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The disinherited: the scourge of youth unemployment and failed education

A woman begging in Faizabad, provincial capital of northeastern Badakhshan province. Poverty and unemployment are among the main causes of women and children trafficking in Afghanistan Mohammad Popal/IRIN

They are the disinherited, the ones who are refused everything. The schools have rejected them for want of space and they haven't found work.

"If the oppression continues, if we keep on killing our brothers, there will be civil war in this country," said Kenyan Nobel Prize winner, Wangari Maathai, in an interview in 2005. 

For the majority of young people in developing countries the innocence and freedoms of childhood end early as the hash realities of survival, gaining an education, and preparing for the responsibilities of adulthood take over. 

Despite the yearly increase in the number of children attending school and those completing tertiary education, in most developing countries, millions of young people face bleak employment opportunities. They see their parents struggle to survive, and find it even harder for themselves. 

"Rising unemployment takes a heavy toll among young people who are particularly vulnerable to shocks in the labour market. Lay-offs, restructuring and insufficient opportunities to enter the world of work condemn many to a life of economic hardship and despair. We have seen, all too often, the tragedy of young lives misspent in crime, drug abuse, civil conflict and even terrorism," said the former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, commenting on the challenges and the risk of youth unemployment for livelihoods and security in developing countries in 2003. 

Nearly four years later, youth unemployment rates are still stubbornly high. According to the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) most recent estimates, 88 million young people around the world (nearly 50 percent of the total number of unemployed) are struggling to find a job. How do they cope? And how can they survive without social security and family support? 

Unemployment rates often hide more than they reveal: in this case, the huge number of young people working long hours in the informal economy for little pay, and without any guarantee of permanent employment or social security. It has been estimated that the informal economy provides all the new jobs for youth in Latin America, and almost 90 percent of those in sub-Saharan Africa.

The root causes of youth unemployment

According to labour economists, the rising unemployment trend will not abate in the future. The global economy has entered a recession phase that is not going to stop any time soon, and economic growth is a distant dream for many developing countries. Demographics also point to the fact that the number of people is set to rise dramatically by 2015, when there will be even more young people looking for jobs. 

At the current rate, the global economy, and in particular developing and post-conflict economies, cannot absorb such a huge number of newcomers to the workforce. The ILO estimates that about 400 million new and better jobs are needed just to absorb today's youth. 

Youth employment is highly dependent on the overall status of the economy. Economic activity, measured by GDP growth, is probably the single factor that most influences the chances of young people finding a job. Low or negative GDP growth, economic recession and low investments are direct causes in the shrinking demand for labour. At times of limited labour opportunities, young people are the worst-placed to secure a job, given their relative inexperience, and lack of relevant skills. Also, their lack of training or experience means that they are the first to lose their jobs in the event of a downturn in the economy. 

"Governments should consider reforming their economy to allow more labour-intense industries to develop. It is their responsibility to favour a conducive economic environment and to promote employment policies especially targeted at youth," advised a recent World Bank report. 

However, even with the right policies in place, such a task seems overwhelming and impossible to achieve. "Considering the pace of economic growth worldwide, the expectation of sufficient formal employment in the short-term is unrealistic," commented an ILO researcher. 

In times where the private sector has been underdeveloped, the state and the public sectors have been the major employers. Almost all school and university graduates went on to jobs in the civil service - whether they were needed or not. More than an "employment strategy", it was regarded as tool of governance by which successive governments kept the support of the urban educated elite. 

At the end of the 1980s, the World Bank and the IMF ordered borrowers to downsize their public sector and civil services. Nigeria reduced its by 40 percent in less than two years, and Ghana dismissed 150,000 civil servants by the end of 1994.

Since then, states are no longer the main employers; however, they have still not been adequately replaced by the private sector. As a result, the informal economy has flourished, with jobs such as hawkers, traders, repairers, now accounting for almost all the new jobs accessible to young people. 

High unemployment rates breed a vicious economic cycle. As unemployment remains high, there is less spending within the economy, the economy remains stagnant, production falters, no jobs are created and the state receives less revenue in taxes and cannot make reforms to boost the economy.

The cost of youth unemployment

"The costs of neglecting youth can be measured in terms of depletion of human and social capital. There is a loss of opportunities for economic growth, which increases as this cohort ages without gaining experience in the workforce. More difficult to quantify are the costs of societal instability and endemic conflict," reported the ILO in "Youth: Pathways to decent work". 

Economists indicate that the major losses attributable to persistent youth unemployment are those in "human capital", meaning the amount of practical skills a worker has acquired. Human capital is proportional to the amount of time an individual has worked. Human capital declines when an individual is unemployed. 

