International development’s awkward stage

A version of this post originally appeared on Foreign Policy. Reposted with permission.

International development’s awkward stage

We all know that children are the future. We have seen the commercials picturing heartbreaking photos of children in need or adorable youngsters with the brightest of dreams, and asking for donations to support them. Such attention has made a difference. Children globally are healthier and better educated than at any time in human history. According to a 2014 U.N. report on the Millennium Development Goals, the enrollment rate in primary education in developing regions increased from 83 percent to 90 percent over just the last decade. In addition, the child mortality rate has almost halved since 1990, with 6 million fewer children dying in 2012 than in 1990. These are achievements that development organizations — and the taxpayers who support them — should be proud of, having plowed billions into primary education, vaccinations, and other efforts that have helped young boys and girls around the world.

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But here is the problem: Even as development organizations have prioritized children, they have consistently overlooked youth and young adults. There have been countless earnest speeches pledging that youth will be placed at the center of the development agenda. But groups tend to lose focus at the exact time of life that determines whether people will become healthy and productive adults or not. Adolescence, it turns out, is not just an awkward and vulnerable stage. It is a difficult phase for development organizations to deal with, despite ongoing concerns about the world’s demographic youth bulge. The result of this awkwardness is a policy failure with broad social, political, and economic consequences.

The scale of the neglect of youth is significant. According to the United Nations, there are 1.2 billion youth in the world aged 15 to 24 — the largest generation of young people in history — and a whopping 87 percent of this group live in developing countries. Youth of working age make up 40 percent of the world’s unemployed, and of those who do have jobs, all too many are in unskilled, insecure positions that don’t pay a living wage. Eleven percent of all births worldwide are to girls between the ages of 15 and 19, the World Health Organization reports, and 95 percent of these births occur in low- and middle-income countries where complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading causes of death among women and girls in this age group. Half of the world’s forcibly displaced persons are children who grow into adulthood in difficult, disrupted circumstances far from their home communities.

The ramifications of these statistics are both serious and enduring. Parents and community leaders worry that a lack of opportunities, as well as poor living conditions, social grievances, and loss of faith in the future make young people vulnerable recruiting targets for gangs, human traffickers, and terrorist groups. Youth without opportunities know they will face a lifetime of struggle to provide for their families and contribute to their communities. What’s more, bad habits picked up during the critical years of the transition from childhood to young adulthood don’t go away easily, and their effects linger. Between 80,000 and 100,000 young people worldwide start smoking every day, adding to the ranks of the nearly 80 percent of the world’s 1 billion smokers who live in low- and middle-income countries. Poor eating habits associated with urbanization and processed foods in lower- and middle-income countries have resulted in chronic malnutrition and obesity existing side by side, sometimes in the same home. Childhood obesity is 30 percent higher in less developed countries than in wealthy ones.

These are just a few examples of the hazards facing youth globally, but they suffice to illustrate this point: As a matter of basic mathematics, it is simply not possible to make progress on international development without improving engagement with youth. Behaviors learned in adolescence and young adulthood can lay the foundation for healthy, stable, prosperous communities over the long term — or do just the opposite.
There are both virtuous and vicious cycles at play. Youth who do get a hand up are engines of dynamism, economic productivity, and social change. They hold the potential to rejuvenate their communities and societies in ways that endure far beyond their lifetimes. They can be an enormous force for social good. At the other extreme, young people struggle to break out of cycles of poverty and social marginalization. Combined with rapidly increasing populations and widespread access to information and communication technologies, such marginalization can create a combustible mix if there are neither productive ways to address grievances nor pathways to the education, health care, and job opportunities necessary to meet youth expectations about acceptable living standards. As documented in the recent Mercy Corps report “Youth and Consequences,” the link between youth unemployment and terrorism is either extremely weak or nonexistent. However, the link between broader grievances — specifically, a sense of injustice, marginalization, discrimination, and/or mistreatment by police or security forces — and youth violence is real.

So given all this, why aren’t youth a bigger priority in international development? One reason is that the innocence and vulnerability of younger children makes helping them a compelling cause that is popular with the public and with donors. But once children pass through puberty, the appeal fades. Youth deal with issues that are messy, unpredictable, and even scary. As adolescents become independent, they may encounter and must learn to deal with sex, substance abuse, and violence. These issues are less attractive to donors, and sensitive or downright taboo in many of the societies and cultures in which development organizations work. Youth also cope with interrelated issues contingent on broader social and economic phenomena that are hard for development organizations to deal with, such as status and relative independence in society. These issues also involve group dynamics and questions of identity that traditional development projects are ill-equipped to address, because identity is tied to culture and faith. In such sensitive areas, external assistance is often unwelcome, and progress requires long-term commitments that are difficult to measure. At a time when development organizations must strive constantly to show impact, it is difficult to demonstrate results when the challenges facing youth are so interlinked and abstract. Delivering and counting the number of vaccinations to toddlers is just plain easier.

