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Engaging youth in the modern era of development

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By Isuru Abeysekara 

Sri Lanka has only partially recovered from a three decade long civil conflict. Although once considered a model for development by distinctive figures such as Lee Kuan Yew, it watched its counterparts overtake itself in the path of development. A root cause of this problem, is the lack of the engagement of the youth in Sri Lanka’s development, as testified with Sri Lanka’s youth unemployment statistics. Thus, in a country where youth unemployment is prevalent, what should the youth, inclusive of you and I be doing, to help this country realise its potential?

Youth unemployment in Sri Lanka, remains at 20.3% as of 2013. In other words, for every 100 young people, 20 are unemployed. The problem lies in the system. The education system remains exclusive – with the Z score selecting the fortunate with the highest averages to receive tertiary education through the state higher education system. The tangible result is the high rates of unemployment amongst those that have only received secondary school education: 5.5% amongst men and 11.7% amongst women, as of 2013, according to ILO’s report ‘Global Employment Trends for Youth 2013: A Generation at Risk’.

The challenge has been how such an under-utilised resource can be transformed into the biggest asset of Sri Lanka, and as recent trends have shown, innovative solutions have come about to maximise the potential of this resource and overcome the gap of Sri Lanka’s development compared to other rapidly growing countries.

One such development is the start up community in Sri Lanka. A major victory, was the Google Launchpad Accelerators’ Accelerator. This six-month program, allows Sri Lankan startups to interact with the best in the field: Silicon Valley experts and Google engineers. Such an exchange brings several unseen benefits. This mass development of entrepreneurial spirit and creative thinking will subsequently allow greater innovation; we’re looking at more competitive exports in international markets, quintessential in a world where export growth has produced economic growth. Secondly, starts ups and innovations will facilitate the creation of new markets, both mass and niche, leading to greater investment and opportunities for growth. 

The global economy and internet has grown together hand-in-hand. Yet, as the world bank estimates, only a fifth of the Sri Lankan populationhas the ability to use the internet. The populous’ inability to use the internet is representative of a bigger issue- the technological divide between Sri Lanka and other countries, notably its South Asian counterparts. The ShilpaSayura foundation, upon winning the Youth Solutions regional grant provided by the World Bank and Microsoft, organised its project “Rainbow Powers” to educate the rural youth on using technology. This example setsa precedent for NGOs to contribute to such a cause with similar programmes of their own.

The net effect is the enhancing of IT skills of the youth. This not only increases their occupational mobility, but it also gives them an edge over other workforces of other countries in the region which may pave way to diverting service sector investment from regional giants like India, into our island nation.

As the World Bank shows, Sri Lanka is identified as the country with the 17th largest gender gap in labour force participation as of 2017. The increasing involvement of young women, especially in the sectors apart from the primary sector, is a “game changer” as on one hand, it is changing the composition of the labour force in Sri Lanka, which is enhances the productive potential of Sri Lanka. On the other hand, the involvement of young women is breaking gender stereotypes, social constructs erected by Sri Lankan which would lead to greater empowerment of women, especially the younger ladies, which would result in numerous benefits with the largest being a substantial rise in productivity of Sri Lanka’s workforce associated with female empowerment.

The real question is how we can build upon the successes of the existing foundation.

The obvious course of action is education. The reality, is however, bitter. Whilst there are existing government programmes and initiatives, these do not adequately embed education as a priority in the minds of the youth. Thus, I argue for greater magnitudes – a more comprehensive, nationwide implementation of existing, or better yet, improved programs and initiatives. The specifics of implementation would be upon the discretion ofthe policy makers 

At the end of the day, we are mere passive observers of the recent developments to engage the youth in Sri Lanka. Let us eagerly, patiently watch the events unfold to see the youth lead the mission on setting Sri Lanka in a course of rapid, sustained development.

(Isuru Abeysekara is a 19-year-old who just graduated from high school in Sri Lanka. He is involved in MUN, debating and several community service projects in his locality. His interests to name a few include development economics, animal welfare and international peace and security.)

(UNLOCKED is a space for Sri Lankan youth to express their views and opinions on development with the aim of creating positive change in the world. The views expressed in the blogs are solely those of the authors. UNDP Sri Lanka and Daily FT does not represent or endorse the views expressed in these blogs.)

Read more about the UNLOCKED initiative www.lk.undp.org

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