Zulfath Saheed emphasises the need for a youth-centric national development agenda

Sri Lanka’s young individuals represent nearly a quarter of the national population. They are the lifeline of the nation. From playgrounds and international stadiums, to corporate offices and manufacturing lines, the local youth population drives the future potential of an island that is seemingly on the path to prosperity.

But is the country providing adequate opportunities for its young and active to truly shine?

Although Sri Lanka has made steady progress as a lower middle-income nation, and in achieving the United Nations

Millennium Development Goals, its youth are faced with a number of issues, particularly in the spheres of education and employment.

However, as the Sri Lanka National Human Development Report (NHDR) 2014 rightly points out, there are opportunities to “constructively engage youth as equal stakeholders and important assets, for the development of their communities and the country as a whole.”

The national economy has reached a transition point, with lofty ambitions that will, to a great extent, depend on the productivity of its youth workforce.

EDUCATION MATTERS Intensely promoted as a universal human right, education is also a way of attaining broader national goals, including poverty reduction, improved health care, stronger social justice, and maintaining peace and stability.

Sri Lanka does benefit from a relatively high 91 percent literacy rate (which is among the highest in the region), but it is painfully obvious that there is an imbalance in the quality of – and access to – education.

The Western Province is blessed with a larger concentration of well-resourced educational establishments, while the rural communities are less fortunate.

For example, the National Youth Survey 2013 reveals that 44 percent of youth in the Western Province received GCE ALevel education, whereas only a paltry 15 percent were as privileged in the Uva Province.

LEARNING ENVIRONMENT Disparities in education are not only limited to infrastructure, with the overall learning experience also coming under fire. The current education system has been criticised for its bias towards competitive examinations, amid less emphasis being placed on the quality of teaching and administration.

Well over a third of Sri Lanka’s youth do not make it past the upper secondary level of education; a sad fact, given that education is so highly valued in society. In fact, 23 percent of those consulted in the National Youth Survey 2013 claim that they dropped out of the system ‘because they didn’t find school [to be] useful’!

Therefore, greater attention will be required to ramp up the national education system, if Sri Lanka is to reach its development targets – including that of nurturing a skilled workforce.

EMPLOYMENT CONCERNS While employment is a vital determinant of youth wellbeing, Sri Lanka has been grappling with youth unemployment for many decades. According to the latest NHDR, unemployment for people aged 20-24 years has remained around 40 percent over the past decade, with only a mild decline (to 36%) in 2013.

Youth unemployment occurs for a number of reasons, including mismatched skills, limited job creation in the formal private sector, a lack of entrepreneurship, as well as social factors such as caste, class and ethnicity. Regional disparities are also par for the course, with areas that are directly impacted by armed conflict recording particularly high levels of unemployment.

FEMALE WORKFORCE Young women face additional obstacles in entering the workforce, as displayed by their lower participation rate versus educational status. Gender stereotyping may restrict women to certain types of employment, but their involvement is also affected by several other factors, ranging from employer preferences to family-related choices.

It is imperative that all young individuals are encouraged to reach their full potential, regardless of gender.

Although local working conditions may be better than in much of South Asia, stereotypical ideas of a woman’s place in society appear to have been internalised. There fore, a clear attitudinal shift is required, if gender equality on the employment front is to become the norm.

EDUCATION SYSTEM Each year, nearly 150,000 and 130,000 students leave the school education system after sitting for the GCE O-Level and A-Level examinations respectively. A majority of these candidates do not go on to enter the national university system, resulting in a large number of young people seeking alternative avenues, which may lead to productive employment opportunities.

But questions have been raised with regard to the quality of the many public and private technical and vocational education and training institutions in the land claiming that it is not good enough to fulfil the demands of local industry or the changing global economic environment.

At the same time, there is a preference among the youth for higher skilled, professional employment, as they view vocational education with a suspicion that lower economic returns are on the cards. Issues related to self-employment also exist, ranging from access to finance, to a lack of basic financial literacy and business skills.

HEALTHY OUTLOOK Given the demographic changes already underway in Sri Lanka, it is equally important to invest in the health and well-being of present-day youth. Indeed, Sri Lanka has maintained an impressive record on this front in the past, but there have been challenges stemming from epidemiological and socio-economic shifts in the population.

A rapid increase in non-communicable diseases such as cancer and heart conditions, combined with an ageing population, could also mean that public funds for youth health care could drop in the future.

CIVIC INVOLVEMENT As Sri Lanka and other nations have regrettably witnessed, a lack of economic opportunity for youth can serve as a trigger for civil unrest. Therefore, it makes sense to ensure that this segment of society plays a role in findinganswers to the problems it faces.

The youth may exercise their right to vote, but very few are involved in political decision-making. Trust in most public institutions is also worryingly low among young citizens. The global post-2015 development agenda indicates that political participation and citizenship are closely intertwined. Ignoring or suppressing youth interest in society can lead to tense and often violent outcomes; at times, with tragic consequences for all parties concerned.

URGENT PRIORITIES Our nation needs to invest more on educating the youth, so that the transition from school to work is smooth. It must also invest in ICT infrastructure, to improve access to ICT education and improve ICT literacy, so that the young are globally connected, creating more opportunities to actively participate in economic development.

Sri Lanka may have to implement major reforms in response to the problems young individuals face in moving into the workplace. It will have to shift from a conventional focus on demand and supply, to reforms that address the educational, social and macroeconomic factors impacting the youth population.

Greater investment in creating more, better and equal employment opportunities for young people is an urgent priority. This also involves a more informed understanding of the broader national development agenda.