South Asia’s Youth Demographics: The Way Forward for Policy and Development Assistance

Part three of a series on youth demographics in South Asia.

It is clear that South Asia faces mounting challenges in realizing its potential demographic dividend in the coming decades. India and Pakistan, with their burgeoning youth populations, will continue to face threats to economic growth and social stability as discussed in my previous post. For each state, the role of policy reform and development assistance will be indispensable to balancing social order and economic sustainability. India and Pakistan would do well to borrow ideas from the successes of other developing areas as well as from smaller states within the region like Bangladesh and Nepal.

  1. Vocational Education & Workforce Readiness Programs

    There are a number of policy reform options to subvert the risk of youth violence and generate a demographic dividend. Research out of Davidson College states:

    “Potential policy options for these nations would be to subsidize and invest in apprenticeships, trade schools, and internship systems to help make the transition into the labor force more gradual and less frustrating for youth. Even if they are not highly paid, making a path to future work might be enough to ease frustration and build the labor force, while avoiding violence.”

    Equipping the job-seeking youth population with accelerated training opportunities will be important to developing the workforce. Honing in on the transition of youth into labor markets will be a useful immediate policy strategy to engage the youth bulge of today and build constructive, creative members of tomorrow’s society.

    One creative measure discussed in Finance & Development to promote vocational education is Kenya’s Jua Kali program. The program provides vouchers to craftsmen to be cashed in for specialized training to update skills in their respective trades. This is a constructive method of public expenditure that maximizes opportunity for an employable demographic in need of relevant skills.

    There are also training programs that link students directly with employers, like Pratham Education Foundation’s hospitality training partnership with Taj Hotels in India or the International Youth Foundation’s Hilton Worldwide program. Both programs provide youth with training to enter the hospitality industry, with curriculum developed in collaboration with the employers themselves. Education and training is therefore seen as directly related to employment prospects, providing greater incentive for students and families to make small financial investments

  2. Alternative and Remedial Education Programs

    As India’s population grows, the share of population with a primary education is projected to be the largest while the share with some sort of higher education degree will be the smallest. This trend will exacerbate over time, depriving India of the productive population it needs to meet the nation’s growing economic opportunity.

    Further, as India’s push to meet the Millennium Development Goals heightens – including universal primary education enrollment – many educational systems compromise the quality of schooling students receive. Since 2001, basic education indicators have been falling, including reading level and aptitude for basic arithmetic. In such cases, blanket policies to educate the population can come at the expense of authentically molding minds. Many graduating students and job seekers may meet the minimum requirements of employers in terms of educational attainment, but will lack the mental development and critical thinking ability to work productively.

    Alternative education programs that work outside of traditional public education can compensate for some of this lag in aptitude and poor quality in education. These programs target constraints to adequate education, like language or the need to focus on income-generation. In doing so, they focus on meeting students and families within their socioeconomic context. They are, therefore, an effective supplement to boost educational attainment for the burgeoning youth population in South Asia.

    While still below the regional average, the Human Development Index for Bangladesh climbed from .312 in 1980 to .515 out of 1 in 2012. Bangladesh’s rapid progress can be attributed to a number of innovative social policy measures designed to appropriately educate the growing youth population, where the median age in the country is only 23.9 years. Bangladesh’s Underprivileged Children Education Program, for example, provides a second chance to children between the ages of 10 and 16 who dropped out of primary school. In many cases, young students leave school to work and contribute to household income from an early age. This program delivers three years of expedited schooling and channels youth toward vocational programs and more stable livelihoods with support from an international NGO.

    Alternative forms of education and their respective incentive structures are greatly influenced by the populations they serve. With regard to South Asia, this means engaging a deeply entrenched caste system and working with a variety of dialects, which are more commonly spoken than national languages. In Nepal, the national language Nepali is spoken only by 54.4% of the population and understood by an additional 25%, whereas the bulk of formal education is meant to occur in Nepali. The Non-formal Education (NFE) program has made notable strides to engage different caste populations in Nepal and to print material in Maithali, a common dialect, to improve literacy. This is an effort of the Government of Nepal in collaboration with the country’s NGO sector.

    Greater attention to the socioeconomic conditions of India and Pakistan’s young masses will mean thinking outside of traditional systems of education.

  3. Rely on the Female Population

    It is imperative that labor policy in South Asia do a better job of engaging female youth. Educating and employing women is proven to have significant impacts on reducing fertility rates so that developing nations eventually level off at the replacement rate.

    However, as of 2005, only one-fifth of females of working-age were active participants in Pakistan’s labor force. Engaging women is sage policy for the futures of South Asian nations, for those societies that experience a youth bulge will also experience an eventual swell in the aging population. Aging societies, like Japan, now struggle to populate a full workforce because they have neglected half of their labor potential for decades in favor of traditional gender expectations.

    There are policy strategies to combat female unemployment as well. The Bangladesh Female Secondary Stipend Assistance program provides girls between the ages of 11 and 14 with monthly conditional cash transfers in exchange for adequate academic performance and keeping young girls unmarried. The transfers are deposited into a bank account and receipt is conditional upon meeting these requirements so girls and families prioritize their education.

Reforms to address South Asia’s youth bulge should not occur within a vacuum. Education alone will not create growth in South Asia; there is need for population control measures, attention to labor markets, and gender parity at the very least. The next three decades bring risk and opportunity for the region; they will determine if the youth bulge for South Asia will be a blessing or a curse.

Image Credit: melgupta via Wikimedia Commons

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