Unproductive youth are a double burden on the economy. Firstly, because of the lack of income they generate for the state, and secondly, as a result of their poor work record, they are less likely to push their children into a good education and career. 

Depletion of human capital therefore affects not just this generation, but future generations too. 

Identifying the problem of human capital is easier than remedying it. "Social spending has become a major casualty of recent budget cuts in many African countries. To expect that Africa can progress when investment in its human capital is declining is a classic case of being penny wise and pound foolish," said the executive secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa. 

This statement holds true, and yet, investment into human capital in Africa remains close to the bottom of the political agenda. 

Youth unemployment is not only an economic problem. It has huge social implications and repercussions on young people's personal lives. In many countries, the transition from childhood to adulthood is echoed in leaving school to finding employment and supporting a family. 

"Having a job made a difference to my whole life. I was able to marry and have a family, and my attitude to others became more positive," said one young Korean worker. For millions of unemployed youth the path to adult life is delayed, with obvious repercussions on self-esteem and confidence. 

Worse than poverty, long-term unemployment leads to social exclusion and marginalisation, especially in urban areas, where a person's social status is linked to their job or career. Hundreds of thousands of youth in urban areas have no access to gainful employment: the result is a "bulge" of disaffected, idle youth who are a threat to themselves and to the social environment they live in. 

Unemployment is the most efficient recruiter for urban gangs and criminal organisations (see feature on Urban Youth).

A ticking time bomb?

The lack of future prospects and the demographic growth of young people in society has been described as "a ticking time bomb" for the political and military security of many developing countries. Conflicts analysts have discovered that a "youth bulge", namely a high percentage of youth compared to the overall population, can be a direct determinant in conflicts, especially in situations of economic recession. 

It has also been proved that the greater the proportion of educated youth, the greater the frustration in being unemployed or underemployed. This frustration can lead to political upheaval, and a lack of respect for authoritarian governments and police. 

In 2000, the World Bank commissioned a set of studies on the determinants of conflicts. The findings corroborated the idea that limited labour market absorption capacities are amongst the main reasons of youth grievances. The studies also revealed that in situations of widespread unemployment, if young people are left without alternatives to poverty, they are more likely to join a rebellion or an armed group as a means of survival. 

Analysts have agreed that one of the factors fuelling the growth of armed militia in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was the lack of alternatives for millions of young people faced with an estimated 95 percent unemployment rate. It was a situation echoed in Liberia and Sierra Leone. 

"The future of the entire region is threatened by the growing numbers of youths who lack prospects of ever being able to work for a reasonable living. Until this situation changes, the likelihood of having genuine peace, security and development in West Africa will remain small," said the United Nations Office for West Africa special representative. 

Such alarming statements are true in many other parts of the world. In Lebanon, Hezbollah owes most of its grassroots support to being one of the main providers of social activities for youth. In Palestine, international observers have pointed out that: "The paucity of economic opportunities has made militias a magnet for job-seekers," and that: "As one of the few functioning sectors of the Palestine economy, the armed factions are filling the economic vacuum."

Education. Essential, but not the only requirement

Illiteracy and the lack of technical skills are the main reasons why young people fail to get good jobs. Halfway trough the Millennium Development Goal to achieve universal primary education, UNESCO data shows that 115 million primary school-age children are out of school (one in every five), and that illiteracy rates in developing countries are as high as 50 percent of the population. 

There are many obstacles to education: prohibitive costs for many families, the fact that an education is not always valued, and difficulties offering schooling during times of natural disasters or conflicts. 

"I don't think it's an easy thing to get children into schools. Here in Iraq a lot of children have to work to support their families and through work they meet people who teach them bad things, even drugs," a 16-year-old girl told UNICEF in Iraq. 

Girls suffer most from a lack of opportunity for an education. In poorer countries, girls often have to work at home to help take care of the family. There are also cultural barriers to girls attending school. 

The result is that global school enrolment rates, especially after primary school, remain very low. But this is by no means the only problem. Education for all is not necessarily a solution in itself so long as there is no way of assuring the quality of education offered. 

According to a UNESCO report on Education for All (EFA): "Simply focusing on quantitative goals such as universal primary education will not deliver EFA. An enormous gap prevails between the numbers who are graduating from schools and those among them who have managed to master a minimum set of cognitive skills." 

Getting children to go to school does not solve the problem: the standards of the education given are crucial in ensuring that it is worthwhile for children to go to school. The UK-based international aid group, Oxfam, in a November 2006 report, warned that roughly seven million Afghan children - roughly half of all children - were missing out on education due to widespread poverty, crippling fees, worsening security situations and a lack of proper schools in the country. 

