Young people need jobs and education, and an own development goal?

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      87% of global youth live in developing countries and with high unemployment levels exclusion of youth is a major concern to many governments. It is often the young who make up the bulk of un- or underemployed in developing countries, about half of all under 25 year-olds live on less than 2 USD a day. The Africa Progress Panel predicts “a surge in the number of young people in Africa” in the next few years pointing out that the median age in Africa is currently 18, which is 7 years less than in South Asia and 16 years less than in China.

      To tackle youth exclusion it is important to understand that the characteristics of youth unemployment change as countries develop, or as the African Economic Outlook 2012 puts it: “Youth employment is largely a problem of quality in low income countries (LICs) and one of quantity in middle income countries (MICs)”. Thus, paradoxically perhaps, as education levels in developing countries improve youth unemployment becomes more acute. While MICs typically have nearly half their youth in education, 29% are unemployed. In LICs both these figures are lower: around 35% are students and only 25% are unemployed. The poorest simply cannot afford to be unemployed and many young people are therefore obliged to take low paid or even unpaid work, often in the informal sector. How could the international community help to address this problem?

      Setting a goal

      Including a specific objective for youth in the next development framework that will replace the Millennium Development Goals after 2015, is a possible response. One of the common criticisms of the current MDGs is that they do not do enough about inequality and exclusion, increasingly important features of global poverty, as research by IDS and by ODI shows. The same point was made in the final statement of the latest African Union Assembly and can equally be found in the recent CGD Working Paper “MDGS 2.0: What Goals, Targets and Timeframe?” by Karver, Kenny & Sumner. Together with a team of researchers I am working on the next European Report on Development that will identify possible elements for the post-2015 development agenda, and we decided to look into youth exclusion and unemployment. We are currently drafting the report and thinking about how this might best be done.

      A post-2015 goal on youth inclusion would be one possible (though partial) response. It also has the merit of addressing the very evident frustration of young people in many countries who see no future for themselves under current political and economic circumstances, for instance in the North Africa, tense areas in sub-Saharan Africa as Nigeria and even in crisis-hit Greece and Spain. Moreover, though the precise nature of the problem varies, properly including young people in social, economic and political processes clearly provides a strong basis for development all over the world.

      But, what then should we be identifying as a goal? Employment is the most obvious answer and the abovementioned paper by Karner et al. suggests you could set a goal relating to youth unemployment. A first attempt in this direction was undertaken by the UN in 2008 when it introduced a new target for MDG 1, the only formal target directed at youth. It reads: ‘the development and implementation of strategies for decent and productive work for youth,’ but for an unemployed young person that is not a very tangible result. At the same time it is not very evident how a specific international goal might influence a government’s policy on growth and what development path it chooses to follow.  Yet, a focus on youth unemployment rates is a sufficiently generalisable priority that should be attractive to most governments whatever their development or growth policy and it is an indicator for which (some) statistics are available.  Moreover, it would also tackle another criticism of the current MDGs, and that is precisely the lack of attention to productive processes.

      Answer not obvious

      Youth unemployment is also not just susceptible to a single government’s policy. In terms of coping strategies, young people can migrate to other countries where employment exists, providing the regulation of labour mobility is sufficiently flexible. Research discussed at a consultative workshop for the European Report on Development in Nepal shows the country has managed to more or less meet the MDGs despite a stagnant economy and no inward investment, largely on the basis of a huge increase in labour outmigration and a dramatic growth in remittances over the past 10 years. Young people were a large proportion of these migrants. Supporting them in this wider search for employment is something both sending and receiving countries can address in proactively.

      Perhaps, however, a goal on youth unemployment is not the best way to include a concern for youth in the next global framework. But if not, what else to focus on? Looking at making youth more employable by considering the match between skills availability and job market demand might be another approach. Access to higher education could also be considered.  The current MDGs only focus on primary education and if the MDGs have had a positive effect on primary education enrollment then perhaps the same treatment would be beneficial for secondary and tertiary education. However, this approach would only partially addresses the issue of exclusion as even with a good education young people still need to find a job.

      Thus though there are various ideas around, it is not immediately obvious how one might best address the question of youth in practical terms in a new global development framework. Considerably more discussion is required, hence this blog as an attempt to encourage that debate.  Any suggestions for avenues that the we could explore further in our work on the European Report on Development are very welcome. It would be particularly good to get the views of young people and youth organisations on this question:  What MDG-type goal could be included in a post-2015 framework that would most help youth social inclusion in global development processes?


      James Mackie is European Report on Development 2013 Team Leader and Senior Adviser EU Development Policy at ECDPM.


      This blog post features the author’s personal view and does not represent the view of ECDPM.

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