UNFPAState of World Population 2003
Back to Main Menu
HOME: STATE OF WORLD POPULATION 2003: Giving Priority to Adolescents
State of World Population
Overview of Adolescent Life
Gender Inequality and Reproductive Health
HIV/AIDS and Adolescents
Promoting Healthier Behavior
Meeting Reproductive Health Services Needs
Comprehensive Programmes for Adolescents
Giving Priority to Adolescents
Sources for Boxes
Graphs and Tables

Giving Priority to Adolescents

Policy Environment
Rights-based Programmes
Mobilizing Community Support
Involving Young People in Programming
The Costs of Failing to Act

The Costs of Failing to Act

Youth issues are part of a complex nexus of social and economic change, and must be addressed in a multidimensional and intersectoral manner. Poverty, and uneven patterns of economic growth—variously aided and hampered by the forces of globalization—contribute to high youth unemployment in many settings. The expansion of formal schooling over several decades has provided opportunities and challenges in a dynamically changing workforce.

Epidemiological and nutritional developments have brought advances in health for youth; new diseases, including sexually transmitted infections and HIV/AIDS, raise challenges. Changing population dynamics alter the relative priority that policy makers give to different age groups in their budgets and planning. This complicates the issue of addressing the neglected, transitional adolescent years.

Evaluating the importance of investments in youth is complicated by several factors:

  • Many interventions take a long time to have an effect.
  • Investments in different areas operate synergistically, so tracing causes and identifying priorities can be difficult.
  • Experimental programme designs that would allow comparison of different approaches are rarely applied to many areas of social intervention (including reproductive health and community programmes) for both practical and ethical reasons.
  • Youth populations are enormously diverse: strategies must correspond to their life situations (married or unmarried, in or out of school, employed or not, in intact families or not, etc.) and cultural expectations—there are no “one-size-fits-all” approaches. What is valuable in one setting, or for one subgroup of young people, may be less effective in another—even when the costs of inaction are known to be considerable.(31)

It is also difficult to estimate the actual costs of programmes(32) and their diverse benefits (particularly those beyond productivity improvements). Complicating the situation for policy makers, investments may have different benefits for males and for females. Young men might benefit more than young women from programmes addressing tobacco, alcohol and drug abuse, for example. Reproductive health investments more directly benefit women.

As we have seen in Chapter 1 (Table 3), the web of relationships among causes and effects of negative outcomes involving adolescents are complex and mutually supporting. Breaking the links of vicious cycles that capture some people and replacing them with virtuous cycles of mutual positive support often requires combinations of programmatic interventions.

Nonetheless, research in different settings provides important information about the value of investments in youth in terms of their economic consequences.


Shahina Akter, 20, is one of some 1,100 young women who have completed training courses offered as part of UNFPA-supported project in Bangladesh and gone on to start their own businesses. The project aims to alleviate poverty by providing skills training and small business loans, an approach pioneered by the Grameen Bank.

Her community, Bibir Bazar, decided to concentrate on dress making, basket weaving, poultry farming and raising livestock. “I joined the club out of high school and spent six months learning to make dresses and scarves,” she explains. The project also supports other community development activities and a small clinic which provides basic health services including reproductive health and family planning.

Intelligent, ambitious and with a flair for business, Shahina took out a small loan and in no time had recruited another 20 girls for her dress-making enterprise. She sells her products to stores in nearby Comilla, earning tidy profits. She also trains girls in dress-making. “There are no dropouts in my class,” she says proudly.

Village incomes have risen considerably as a result of the project, and women now have economic clout, can regulate their fertility, and have fewer, healthier children later than their peers in less-enabling environments.

Locals credit the project with raising the average age of marriage in Bibir Bazar from between 17 and 19 to around 24. The old dowry system has been abandoned entirely. “In this village,” explains Shahina, “the girls come to marriage with their own ‘dowries’, earned themselves. Here we are on more equal terms with men.”

Without this project, Shahina says she “would probably have married by 19, had a child already, and remained poor and malnourished.”See Source

COSTS OF EARLY PREGNANCY One key arena for intervention is the prevention of unwanted pregnancy among the young and the promotion of later childbearing.

