Integrated investments in youth have the power to reap dividends for all

Tricia Petruney

With a new global development agenda on the horizon, debates abound over which actions and investments will be the most influential for meeting the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Arguments for or against narrow, targeted solutions are becoming increasingly lost in the cacophony. Meanwhile, demand is growing for discussions that better reflect the complex, interrelated nature of the updated goals and targets.

One promising framework for sharpening this dialogue focuses on the next generation — youth — and how strategically integrated investments in their well-being can accelerate progress toward the SDGs, reaping dividends for everyone along the way. Integrated development strategies have the potential to provide today’s massive youth population with the knowledge and skills to grow into healthy, successful adults.

There are currently 1.8 billion young people in the world between the ages of 10 to 24, and among this largest generation of youth in history, 89 percent live in less developed countries. For instance, in sub-Saharan Africa the median age is roughly 18 years old versus around 38 in North America and 41 in Europe.

History shows that populations comprised mostly of youth can be either a destabilizing force or a powerful source of positive change. Indeed, provided with the right mix of services and opportunities, the so-called “youth bulge” in poor countries could become the engine of unprecedented economic growth and development.

Yet many countries are still leaving this enormous potential untapped. Youth of working age make up 40 percent of the world’s unemployed, and even among the employed, many are unskilled or underpaid. And, their health and development are often sorely neglected by governments and aid agencies alike, with infant and maternal well-being trumping their needs.

These are costly oversights. Evidence shows that multisector investments in young people can have a transformational impact for poor countries by spurring a demographic dividend, which refers to the rapid economic growth that can occur when fertility rates in a country fall and the young, dependent population becomes smaller than the productive, working-age population. This phenomenon helped produce the “East Asian Miracle,” when in just one generation between 1965 and 1990, some countries experienced swift economic growth and achieved impressive advances in their overall standards of living and development.

Youth of working age make up 40% of the world’s unemployed. How can #IntegratedDev help? #YouthDay Click To Tweet

Rather than being inevitable, however, seizing this potential catalyst for faster development requires deliberate and sustained efforts. This is where intentionally integrated efforts come in. Sparking a demographic dividend requires shifting a country’s population from having more children and adolescents to having a greater number of working-age people. Funders, national governments, program partners and communities can take the first step toward achieving this through integrating efforts to improve access to voluntary reproductive health and family planning, child health and nutrition, and girls’ education.

Critically, countries then have a limited window of opportunity to earn the economic rewards made possible by the impact of these initial integrated investments (i.e., as young people begin having fewer children and smaller families on average than the generation before). While sustaining these conditions, countries must also use multisector approaches in two additional ways: They must ensure the growing labor force is sufficiently healthy, educated and properly skilled, and simultaneously establish good policies to stimulate economic growth that provides jobs and opportunities for young people.

So where do we stand? Some countries in East Asia and Latin America have already experienced the development bump of a demographic dividend, but most of sub-Saharan Africa is lagging behind. Challenges include stalled fertility declines, unfavorable economic policies, inadequate attention to the migration of youth populations, lack of gender equality and insufficient educational and economic opportunities to develop a skilled workforce. The good news is that in the past few years, high-level development stakeholders — including influential heads of state and leaders at United Nations agencies, funding institutions and the African Union — have begun turning their attention to the underappreciated relationship between development goals and the demographic dividend. The even better news is that young people are out in force and leading by example as effective implementers and passionate champions of their own cause.

We have now arrived at a critical turning point. With the SDG era upon us, the time has come for global decision makers to prioritize strategically integrated development approaches that will help this next generation of change makers thrive — to the benefit of all.


Learn more about sparking a demographic dividend through integrated development at “The Next Generation of Development: Integrated Investments for Youth,” an FHI 360 discussion event on September 23, 2015, in New York City.

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