A publication of the Asian Development Bank No. 4     August 2009
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“When young people... are uprooted, jobless, intolerant, alienated, and have few opportunities for positive engagement, they represent a ready pool of recruits for groups seeking to mobilize violence.”
US Agency for International Aid

“By the time those kids are hitting age 15, you need many more jobs than the economy has been providing.”
Rana Hasan, ADB economist
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Angry Young Men

Governments across Asia are nervously monitoring the links between young male unemployment and political instability

MORE FUN THAN JOB HUNTING? Timor-Leste has a youth unemployment rate of 40%, say analysts, and its capital Dili has been beset by destabilizing periods of street conflict.
Photo by AFP

Jobless and illiterate, Rahimullah began running with the Taliban militants terrorizing Pakistan’s Swat Valley 2 years ago. The son of a serf farmer who tilled rich men’s lands, he grew up with no land to inherit, no skill to make him employable, and little urban industry to provide him work.

Rahimullah had approached an orphanage for a job as a cook but was rejected. That’s when he responded to militant recruiters seeking young men to take up arms against police, soldiers, and local officials in the Taliban’s devastating bombing campaign in Pakistan. Within a year of joining its ranks, Rahimullah was killed in a shootout with paramilitary troops, says his family.

Pakistan is typical of the countries in Asia, particularly South Asia, undergoing a demographic transition with a bulging youth labor force, shrinking agricultural work opportunities in a traditionally agrarian country, and undeveloped job opportunities in the cities.

In developing Asia as a whole, four out of 10 young men are out of work. A large proportion endures poor working conditions in informal and insecure jobs. While $1.25-aday poverty among employed young people has declined across the world, it remains high in South Asia at more than one out of three versus the world average of less than one in four in 2005.

In the decade to 2005, Pakistan’s youth labor force grew by 54.3%, surpassed in Asia only by Cambodia, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

“Between 1995 and 2005 the youth labor force expanded by 8.4% in Southeast Asia and by 17.2% in South Asia. The largest increases in youth labor force took place in Lao People’s Democratic Republic (34.4%), Afghanistan (50.7%), Pakistan (54.3%), the Islamic Republic of Iran (59.4% ), and Cambodia (78.9%),” the ILO finds in its study Labor and Social Trends in Asia and the Pacific 2006: Progress Towards Decent Work.

JOCKEYING FOR A FUTURE Bangladeshi boys from poor families, like Shamim Mia, fall victim to human traffickers who force them to work as camel jockeys in the United Arab Emirates.
Photo by AFP

Alarm bells about the destabilizing implications of large numbers of jobless young men have been sounded in several studies.

“Although a large pool of young people is not inherently destabilizing, there is a strong correlation between large youth cohorts and political violence. When young people—particularly young men—are uprooted, jobless, intolerant, alienated, and [have] few opportunities for positive engagement, they represent a ready pool of recruits for groups seeking to mobilize violence,” the US Agency for International Development (USAID) cautions in its 2005 Youth and Conflict Tool Kit.

A disproportionately large youth cohort “correlates with the potential for violence, especially if the youth have frustrated aspirations through some level of education but limited employment opportunities,” the USAID report says.

Twenty-two-year-old Ali Ahmed of Quetta, in Pakistan’s insurgency-ravaged Balochistan province, blames corruption and nepotism for his frustrated quest to find a job.

“I am so frustrated,” he says. “In society’s eyes I have no value. Even my own relatives ignore me, and no one is supporting me. I have tried for various jobs, but no one will give me one because people are doing under the table deals to give jobs to people who pay big bribes.”

Many education initiatives try to raise primary school attendance numbers and neglect vocational training. This can produce unskilled youths who find themselves frustrated and alienated after attending primary school because they are unable to land jobs, according to Maurice Robson, head of the Pakistan office of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

In 2008, unemployment in Pakistan stood at 7.4%, with more than one in five men aged 15 to 24 unable to read or write, and only one in 20 in tertiary education.

“Technical and vocational education, and adult literacy, are especially important,” Mr. Robson says. “Illiteracy and lack of skills provide fertile ground for those who wish to recruit young men and women to their cause, especially when significant monetary payments are attached.”

Weak stat education also draws the poor to religious schools, or madrassas, some of which teach fundamentalist interpretations of the Koran to their students while providing free food and clothing.

Mr. Robson’s warning echoes the USAID report: “Many groups espousing violent ideologies have reached out to young people by providing access to education and other key services.”

“More important,” the USAID report continues, “they have provided young people with a sense of community and purpose in a setting where these are scarce commodities. In places as diverse as Nigeria and Pakistan, failing school systems have allowed radical groups to reach poor, marginalized young people.”

Yet even if education services are good, several researchers point out that employment opportunities may not necessarily match the number of graduates.

Asian Development Bank (ADB) Economist Rana Hasan, coauthor of The Challenge of Job Creation in Asia (April 2006), believes instability in Asia arises from governments’ failure to absorb the youth population bulge into the urban job sector.

“That’s where the danger is,” he says. “By the time those kids are hitting age 15, you need many more jobs than the economy has been providing.”

