By Alexandre Kolev, Head of the social cohesion unit at the OECD Development Centre
Today’s world youth population ages 10 to 24, is 1.8 billion people strong and represents the largest cohort ever to be transitioning to adulthood. The vast majority of these young people – 88% – live in developing countries. These young people are the next generation. If properly nurtured, they can be engines for economic and social progress. However, if policies and programmes fail to reach them, particularly the disadvantaged youth, and give them a voice in decision-making, the youth bulge may well turn into a brake for economic and social development, leading to increasing poverty, illegal migration or failed citizenship.
While world leaders are defining the post-2015 agenda, building on the achievements of the Millennium Development Goals, the evidence suggests that a large segment of youth in both developed and developing countries continues to remain outside of mainstream economic and social life. Perspectives on Global Development 2012 “Social Cohesion in a Shifting World” discusses how social discontent worldwide is a sign of dissatisfaction with a development model that seems to put narrow aggregate income measures first and issues of inequality and widening social gaps on the backburner. More and more, the sentiment is that the fruits of growth are not being shared equally.
Gaps in initial education and skills, for example, are forcing too many young people to leave the school system at an early age, unprepared for work and life. Today, one out of four children in the world drops out of primary education. Surprisingly, no progress has been made on this over the last decade. Youth joblessness and vulnerable employment are widespread; young people are three times more likely to be unemployed than adults. Adolescent reproductive and sexual health needs are poorly addressed while new health risks have emerged. Not all youth have equal opportunities for legal mobility, and too many young people remain excluded from decision-making processes that affect their lives.
Yet, the opportunity to close the youth well-being gap is real.
Many governments demonstrate growing political will to develop comprehensive policies to better respond to the needs and aspirations of young people. In fact, nearly 2 out of 3 countries in the world today have a national youth policy. Such good intentions, however, continue to be undermined by serious challenges: fragmented responsibilities and weak implementation in national administrations, the lack of reliable knowledge and data, insufficient analytical and financial ressources, difficulties capturing the needs of disadvantaged groups, or the absence of appropriate monitoring and evaluation plans. No wonder countries are turning to development partners for strategic guidance on how to develop, implement or update youth policies that are based on rigorous empirical evidence and international good practices.
Designing and implementing an inclusive well-being agenda for youth calls for a number of actions.
First, data. A large number of young people, especially in low- and middle-income countries, are exposed to risk factors that threaten their development. These factors ultimately contribute to well-being deficits. Measuring and analysing the problems of disadvantaged youth is a prerequisite for developing evidence-based policies for youth. Doing this is an important feature of the OECD Development Centre’s work on social cohesion. Through country reviews on youth well-being, the Centre is actively engaged in an evidence-based dialogue with countries to help them identify policies and institutions that work well for youth under different economic, social and political contexts. The Centre is doing this work with the European Union.
Second, timely investments. Sharing good practices and exchanging information on what does and does not work and why have crucial roles to play in youth policy making in both poor and rich countries. Young people become more disadvantaged when risk factors in different areas multiply and reinforce each other or when risks lead to deprivation in one or more well-being dimension. And they suffer when there are few or no effective policies in place to prevent or mitigate such risks (prevention programmes) or to relieve the impact of such risks once they have occurred (second chance programmes).
Third, specific interventions. Policies that intervene at critical stages can significantly reduce the risks of youth becoming disadvantaged. A growing body of evidence on the promising impact of youth programmes comes from rigorous impact evaluations of specific interventions across a broad range of sectors. In the area of education, for instance, teaching children, particularly from disadvantaged groups, until at least secondary school appears to be one of the most effective policies to prevent low literacy among young adults. Facilitating the transition to the world of work through labour market counselling and comprehensive on-the-job training services are fostering youth economic inclusion. Effective youth health outcomes begin with maternal health and nutrition at an early age. During adolescence and early adulthood, youth-friendly health services, grounded in non-judgemental counselling and practical services, such as testing for and treating sexually transmitted diseases, access to contraceptives and information on HIV/AIDS prevention, become crucial for reproductive and sexual health. When advice on nutrition and mental health problems are included in the services, it can ensure a balanced life and improve the overall well-being of young people. The evidence also suggests that cultural and creative activities, violence prevention programmes and juvenile justice services, to name a few, can support active citizenship among the youth.
The youth bulge offers tremendous potential for development, but also large and interlinked economic and social challenges. Tapping into the evidence to design better policies is one of the best ways to minimize those challenges and maximize the potential, turning the youth bulge into a youth bonanza.