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UN: Developing countries must invest in surging youth population

UN Population Fund says rapid development without attention to youth can result in unemployment and associated problems

Governments in rapidly developing countries must invest in their burgeoning youth populations in order to avoid an array of potential problems including unemployment, political unrest, and alcohol and drug abuse, according to a report released Monday by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

Development in countries with high poverty rates can be a double-edged sword — influxes of money, infrastructure and health care systems are a boon to the population, but countries that develop quickly can also encounter problems with inequality between genders and classes, as well as new health problems and an unprepared labor force.

According to the UNFPA report, those problems are most prevalent in countries seeing a surge in their youth populations.

The UNFPA report, titled "The Power of 1.8 Billion," details how countries can take advantage of growing young populations. It said said countries that shift from high fertility and mortality rates to lower ones — largely thanks to increased access to birth control and health care — tend to have a bulge in their working-age populations. That bulge, the UNFPA said, has the potential to translate into economic success as more working-age people can mean more jobs and businesses.

But that economic success, called a “demographic dividend” by the UNFPA, is far from guaranteed. Without strategic investments in education and health care, countries’ growing youth populations can face unemployment, which can in turn result in issues like increased drug and alcohol abuse and political unrest, and create an economic drag on the entire country.

“Many countries have the opportunity for socioeconomic development, but it doesn't just happen — they have to work on it,” said Babatunde Osotimehin, the executive director of the UNFPA. “When you look at the profile of investments in health and education, in many countries, it falls short.”

There are 1.8 billion people between the ages of 10 and 24 in the world — about a quarter of the world’s population — and over half the world’s population is under 30, according to the U.N. But in more developed countries such as the United States populations are aging, leaving the “Least Developed Countries” on Earth, an official U.N. designation that includes most of Sub-Saharan Africa and some of the Middle East, accounting for 89 percent of the world’s youth (defined as 10-to-24-year-olds by the UNFPA).

“We’re talking about the largest surge in population in history, and also the most unexpected in terms of size,” said Jack Goldstone, an environmental change and security fellow at the Wilson Center, a development think tank.

The report posits that those demographics mean less-developed countries have unprecedented opportunities to create new jobs and lift people out of poverty, but only if a development strategy that places emphasis on young people is put in place.

Youth face numerous challenges in less-developed countries. Over half-a-billion young people live on $2 or less a day. Nearly 200 million cannot read a full sentence, according to the UNFPA. In less-developed countries, 15 million young people enter the job market each year, but more than 50 percent can’t find any work or are partially employed.

The challenges are even steeper for girls and young women. One in three girls is married before the age of 18, according to the UNFPA, with 12 percent married before 15. Young women are twice as likely as men to contract HIV. Only 22 percent use contraception, but an additional 33 million would if they had easy access to it.

The report recommended that governments focus on increasing gender equality, including by stopping child marriages and increasing access to birth control, as well as expanding access to education for all.

The UNFPA pointed to some Asia countries as successful examples of what to do to plan for a growing youth population.

In Thailand, the government’s push for birth control brought the average number of children birthed per woman from 5.5 to 2.2 in just 20 years. In India, the government’s push to improve education has helped bring tech jobs and service work to the country.

But before Sub-Saharan African countries can think about making similar investments, experts say they have to figure out how to harness the powers of their governments. For example, in resource-rich sections of the continent, mining companies have frequently been allowed to use African land without paying taxes or fees to governments.

“What Africa needs more than just development funding is a rethinking of loopholes that let foreign investors come in without taxes, pillaging West African minerals,” said Alicia Yamin, the policy director of the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University.

UNFPA Executive Director Osotimehin agreed, saying countries need to rely less on aid and more on their own homegrown industries.

“Providing aid is not what’s going to make it happen,” he said. “Some of the fastest-growing economies in Africa are making money in extractive industries. There has to be political will to dedicate the output from that to young people.”

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