The cost of having a teenage pregnancy as compared to a pregnancy after age 20 has been estimated(33) by considering:

  • Lower lifetime earnings of the mother (reflecting earlier school dropout, childcare demands affecting education and employment, and reduced job experience)—largely private costs.
  • Lower tax revenues (due to mothers’ reduced income or consumption tax revenue).
  • Child support cost needs (early pregnancies often involve reduced paternal support).
  • Higher health care costs (complications of pregnancy are more likely for early pregnancies and later health care costs for the child are higher; these costs then affect the benefits that might be provided to others if the pregnancies had been averted or delayed).
  • Additional costs related to disadvantaged children (including the inter-generational impacts of reduced education, heightened risk-taking and poverty and their attendant expenses).
  • Higher social support costs (reflecting demand for foster care, child nutrition programmes, food programmes and government housing).
  • Social exclusion costs (acknowledging the reduced household and community support for unmarried mothers and their subsequent exclusion from opportunities).

National social costs vary depending on prevailing teen birth levels, local wages and social expenditure levels.(34) There are two components: financial costs (direct expenditures) and economic costs (opportunity costs for alternate uses of resources and marginal effects on other expenditures).(35)

Estimates for seven Caribbean countries of annual aggregate financial costs total $3.6 million per year. Full annual economic cost estimates reach $8.5 million. Both the financial and economic costs substantially exceed the costs of delaying these births to later ages. Direct financial costs range from $28 to $262 per birth annually, depending on their locale. Annual economic costs range from $33 to $363 dollars per birth. The annual cost of averting a birth by using family planning is only around $17.

These estimates do not include the foregone earnings of children later in their lives, as these are more difficult to estimate. (For similar reasons, a wide variety of social costs are omitted.) Detailed studies in Barbados, Chile, Guatemala and Mexico suggest that early childbearing is associated with negative economic effects particularly for the poor.(36) Adolescent childbearers are more likely to end up poor than those who bear children later. This is even observed when the women compared are matched on important dimensions.

Early childbearing is associated with higher fertility, shorter birth intervals, fewer traditional nuclear families(37) and the transmission of a preference for large families to one’s children.(38) These effects are not just transitory. They persist longer the poorer the girl is initially. These effects can be reduced with further education and income, but the challenge of obtaining these is heightened. Among the poor (but not better-off women), adolescent childbearing leads to lower monthly wages. And only among the poor are effects seen on children’s nutrition.

Social policies need to address information and services to prevent unwanted early childbearing and to increase education and income-generating opportunities and access to quality reproductive health education and services for poor young mothers.

COSTS OF HIV/AIDS More than 50 per cent of new HIV/AIDS cases every year are among 15-24 year olds. The proportion of these among 15-19 year olds is being studied but is difficult to specify.(39) The costs of the pandemic in arrested development, lost agricultural output, lost education, excess training costs to provide for personnel losses, health facility overloads, treatment (where available) and care, among others, are enormous. The Commission on Macro-economics and Health estimated the benefits from one averted HIV/AIDS infection in a poor country as $34,600 in settings with annual average earnings of $1,000 per year.(40)

HIV/AIDS prevention, the focus of UNFPA’s work against the pandemic, has been estimated as 28 times more cost-effective than highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART).(41) Of course, a comprehensive approach to HIV/AIDS recognizes the synergies between prevention and treatment (e.g., HAART reduces the viral load, making transmission less likely) and a balance will be needed between efforts addressing health impacts and those affecting the social and institutional contexts that place people at risk.(42) Detailed local studies are needed to ascertain the particular costs and benefits of specific programmes devised for local conditions.

Few studies of the returns to HIV/AIDS prevention efforts are available. A detailed analysis in Honduras, where HIV/AIDS prevalence estimates are low (around 0.1 per cent), calculated the benefit-cost ratio of a school-based adolescent education programme and found that less than half the costs were recovered in benefits.(43) However, the benefits vary directly with the prevalence level. In populations with 1 per cent prevalence (a far more common time for policy-makers to take notice and institute programmes) the return would be $5 for every $1 invested. In countries with a 20 per cent prevalence, the ratio would jump to $99 for every $1 invested. The exact returns depend on coverage levels and on programme design and implementation.

Coordinated systems of preventive activities oriented towards behaviour change—including for those out of school, outreach to high-risk groups and prevention of mother-to-child transmission—would attain even higher levels of private and social benefits. Analyses that include the additional benefits from reproductive health information programmes (beyond those related strictly to HIV/AIDS incidence) would further increase the expected returns.