"Those children who are lucky enough to be in school must endure untrained teachers, inadequate school buildings and poor textbooks," said Grace Ommer, head of Oxfam GB in Afghanistan. 

Persistent and prolonged losses in human capital mean that skilled teachers are in short supply. The ILO estimates that in Tanzania a further 45,000 new teachers are needed to compensate for the 100 a month who are dying of HIV/AIDS. Government structures cannot cope with such demand. The result is either the cancellation or merging of classes, to the detriment of the quality of education provided. 

Contrary to common perceptions, universal education is not the panacea for the problems of unemployment, and it will not automatically lead to economic growth. 

"It is good if education is made free and compulsory all over the world so that everybody can get education to help them later in their lives," said one 13-year-old Kenyan girl. 

But, while advocates claim that education has a "value in itself", economists respond that it is difficult to acknowledge this value if it fails to be translated into gainful employment at the end of the course of studies. 

If an uneducated maid and an engineer end up having the same salary because the latter failed to find a job to match his skills, then the money spent on his education was wasted. 

It has been repeatedly proven that an increase in school enrolments rates, especially in the case of girls, is a good and cost-effective way of improving some important social indicators. There is a strong correlation between the number of years spent in school, and a lower birth rate. There is also a link between the level of a woman's education and infant mortality rates. However, there is less evidence that, in the absence of a receptive labour market, education will automatically translate into improved economic conditions for young people and their families. In many cases, it would just create high expectations that the economy is not able to meet. 

The right kind of education?


Formal education is not always the best way to give young people practical skills. Educational programmes are seldom an initiative of governments, and are frequently based on generic recommendations, more than on the specific needs of the economy. The result is a continuous mismatch between education provided and labour market requirements. 

According to the ILO: "The increase in the numbers of youth in secondary and tertiary education is a positive development; however, labour markets in many countries are presently unable to accommodate the expanding pools of skilled young graduates." 

A solution to this would be the development of vocational training programmes. They have been identified as a useful tool to give young people technical skills that are immediately usable without having the problems of school fees and related costs. 

However, such programmes have only recently attracted the attention of international donors. In 2000, the ILO, the UN and the World Bank joined forces in creating an international programme to address the problems of youth employability. The Youth Employment Network (YEP) is a project that the three donor agencies have put in place to facilitate the transition from school to work.

The working poor. Youth in the informal sector

Unemployment rates hide more than they reveal: in the absence of social security provision, and in situations of economic deprivation, it is curious that so many people manage to survive. 

As Nobel Prize economist Amartya Sen commented on the case of India: "It is amazing that people qualifying in the census as "unemployed" manage to make a living." 

In the developing world, due to the decline of the formal economy, and the rise in the number of jobless, young people are forced in the informal economy. 

While it allows many young people to survive, it is not a long-term solution. While some of those who enter the unregulated labour market end up becoming successful entrepreneurs, the rest have to cope with the negative aspects: long hours, low pay. 

"I have been working as a porter at the Kalimati vegetable market for three years now. I start working at three o'clock in the morning when the trucks come to Kathmandu with vegetables. For the remainder of the day I work in a small restaurant, cooking and doing the dishes. At the vegetable market I can make 250 rupees (US $3.20) a day and from the restaurant I get paid 2,000 rupees (US $28) per month. I am tired when I go back to the vegetable market and sleep on some of the vegetable sacks," a young Nepalese boy described.

Poverty trap. Any way out?

According to World Bank figures, 238 million young people are living on less than US $1 a day. Roughly 460 million, nearly half the number of young people worldwide, are living on less than US $2 a day, and it is estimated that over 160 million are undernourished. 

"Most youth working in the informal economy lack adequate incomes, social protection, security and representation," claimed one labour market analyst. "If current trends continue, it is likely that most of the jobs available to young people in the future will be low paid and of poor quality," she added. 

How can developing countries cope with rising youth unemployment rates? How can they avoid the much-feared "youth bulge" syndrome? Do they have the resources to at least mitigate the social consequences of youth unemployment? 

"Second chance" programmes which aim to alleviate the problems of high unemployment are costly and lengthy processes. The World Bank has advised that it is better to get it right first time, and to avoid having to implement catch-up and reintegration programmes. 

The spectre of uncontrollable youth bulges is shadowing the future of many developing countries. However, the way forward would appear to include young people in resolving their own destinies. If supported and given the opportunity to express their opinions, young people can contribute to their own empowerment and to their own path out of poverty. 

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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