Want to End Poverty and Promote Prosperity and Security for All? Consider Youth
May 8, 2013
In his April 24 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah reiterated President Obama's call for the United States to join the global fight to end extreme poverty within a generation, claiming “Today, we have new tools that enable us to achieve a goal that was simply unimaginable in the past: the eradication of extreme poverty and its most devastating corollaries.” Just a week prior World Bank President Jim Yong Kim proclaimed "We have set an expiration date for extreme poverty. With commitment, cooperation, and the vision of leaders from around the world, we have great faith that we can make it happen."
To accomplish this lofty goal, we need to do everything these policymakers said we need to do: address hunger and food insecurity, increase access to and quality of primary education, improve electricity and infrastructure, mitigate the effects of climate change, prevent disease, and promote maternal health.
But we need to do something else too: prioritize and act strategically to address the needs and aspirations of youth and leverage their resources. According to the Population Reference Bureau's 2013 World Youth Fact Sheet, there are 1.8 billion youth aged 10-24 on the planet today, accounting for 25 percent of the global population and nearly 90 percent of youth live in the developing world. Furthermore, roughly another quarter of the world’s population is under age 10, guaranteeing a large youth population for years to come.
Nonetheless, despite the fact that youth make up 32 percent of the population in the least developed countries, we do not see enough specific attention to them in poverty reduction policy and planning. Youth alone comprise a third of the population among the 30 countries that hold the “bottom billion” of the world’s poorest in Oxford’s Multidimensional Poverty Index. In poor countries, and among the poor in middle income economies, it is becoming increasingly hard for young people—who often support whole households—to work their way out of poverty. Data reveals that youth are two to three times more likely to be unemployed than adults and millions of youth are underemployed in part-time, low wage, informal sector or family-based subsistence or unpaid work. The Economist recently reported that nearly a quarter of the world’s youth (290 million) are neither working nor studying and almost half are either outside the formal economy or are underproductive. Experience is further proving that the earning potential for those who enter the economy late or in low-paying jobs is constrained.
Likewise, youth deficits among the poorest are striking as other domains of poverty are considered. For example, in education only 36 percent of female and 43 percent of males in the least developed countries are enrolled in secondary education and more than 120 million youth are still illiterate. In health, some 40 percent of new HIV/AIDs infections occur among youth. In all these areas, young women and girls are often at significant disadvantage, further constraining growth and slowing down the demographic transition. Nearly 50 percent of young women aged 20-24 in least developed countries where married before they were age 18 and birth rates among 15-19 year olds are five times higher than in more developed countries.
Yet while the costs of youth in poverty are high, experience shows that strategic investment in young people, and particularly young women and girls, can have significant payoff in terms of economic growth, poverty reduction, and stability. For example, World Bank studies show that an added year of secondary schooling for girls can increase her lifetime earnings by 15-20 percent. Evidence also reveals that as much as a third of the growth in the East Asian Miracle is attributable to the demographic dividend that resulted from favorable dependency ratios and investment in human capital and workforce productivity. Furthermore, as caregivers to younger siblings and elders, and often as parents themselves, youth act as intergenerational hinges in breaking or sustaining cycles of poverty. And experience shows the benefits of increased economic, civic, and social youth participation and inclusion in promoting the social cohesion, stability, and democratic institutions needed for poverty reduction efforts to truly take root.
When it comes to poverty eradication, creating global prosperity, and security policymakers, donors, practitioners, and researchers across sectors need to be more conscious of the fact that development outcomes for all are dependent on outcomes among youth. This means collecting more age-disaggregated data to better understand deprivation and vulnerability among and between youth. It means more direct attention to youth in poverty reduction and development plans (for example World Bank PRSPs, UN DAFs, USAID CDCSs). It means being more strategic, evidence-based, and deliberate in designing programs and policies—in health and agriculture, the economy, and education—that will better meet the basic needs of, and create the longer-term opportunities for today's and tomorrow's youth. It means increasing consultation and partnership with young people in the development process. And it certainly means prioritizing youth outcomes (and where appropriate, those specifically related to young women and girls), setting explicit youth targets, and including youth specific indicators in the post 2015 Millennium Development Goals.
Millions of young people are living in poverty and face a challenging road to adulthood. However, if they are equipped with resources and opportunities they can be a force for economic growth, social progress, and peace. Let’s not miss capitalizing on the opportunity before us.
Dr. Nicole Goldin is director of the Youth, Prosperity and Security Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in partnership with the International Youth Foundation (IYF). Follow her on Twitter @nicolegoldin
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.