Key to Sustaining Momentum: Youth in the 2013 Human Development Report

Almost annually since 1990, the release of the Human Development Report (HDR) by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has drawn the world’s attention to the trends, progress, and priorities of development “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” The recently released 2013 HDR includes among its opening lines a nod to new and emerging voices that are challenging policymakers to think differently about development. “Stronger voices from the South are demanding more representative frameworks of international governance that embody the principles of democracy and equity.” However, one could argue that on the global stage it is the youth cohort that has mostly been overlooked when it comes to questioning the equity and inclusivity of growth.

A quick word search for “youth” and “young people” provides a somewhat surface, but nonetheless revealing, view of the extent to which youth have been considered in HDRs over the years. This year, there are 26 and 17 respective mentions in the 216 pages, with a combined total of 29 of those actually being in the narrative text (as opposed to the references or tables). This is notable. In quantitative terms this represents more than three or four times the level of attention to this demographic found in the last two previous reports, and a nearly 15-fold increase since these reports commenced. The first HDR of 1990 included just 2 narrative references to “youth” or “young people” and in the 2010 twentieth anniversary edition, there were nine mentions. In 2011, there were five mentions, four of which fell within one text box on the Arab Spring.

But, what is the quality or substance behind these numbers? With half the world’s population under the age of 25, no one should doubt the centrality of youth to global prosperity and security. Global development begins with human development and increasingly depends on youth development.

In summary, “the 2013 Report identifies four specific areas of focus for sustaining development momentum: enhancing equity, including on the gender dimension; enabling greater voice and participation of citizens, including youth; confronting environmental pressures; and managing demographic change.” Within the Human Development Index (HDI) framework, the narrative amply considers the state and implications of young people’s educational access and their economic, social and political inclusion.

A number of the “youth” and “young people” references draw a fairly dismal picture to make the case for investing in youth, relating education inequality and employment (or more aptly unemployment), to uprisings and instability. The report discusses the common correlation of youth unemployment to civil unrest, referencing the Arab Spring protests, while noting that “democracies can also extend accountability from what is often a narrow constituency of elites to all citizens, particularly those who have been underrepresented in public discourse, such as women, youth and the poor.”

The report usefully highlights an emerging concern from middle-income countries as young people are increasingly educated but unable to pair that more advanced learning with greater economic opportunity. Educated young people are likely to demand more from their political leaders and institutions and will have the assets to challenge them when their own expectations are not met. However, the missing data in the tables on education point to a critical issue in measuring education quality and progress among adolescents and youth—statistical gaps on learning outcomes.

The focus on youth dissatisfaction, discontent, and potential for unrest is balanced to some degree in the analysis of demographic transitions where the opportunity arising from shifting youth dependency ratios (if combined with sound policy and investments in human capital) is illustrated. “Reinforcing the cross-country analysis conducted for this Report, a recent study finds that youth dependency ratios tend to be higher for poor households and lower for wealthier ones, especially in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa, and that differences in youth dependency ratios between rich and poor dissipate over time.” Several of the final mentions more optimistically consider the productive potential of youth, looking at China and Ghana. The report presents an analysis of what could be (in terms of a demographic dividend) if strategic and sufficient investments are made in youth. It pointed out for aging China that “A more skilled and productive workforce could offset some of the negative effects of a high dependency ratio and a large share of older people.” For youthful Ghana, and the majority of sub-Saharan African countries just nearing or beginning their demographic transition, the implementation of policies to reduce fertility and promote human capital and productive workforce are yielding an economic growth payoff for young people themselves as well as their communities and countries.

Looking back upon the World Bank’s 2007 World Development Report and following, for example, the signals sent by USAID’s November 2012 release of its first-ever policy on youth in development, the relative prominence of youth in this year’s HDR is consistent with global trends duly recognizing the importance of this cohort to growth and stability. Sustaining development momentum requires that youth gain even more prominence on national and global policy agendas (including, for example, the Post 2015 MDGs), a commitment to more and better age-disaggregated data, and programmatic investment by public and private sectors alike. Let’s hope this ‘new’ appreciation of young people’s importance to development translates into concrete policy measures, data-driven evidence, and resource allocations.

Dr. Nicole Goldin is the director at the Youth, Prosperity, and Security Initiative with the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.- in partnership with the International Youth Foundation (IYF).

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.

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Nicole Goldin
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Project on Prosperity and Development