“When you have a bulge population, the positive side is you will have a lot of workers,” says Mr. Hasan. “The negative side is that if your economy is not able to generate jobs, then you’ve really got the potential for instability. It likely means the economy is not being managed particularly well, so there are legitimate grounds for being unhappy with the government. And then if you talk about South Asian economies, there are also probably political or religious issues, so there are many different factors that can become points of conflict.”

A TERRORIST IN THE MAKING? A 13-year-old boy is accused of terrorism in Karachi, Pakistan. Analysts say extremist groups recruit children and young teenagers as couriers, lookouts, and tipsters.
Photo by AFP

As the transition away from agriculture takes place, some economies have been better than others in generating jobs, for example, in the manufacturing sector.

East Asian countries like the People’s Republic of China and Republic of Korea began experiencing the demographic transition that led to a youth labor force bulge in the 1960s and handled it well, thanks largely to well-developed manufacturing sectors that soaked up the labor force migrating from swallowed-up farms.

South Asian giants like Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, and Philippines in Southeast Asia have been less successful in providing a healthy manufacturing sector to absorb their jobless youth bulge, Mr. Hasan says.

“When you’ve got countries where manufacturing sectors are weak, you see a pattern where people are forced to leave the land as a source of livelihood, and they go to urban areas, fail to find jobs, and end up in traditional activities like hawkers,” he says. “The problem is these aren’t well-paying jobs.”

“In large South Asian countries like India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, you need a vibrant manufacturing sector,” says Mr. Hasan. “Governments have to do more to develop a manufacturing sector that is a lot more dynamic than the kind we’ve seen over the last 20 years.”

In South Asia, 13.7 million young people were unemployed in 2005, some 10% of the youth labor force. The region is expected to see an increase in its share of the global youth population from 25% to 28% by 2020, according to the ILO’s 2006 study Global Employment Trends for Youth.

Globally, the number of unemployed youth increased by 14.8% between 1995 and 2005 to 85 million. The largest increase was in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, with a massive 85.5% increase from 5.2 million to 9.7 million. Meanwhile, East Asia saw a drop in youth unemployment of 8.2% between 1995 and 2005 to 12 million.

A lack of gainful employment resulting from a lack of education, failure to provide sufficient jobs, as well as limited access to justice and decent health care, all contribute to poverty and alienation, which in turn contribute to instability, says UNESCO’s Maurice Robson.

“These have been pointed out as factors which have led to the present situation in Pakistan’s western border areas and the Swat Valley,” notes Mr. Robson. “Perhaps an additional factor in Pakistan is the failure to address land reform issues and feudal structures.”

YOUTHQUAKE The People’s Republic of China handled quite well the youth labor force bulge that started in the 1960s, thanks largely to a well-developed manufacturing sector, according to economists.
Photo by AFP

The ratio of youth unemployment to adult employment is a good indicator of the problems that young jobseekers face compared to their adult counterparts. In South Asia, young people were 3.7 times more likely than adults to be unemployed, according to ILO’s Labor and Social Trends report.

“In Southeast Asia and the Pacific, the ratio increased from 4.9 to 5.6 in the decade from 1995 to 2005, and this subregion now has the highest ratio of youth to adult unemployment rates in the world.”

Asia’s newest country, Timor-Leste, has a youth unemployment rate of 40%, and its capital Dili has been beset by destabilizing periods of street conflict.

Most studies on socioeconomic backgrounds of terrorists—such as those attempting to destabilize Pakistan or creating unrest in Indonesia, Philippines, or Thailand suggest that the vast majority of new recruits are aged 15–29 and generally of a low-to-middle economic background.

“However, the upper ranks of extremists or terrorist organizations are often filled by older, better-educated youth, who serve as international operatives and managers,” the USAID study says. “In Indonesia, for example, Lashkar Jihad recruits young university students, while the so-called ‘Taliban’ movement in northern Nigeria was spearheaded by unemployed university students.”

ADB’s 2008 Asian Development Outlook report predicts that the youth bulge will begin to shrink in Asia as a whole around 2010, and by 2040 the share of young people in the total population will fall to about 14% from 20% in 2005.

Economies must create productive and sustainable jobs “before the bulge begins to disappear, and the rising dependency of the nonproductive youth and elderly populations on young people checks per capita income growth,” the ADB report cautions.

“Unemployed youth is critical, as a whole generation which does not get integrated into the labor market will not be able to contribute proactively to the public life and development of a society,” says Sandra Rothbeck, ILO’s employment specialist for South Asia. “Employment is critical for identity building and, therefore, for nation building as well.”

Widespread youth unemployment carries effects far beyond the individuals who cannot land jobs, even in cases as tragic as that of Rahimullah. The consequences can threaten a nation’s wider economy and stability.

Bronwyn Curran is an Islamabad-based journalist who worked as a correspondent in Pakistan and Afghanistan for Agence France Presse. She is also the author of Into the Mirror, a biography of Mukhtar Mai, a Pakistani woman who was allegedly gang-raped in 2002 and became an international symbol of female oppression.