups
  • Some 300,000 young people under the age of 18 have been involved in armed conflict in more than 30 countries worldwide
  • 13 million adolescent girls give birth each year
  • Young people account for nearly half of all new HIV infections

And as the World Bank’s Emmanuel Jimenez and Mamta Murthi, two of the co-authors of the 2007 report, discovered through extensive consultations with young people around the globe, young people want more of a voice in their future.

“Young people often felt that they were treated as risky agents, whereas they would like to be seen as agents of change – agents who can bring enormous energy and enthusiasm to the business of nation building, says Murthi, co-author of the report.

But Jimenez, director of the report says developing countries only have a small window of opportunity open to then if they want to seize the potential offered by the largest ever youth group in history.

“Young people will be entering the labor market at a time when they have fewer dependents,” Jimenez says. “Now that means there’ll be more people working relative to those who are not working. But this window of opportunity will last only about 40 years for many countries, because at some point the population will age.”

Jimenez sums up the challenges facing governments in the developing world, if they want to invest more in the developing world’s record youth population. It is, he says, a case of opportunity, capability and giving young people a second chance.

“The first challenge is whether the young have enough opportunity to go on learning in life? Do they have the opportunity to deploy the human capital that they develop in the job market? The second is capability – the capability to choose among those opportunities, because young people in fact make decisions about how they develop their own human capital.”

“The third challenge is second chance – in the event, almost inevitably, bad decisions are made by young people or others, young people need a second chance,” Jimenez says.

Bourguignon singles out education as a first vital challenge that governments in developing countries must meet.

“The first thing is to make sure the educational process is okay and that progress which has been made in the last decades in primary schooling are continued and expanded,” he says.

“There are 113 million young people in the world who don’t have the basic skill of literacy,” Murthi says. “And there’s a lot governments can do to actually make these young people literate.”

Jimenez says countries “need to broaden opportunities beyond primary school.”

“One is to provide more school places at secondary and even tertiary level. But also important is to make sure that the quality that is being provided is high enough to enable the graduates to be able to compete in the global labor market.” Jimenez says.

Bourguignon says without some minimum secondary school education it is very difficult for young people to acquire the skills they need to “live a good life and help their countries develop.”

Murthi says while the world has made enormous progress with meeting the needs of children, it now needs to focus on the next set of issues.

“It’s true that challenges remain but primary enrolment is now much higher than they were 30 years ago,” she says. “Over 85% of children in developing countries are enrolled in primary school. Children are no longer dying of the same childhood diseases as they were 30 years ago. Life expectancy has gone up enormously.”

“So the world has reached a stage where there’s a second generation of problems. Young people are going to school but are they learning anything in school. When they come out of primary school, are there places in secondary school for them? Do they find jobs?”

“Young people are now confronting health risks which are quite different from 30 years ago. There was no HIV AIDS. So the topic of the report is focusing on the next generation of issues as it were that the world now needs to focus on.”