In the United States, other studies of returns for efforts preventing risky sexual behaviour have shown significant benefits. A school-based HIV, STI and pregnancy prevention programme estimated returns of $2.65 per $1 expended. A second study on preventing unprotected sexual behaviour found a savings of $5.10 in resources that otherwise would have been expended because of resulting problems.(44) Another study found a return of $5.00 per $1 spent by adding efforts to prevent risky sexual behaviour in a health intervention directed against smoking and substance abuse.(45)


Programmes to address adolescent sexual and reproductive health concerns have advanced considerably since the ICPD in 1994. Sufficient experience now exists to guide programme planning and identify key tasks for the future. Some of the lessons learned include:

  • Policy makers, government leaders and civil society leaders must be involved in establishing positive policies and programmes.
  • Community support is needed to increase acceptance and use of youth-friendly services.
  • Youth participation and youth-adult partnerships are essential for programme relevance, ownership and effective use.
  • Gender awareness and equity need to be an integral part of programming.
  • Increasing the legal age of marriage, supported by social mobilization for its implementation, will be one of the efforts needed to aid young people—men and women— to better satisfy family, economic and social responsibilities.
  • Prevention of too-early childbearing and of STIs and HIV should be addressed together educationally and in service programmes, with an emphasis on safer sex practices and dual protection.

Some key needs for future attention include:

  • Basic information about programmes, including cost data, needs to be collected systematically and made available so all can learn from disparate experiences.
  • Basic programmes, such as sexuality education and youth-friendly services, need to be scaled up, especially if infrastructure exists to build on.
  • Better programme models for reaching out-of-school youth need to be developed and tested.
  • Models need to be tested for programming in traditional societies.
  • Documentation and evaluation efforts need to be strengthened.

COSTS OF EDUCATION PROGRAMMES Estimates of additional resources needed for quality and coverage improvements in basic education are as high as $30 billion per year.(46) The benefits of education programmes are diverse and substantial. Detailed national studies produce estimates related to their programme particulars. A scholarship programme in Colombia has been estimated to produce $3.31 in benefits for each $1 in costs.(47) An adult basic education and literacy programme in Colombia has been estimated to return $19.90 per $1 in costs.(48)

These levels of return are high relative to investments in several other development sectors (including forestry, irrigation, livestock and several agricultural programmes).

Investment in education and health, including reproductive health services, bring high returns. Benefits include: lower fertility, reduced levels of STIs, increased age at marriage, greater ability to use health and nutritional information, enhanced life skills (with appropriate curricula), and improved gender equality and equity. These many outcomes directly benefit individuals, families and nations. Disentangling these components is problematic, but it is clear that the direct and indirect pathways through reproductive health are important both for the person educated and their children. Girls’ education produces higher returns.

Today, more than 1.2 billion adolescents are coming of age. Their success and happiness depend on the support, the examples, the education, the opportunities and the resources with which they are provided. They must be empowered to make responsible and healthy choices and provided with information and services. Investing in the well-being and ensuring the participation of the world’s largest youth generation will yield benefits for generations to come.


The United Nations’ five-year review of the ICPD Programme of Action called on governments to meet adolescents’ needs for “appropriate, specific, user-friendly and accessible services to address effectively their reproductive and sexual health needs, including reproductive health education, information, counselling and health promotion strategies”. The goal is “to enable them to make responsible and informed choices and decisions . . . in order, inter alia, to reduce the number of adolescent pregnancies”.

The 1999 agreement also states:

  • Governments should “ensure that parents and persons with legal responsibilities are educated about and involved in providing sexual and reproductive health information, in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of adolescents”.
  • “Sexually active adolescents will require special family planning information, counselling and health services, as well as [information and services on] sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment.”
  • “These services should safeguard the rights of adolescents to privacy, confidentiality and informed consent, respecting their cultural values and religious beliefs and in conformity with relevant existing international agreements and conventions”.
  • “Those adolescents who become pregnant are at particular risk and will require special support from their families, health-care providers and the community during pregnancy, delivery and early childcare. This support should enable these adolescents to continue their education.”
  • Countries should “ensure that programmes and attitudes of health-care providers do not restrict the access of adolescents to appropriate services and the information they need, including for the prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, HIV/AIDS and sexual violence and abuse”.
  • Governments and donors, by 2005, should “ensure that at least 90 per cent, and by 2010 at least 95 per cent, of young men and women aged 15 to 24 have access to the information, education and services necessary to develop the life skills required to reduce their vulnerability to HIV infection. Services should include access to preventive methods such as female and male condoms, voluntary testing, counselling and follow-up.”
See Source
 Back to top PreviousNext 
      |      Main Menu      |      Press Kit      |      Charts & Graphs      |      Indicators   |