Leveraging the Youth Dividend to harness the economic potential of South and Central Asia: Challenges and Opportunities

November 30, 2021

Photo: @ UNAMA Afghanistan

Youth and COVID-19

The world’s population is ageing fast, and it is estimated that the global population aged 65 and above, will reach 1.3 billion by 2040. A rapidly ageing population may result in a severe labour shortage in the global market. COVID-19 has created physical distances among states, impacting international trade through border closures. Cross border trade is an important source of income and goods transfer. This limitation has been a key feature of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, since the onset of the pandemic.

The physical disconnect between countries has had several trade-offs: reduction in trade and tariff income, falling numbers of air fleets, and a reduction in cross-border trade volume. Revenue in the service sector has also been impacted by restricting Afghan civilians from obtaining medical treatment from hospitals in Pakistan. Since Afghanistan is a landlocked country, the significance of Pakistan in impacting Afghanistan's economy is instrumental. Nevertheless, a major benefit of the pandemic was the boost in digital connectivity, especially the social media boon.

Leveraging the Youth Dividend: Benefits and Challenges

The potential benefits of engaging youth as agents of regional connectivity will serve to have massive benefits for South Asia, and not just one particular country. Technology can play a vital role in geographical linkages in improving online businesses, aiding communication, and enhancing people to people contact. The two forces of youth and technology, when combined, can serve to foster huge academic and cultural regional exchanges of knowledge and activity, thereby creating a higher volume of trade and businesses.

Among factors impacting youth in the region, geopolitics is the major one. This includes the struggle for power in Afghanistan and the Kashmir dispute. These factors dictate the future trajectories of Asian countries in terms of development, regional and sub-regional cooperation, and security.

The youth in the Central Asian states have been isolated to the south by war-torn Afghanistan for the past four decades; in the east by rough terrain with nearly impassable mountains, and to the west by Iran - making engagement with South Asia difficult. Integrating the youth from these regions would be a lengthy process, requiring significantly improved and expanded infrastructure across Afghanistan. However, if achieved, this can be the key to unlocking enormous opportunities across the region.

The Way Forward

To utilize youth potential to the fullest, they must be provided with a safe environment that safely guarantees their full participation and freedom in governance, peace, and democracy. Young people, especially, suffer from a lack of physical security in their daily lives. Children and youth who witness or experience violence are significantly more at risk for health problems, anxiety disorders, poor school performance, and subsequent personality issues. Policies should aim to incorporate critical youth priorities and be designed to mainstream effective, evidence-based youth mobilization.

Regional connectivity is crucial to harness the economic potential of South and Central Asia’s youth bulge. The median age in both regions is 27.6 years. These countries have a strong incentive to partner in support of a stable, peaceful, and developed region, with implementation being key. At the planning level, youth should be more strategically and prominently featured in the Country Development Cooperation Strategy (CDCS), along with other policies and strategies. With expanding youth portfolios, the number of dedicated technical youth specialists in regional and pillar bureaus, is also expected to rise.

Youth are the major stakeholders of today and tomorrow. Their ambitions and aspirations must become part of the current development paradigm. Investing in education is also needed to mitigate the disruptions to human capital brought about by the pandemic, including learning losses and youth disengagement. About 60 percent of low- and lower-middle-income countries have decreased their public education budgets since the onset of the crisis, reversing a decade-long trend of increased funding.



Ezatullah is working as Social Inclusion Officer and a United Nations Volunteer (UNV) with UNDP Pakistan’s Youth Empowerment Programme