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Development for the next generation

by Kevin Hempel
Studies from across the world highlight the urgent need to better assist young people in their transition to adulthood. It has been proven that investing in youth is crucial for economic growth and social well-being. Policymakers should base their action on empirical evidence. [ By Kevin Hempel ]

The role of youth in development is a hot topic of international debate. Some observers focus on risks, for example by correlating the size of the youth population with the likelihood of violent conflict. Others consider young people an opportunity in the development process. For all practical purposes, of course, a more nuanced approach is necessary to realistically reflect the heterogeneity of youth (Abbink and van Kessel, 2005, Honwana and de Boeck, 2005).

In general, there is a clear need to focus on youth as a distinct social and demographic group. In 2005, the “Growing up global” report, edited by Cynthia B. Lloyd, underlined that “the challenges for young people making the transition to adulthood are greater today than ever before”. In a world changing rapidly in terms of demographics, technology, economics, culture et cetera, countries, communities and individuals are becoming more interconnected.

That has a bearing on adolescents, as Lloyd’s publication spells out: the interval between childhood and adult roles is becoming longer in many countries. At the same time, time-tested expectations regarding employment or life experiences are becoming obsolete. Compared with earlier generations, today’s young people tend to enter adolescence earlier and healthier, they are likely to spend more years in school, postponing not only entry into the labour force but also marriage and childbearing.

Of course, circumstances differ widely from world region to world region, and so do the implications of globalisation for young people. A recent survey of Pakistan (British Council, 2009) predicts a “demographic disaster” if the country does not address the needs of its young generation. In Latin America and the Caribbean, experts believe that more than half of the youth are at risk of negative behaviour (Cunningham et al., 2008a). In the Middle East, the social contract is considered to be in decline, as a growing pool of young workers must cope without job security and various government benefits. Navtej Dhillon and Tarik Yousef (2009) write that the region hardly seems able to create economic and social opportunities for young citizens “that are commensurate with their education and expectations”.

Girls matter, and so do boys

The recognition that girls and women have an important role to play in development dates back to the 1970s. The Centre for Global Development convincingly argues the case for investing in girls (Levine, 2009) by
– showing how their role in society is crucial for economic and social development,
– identifying the gaps in addressing their needs and
– outlining an agenda for more investment and equal opportunities.

The fate of boys, on the other hand, did not attract much attention in past decades. Lately, this has begun to change. A recent World Bank Publication (Bannon and Correia, 2006) stressed the second side of the gender debate, emphasising that ideas of masculinity interact with the development process. The thrust of the argument was not that benefits and attentions be transferred from girls and women to boys and men, but that both genders be taken into account if interventions are to lead to better lives for all.

No enabling environment

The UN publishes a biannual World Youth Report. The 2007 edition provided a regional overview of challenges and opportunities for the world’s roughly 1.2 billion people between the ages of 15 and 24. Its most striking message, however, was that the absence of an enabling environment for youth development and participation is common throughout the world: “Factors such as inadequate investments in education, high private costs of obtaining quality education and health care, and shrinking labour markets in which youth are often the last hired and first fired all present youth with real obstacles to meaningful participation in the development of their communities.”

The World Bank’s World Development Report 2007 (WDR) focussed on the issue of youth. It assessed the challenges of growing up in terms of different transitions to adulthood and called for investments accordingly. The WDR stressed five particular topics:
– learning for work and life,
– going to work,
– growing up healthy,
– forming families and
– exercising citizenship.

The Report emphasised the need to expand young people’s opportunities to develop their human capital, to enhance their decision-making capabilities and to provide second chances to persons who fail at any particular step in the first instance.

Interestingly, the WDR acknowledged that youth policy only had a mixed record in the past. The reasons were considered to be poor coordination among various policies as well as governments’ limited accountability to the youth. Accordingly, the report urged governments to make coherent policies and to listen to young people when tackling their problems.

As the WDR pointed out, more research needs to be done. We still do not know enough about what works in youth policy. Fortunately, progress is being made. The World Health Organisation (2006) has published a convincing report on HIV/AIDS prevention, and the GTZ and the Pan-American Health Organisation (2009) have come up with a similarly solid paper on how to stem violent behaviour in Latin America.
Crucial risk factors for young people include unemployment, dropping out of school, dangerous sexual behaviour, crime, violence and substance abuse. Wendy Cunningham et al. (2008b) highlight 22 policies that have been effective around the world in this context. The author stresses six core policies that have a proven track record in protecting disadvantaged children and youth from risky behaviour:
– focus on the first five years of life,
– keep children in school until they complete secondary education,
– provide risk prevention messages in schools,
– provide appropriate reproductive health services that meet the specific needs of young people,
– reach out to young people through mass media and
– promote effective parenting.

This publication also points out that many commonly used approaches, such as “get-tough” or “abstinence-only” programmes, tend not only to fail but even to trigger risk behaviour. For good reason, the author suggests reallocating scarce public resources. It does not make sense to fund programmes that don’t work instead of investing in meaningful programmes that make a difference.

The recent literature on youth in development leaves no doubt about the urgency to invest in young people. It has also become clear that countries that invest in their young people reap benefits in the form of more growth and greater welfare for generations to come. Governments as well as donors should heed this message.