About 835,000 people in Hong Kong are youth as defined by the United Nations (those aged between 15 and 24), and they account for 11.5 percent of the city’s population.
That is a rather low ratio when compared with those in developing countries.
So, not many Hongkongers may be aware we are living in an era with the greatest number of youth ever — 1.2 billion youngsters, 90 percent of them in developing countries.
Can their homelands make good use of these young people’s energy as an engine for social progress?
Aug. 12 is International Youth Day.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said at a meeting on youth employment that the globe has a golden opportunity to boost its economy as a result of the “demographic dividend” that can be gained when society’s labor force (people aged between 15 and 60) is larger than its dependent population (those aged 14 and below or above 60).
The four Asian Tigers — Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan — as well as Vietnam and Malaysia are good examples of economies that grasped the opportunity and developed rapidly during the 1960s and ’70s.
The demographic dividend doesn’t come without effort.
First, investment is needed in youth, by providing education, training and employment.
Africa has the biggest population of youth. Hence, it has the greatest need for such investment.
It is estimated that the demographic dividend in Africa can take the form of up to 30 years of annual returns of US$500 billion.
However, in order to earn such returns, the needs of youth should no longer be overlooked, and immediate action should be taken.
More than 620 million youngsters are not in employment, education or training (NEET).
They are often seen as a time bomb for society.
In fact, there is just a thin line between their being a threat or a benefit.
NEET youngsters can become the fuel for driving the demographic dividend, but only if we tackle the following problems:
Lack of opportunities for education and training
There are 123 million illiterate youth, of which two-thirds are girls.
All parties have to fully cooperate to provide youngsters with educational opportunities.
For instance, individual children need subsidies for schooling, uniforms and stationery.
Schools have to improve their environment and the quality of their teachers.
Parents have to be equipped with basic skills, so they can stay in jobs and support their children’s education.
Most importantly, society should uphold the belief that children have the right to education.
Although most countries have banned child marriage, each year 700 million girls are married before they turn 18.
More than one-third — 250 million — wed before the age of 15.
Early marriage compromises the right of girls to an education.
On top of alleviating the poverty that drives it, breaking this custom through education is necessary.
“Very often, small incentives such as sweets or clothes are more than sufficient to lure those poor girls to marry,” said a principal from a village school in Mozambique.
“Child marriage puts an end to education and brings about a tragic future for the girls.”
Unemployment and underemployment
The International Labor Organization says 74.5 million youngsters were jobless in 2013, causing the rate of youth unemployment to increase by 13 percent.
Among youth who are employed, more than 200 million belong to the working poor and earn less than US$2 per day.
The unemployment rate of Hong Kong youth aged between 15 and 29 is 7.2 percent, and it is a worrying situation.
Nonetheless, it is estimated that the youth unemployment rate in Somalia has risen to 67 percent.
Lido beach in its capital, Mogadishu, is full of jobless youth playing football all day.
Some more radical youth have joined the Somalian pirates.
In other corners of the globe, youngsters have flocked to cities such as Johannesburg, Jakarta and Mumbai, yet they can only manage to find part-time or low-skilled jobs.
If the problems of unemployment and underemployment among youth persist, it will cause social instability, which is more costly than investing in youth through education and employment training.
The successful stories of three teenagers show that with a little bit of help, youngsters can strive and contribute a great deal to the neighborhood.
Davey became a miner of precious gems in the Dominican Republic at 12 years old.
When he turned 19, he wanted to start up his own company for processing gems.
He applied for a small loan from World Vision, and his workshop is now helping the neighborhood by providing jobs.
Nina is a 20-year-old woman with disabilities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
She took a sewing class offered by World Vision, and after three years of training, she enjoys an independent life and supports her family by fixing women’s skirts and tops.
She is teaching sewing to other girls.
John set up a school in a village in Ghana 14 years ago, aiming to provide low-cost but high-quality private schooling to children.
Unfortunately, while village leaders were willing to offer land and donations, the money, together with the low tuition fees, wasn’t enough to keep the school running.
John applied for a small loan from World Vision and set up a small farm for yam and cocoa beans in the school compound.
It took only two years for the farm to generate sufficient returns to subsidize the cost of operating the school.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on August 6.
Translation by Darlie Yiu
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