“While unemployment is around 5% in Sri Lanka, youth unemployment is nearly 3 times that. Youth unemployment is a critical challenge for us right now”, I said, in my remarks on Sri Lankan perspectives at a South Asian youth dialogue on the sidelines of the World Bank–IMF Spring Meetings last month. “Hey, what are you complaining about? Youth unemployment is almost 50% in Greece right now!”, was the immediate response I got from a World Banker in the audience. I was taken slightly aback, but it made it very clear to me - the youth unemployment issue is a gripping issue for many of the world’s economies right now, and even if the numbers may not always be on the same scale and each country has different reasons for why it’s a high-priority policy issue right now.
The last year and a half has seen everyone sit up and take notice of youth unemployment like never before – either because of the Arab Spring or protests by discontent educated youth in European capitals. The attention of economists and governments alike is on it – how did it become such a challenge? How can we address it?
The ‘jobs’ theme featured heavily in many of the discussions at the Spring Meetings. I was privileged to speak on a panel during the Civil Society Policy Forum on ‘Youth Unemployment: Causes and Responses’. It was quite challenging. Firstly because I would be speaking alongside two formidable World Bank economists - David Robalino , an expert on employment and labour issues, and Dena Ringold , a lead author of the next World Development Report (2013). Secondly, because the debate on youth unemployment and how best to fix it is so wide-ranging that I wasn’t sure if I would have any new insights to add. I chose to highlight the issues of youth unemployment for an emerging middle income country like Sri Lanka, in the context of South Asia which is set to enjoy an unprecedented ‘youth bulge’. Seeing the issue through a post-war lens, from Sri Lanka, was the added perspective I was able to bring in.
Tackling the jobs challenge is critical for a country like Sri Lanka, coming out of a thirty-year long conflict. It’s not just about ethnic and political reconciliation, in my view, it is also about economic reconciliation . A large proportion of active combatants, both from the government military as well as from the Tamil Tiger terrorists, were youth. In the past, Sri Lanka has also seen youth insurrections led by Southern youth part of a Marxist-Socialist political group. So it’s clear that creating opportunities for youth in our country to productively participate in this new post-war growth story is critical – not just to ensure we have as many people as possible contributing to this growth, but also to ensure that this growth involves everyone. In fact, a session at the IPS National Conference  last year was themed ‘Making Everyone Work for Growth’, and part of it was largely about equipping our people with the capacity to take on the new economic opportunities emerging.
South Asia will see a ballooning of its working age population  in the coming decades. This can be a blessing or a curse. Countries in our region need to create the right policies to both create more jobs, as well as equip young people with the right education and skills to take up the jobs being created. In my remarks at the discussion, I advocated that we need to take a 360-degree approach to the youth and jobs issue. It should encompass education reforms (ensuring quality and equity), developing skills (soft and hard, better school-to-work transition); labour market reforms (correcting archaic and rigid laws); conducive business climate (that promotes entrepreneurship and strengthens small business development); addressing the attitudes and aspirations dilemma among youth  (whether it’s by breaking the vicious public sector jobs-dependency in countries like Sri Lanka or by correcting family attitudes towards certain ‘types’ of jobs); and integrating more with growing economies through better trade and investment linkages (for example, Sri Lanka leveraging on its Free Trade Agreement with India  and tapping into the large Indian consumer market, as well as linking with East Asian supply chains better).
Top economists at a session titled ‘Jobs or Growth: Which Comes First’  tried to tackle it as well, but there didn’t seem to be total consensus. Paul Romer (Economics Professor at NYU’s Stern School) said, “Growth is what you want, jobs are how you get it”. Kaushik Basu (Chief Economic Advisor to the Indian PM) added “Most important part of a government’s role is to allow private sector to create jobs, by creating the right space”. The Spring Meetings had a lot of debate on whether countries need a “Jobs Strategy” or a “Growth Strategy”. I think we need both; they are symbiotic. We need a 360-degree approach, as mentioned earlier.
Throughout many sessions like this the jobs challenge was a clear cross-cutting theme. What was particularly interesting to me was how the issues of youth unemployment, the perceived causes, as well as policy reforms that needed to address it appeared to be universal. From Africa to Asia, the participants brought out points that made me realize what a global issue this really is right now and that countries have a lot to learn from each other on what has and hasn’t worked in tackling the challenge. The new World Bank ‘Jobs Knowledge Platform’  will go a long way in bridging knowledge gaps that exist between countries, thinkers, academics, and policymakers. It will help us not only identify common problems, but also move towards solutions by learning lessons from successful interventions across the world.
Over tea this week I showcased the JKP to my colleagues here at IPS in Colombo , and next week I hope to talk about it with a broader group of Sri Lankan youth, to raise awareness of the portal – its features and how we can contribute to its content.
Meanwhile, the youth of Sri Lanka are teaming up to form our own youth portal, which is to be launched in the coming months. This youth portal, supported by the World Bank Sri Lanka , aims to: link youth organisations working on different issues across the island onto a common platform to discuss common issues and find solutions; create opportunities for collaborative work between them; share knowledge/information/research on youth issues in Sri Lanka (employment, skills, education, policy, etc), and hopefully feed this information into the ongoing National Youth Policy formulation process. It hopes to provide an open platform to get real insights from youth across Sri Lanka facing real challenges, but will also featuring real solutions that are working on the ground. By raising the antennae on these at a national level through this web portal, we hope we can get some real results and real policy buy-in.
Many of us are well aware of the issues facing youth, particularly on the jobs front. But it seems that not enough of us are moving fast enough on finding solutions. Making youth an integral part of growth processes of our economies, keeping them fully engaged in the path towards prosperity, and bringing them in as active stakeholders in the ‘policy space’ will not only be smart economics but will also help drive inclusive growth. These are the challenges facing youth, development partners, and policymakers in Sri Lanka, South Asia, and elsewhere, in 2012 and beyond.