World Youth Conference: Why It Pays to Invest in Young People

  • 27 August 2010

LEON, Mexico — The idea that governments must invest more in young people been repeated in forums and panels throughout the World Youth Conference this week. But why is this so important? And what specific investments will generate the most traction?

The analysis and implications underlying the advice to invest in young people —which has practically become a mantra at the Conference—was explored by Michael Herrmann, a technical adviser on population and economic development for UNFPA, and Wendy Cunningham, a senior economist at the World Bank.

Herrmann explained that lack of adequate employment creates a growing gap between the expectations of youth, compared with their real potential. More than half of those living on less than two dollars a day (about 1.5 million) are under the age of 24. “Youth unemployment is usually four to five times higher than unemployment among adults, with the exception of sub-Saharan Africa,” said Herrmann. But this is not necessarily good news for that region. The reason for the more equal unemployment rates in sub-Saharan Africa is that since there are no unemployment benefits, everybody in the sub-region has to have some sort of employment, even if it’s very marginal. “As a result the share of youth living in poverty is as high as 71 per cent,” he added.

Invest in infrastructure, as well as health and education

The recipe for creating employment, according to Herrmann, is to strengthen the employability of young people by investing in their health and education, while simultaneously investing in infrastructure, such as technology, factories and roads. Both are necessary, he said.

Research shows that early childhood development is important for a person’s earning potential, Cunningham said. “If you invest in young people, they are likely to be healthy and prosperous for a lifetime, whereas it is very difficult to reverse the effects of under-investment in people later in life,” she said.

It’s very important—and challenging to get this message through to finance ministers, she said. But she added that research provides solid arguments that should grab the attention of economists: destructive youth behaviour, such as criminal, drug or gang-related activities, has been found to reduce economic growth by two per cent per year.

Reallocate funding wisely

Governments may argue that no funds are available for these investments, but Cunningham pointed out that reallocating existing resources, especially those spent on ineffective programmes such as ‘get tough’ policies against violence, and ‘abstinence only’ programmes against teenage pregnancy, can provide enough funds to make a positive impact.

She also recommended shifting investment from its current emphasis on the age-groups 25-60 and those 61 and older to a much stronger emphasis on those between 6 and 17 years of age, and also those between 18 and 24.

If we invest in these age-groups, there will be less need for investments later in life as older people then are likely to be healthier and have higher levels of income, she argued.

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