The international development agenda should take youth seriously and address the issues that are important to them. There are several areas that should be priorities.

First is post-primary education and workforce development. In 1990, at the World Conference on Education for All in Jomtien, Thailand, the international community rallied around the objective of universal primary education. For 25 years now, education policy in developing countries has focused on the first six to 10 years of education. By 2010, this objective had been achieved except in the most isolated and impoverished countries. However, the world has been too slow to respond to the predictable demand for further education that this progress has created. For example, the OECD reports that donors spend four times more per child on primary schooling than on post-primary education, in spite of the fact that secondary and tertiary education are far more expensive on a per-capita basis. Resistance to refocusing education policy is even more perplexing in light of a growing body of evidence showing that, in a competitive and increasingly high-tech global economy, higher-level skills are the keys to economic growth and social mobility.

Reducing youth unemployment will require more attention to post-primary education, and ensuring that post-secondary and higher education institutions are actually preparing young people for real jobs in the labor market. It is clear from 60 years of development experience that governments are not effective job creators; jobs must come from the private sector. What governments can do is help to create the conditions for job creation and economic growth. An essential element of this is equipping youth with the skills and attitudes to be productive members of their communities.

The second area is sexual activity and reproductive health. Ensuring that all youth — male and female — grow up with full knowledge of how to prevent unwanted pregnancies and with ready access to appropriate forms of contraception should be a fundamental element of a 21st-century youth agenda. Aspects of sexual identity and empowerment — such as early marriage, women’s economic roles, prevention of sexually transmitted infections and HIV, gender-based violence, and deciding when to reproduce — must be at the heart of any discussion about youth well-being. There is persuasive research by David Canning of Harvard’s School of Public Health and researcher Hans Rosling showing that over the last 60 years living standards have risen in countries where fertility has dropped, giving rise to a potential “demographic dividend.” Meanwhile, where fertility has remained high, countries are still trapped in poverty and conflict.

The third area comprises matters of alienation and marginalized populations. Humans are social animals, and a sense of belonging is important to happiness and well-being. Feeling marginalized or discriminated against is hurtful; being harassed by powerful government officials or security forces violates universal standards of fairness. Because youth are still developing physically, cognitively, and socially, they are particularly at risk of being alienated and marginalized, leaving them vulnerable to manipulation by malign actors. As the recent Mercy Corps report documents, it is a sense of injustice — not poverty or unemployment — that drives youth violence. An inclusive development agenda for youth should pay special attention to issues of justice and explicitly promote human rights and recognition of each person’s basic human dignity, irrespective of race, ethnicity, faith, or gender. While programs targeting alienated youth are far from an appealing focal point for fundraising campaigns, investing in the ability of societies to prevent cycles of disaffection, dropout, and, in some case, radicalization is fundamental to building stable, prosperous communities.

To address these critical priorities, the development community needs to take several steps.

First, it needs better data to inform its actions. If it doesn’t fully understand the problem, it can’t adequately address it. Second, it needs holistic development approaches that focus on the whole young person and cut across separate silos of education, economic development, justice, health, and civic engagement. The goal is to help young people transition to successful adulthoods, not to address a set of separate benchmarks for job training, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, and so on.

Third, the development community needs to make sure youth are given second chances — or more. In many developing countries, failing one standardized exam ends any hope of further education, and a child’s dreams for the future die with a single three-hour test. Youth make mistakes in their lives, and they develop cognitively and socially at different paces. The development world needs to ensure that there are many opportunities to get on productive paths.

Fourth, organizations need to engage the private sector, which is the major provider of jobs and is often better attuned to youth and their needs than governments are. It is astounding to see the business community still on the sidelines, even in countries with growing economies, when it holds the key to job creation and the innovation that can give youth a sense of purpose.

And fifth, development actors need to let youth themselves participate in fashioning meaningful opportunities to contribute to the welfare of their families, communities, and countries. Youth want a say in shaping their own future.

None of this can happen if the development world isn’t honest about the financing required for a serious youth agenda. This will require new commitments as well as much better leveraging of resources and expertise across both public- and private-sector networks, in order to meet the interrelated needs of youth and increase the opportunities available to them. Most importantly, though, there is a need to stop talking about youth as a problem or a demographic phenomenon. It is time to focus on how, concretely, the world can support youth as they transition into healthy, economically productive, civic-minded adults.

1 Response

One Response to “International development’s awkward stage”

  1. Paul De Lay on

    I fully agree with the argument that a more holistic approach is needed. Adolescents have been and remain a neglected component in the development agenda. Narrowly targeted projects can often become ineffective and non-sustainable because of their restrictive focus. Development priorities that focus only on mothers and children tend to eliminate other key players in the community (adolescents and men) and, thus, can condemn themselves to long term fallure.