The "Asia-Pacific Employment and Social Outlook Report 2018" published by the International Labour Organization (ILO) suggested that the youth unemployment rate in Bangladesh had increased from 6.32 percent in 2000 to 12.8 percent in 2018. The percentage of citizens in the 15-24 age group is currently estimated to be approximately 20 percent of the total population—with the aggregate youth population (10-24 age group) being 47.6 million, or in other words, 30 percent of the 158.5 million strong population of the country. If considered in relation to the GDP growth rate, which has increased from 5.6 percent in 2000 to 7.86 percent in 2018, the ever-growing youth population in tandem with increasing youth unemployment numbers, indicates concerning trends in the way economic development is perceived in Bangladesh.
In my opinion, a fundamental barrier in reducing the youth unemployment rate in a country witnessing impressive levels of nominal economic development, at least in terms of numbers, is in the vicinity of a lack of good governance. Whilst there is no consensus on the definition of good governance, stakeholders usually refer to the term as encompassing both the process of decision making and the methods via which such decisions are implemented or not implemented. The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) defines good governance via eight major characteristics: governance needs to be participatory, accountable, responsive, transparent, consensus oriented, effective and efficient, equitable and inclusive, and in adherence to the rule of law.
With increasing net enrolment figures in all levels of education, Bangladesh has witnessed an increasing number of tertiary graduates—yet the country is positioned second when it comes to graduate level unemployment numbers in the Asia-Pacific. Graduate level unemployment statistics form the primary component of the total youth unemployment rate, indicating a clear mismatch in the cumulative demand for post-graduation jobs versus the aggregate supply of economic opportunities, leading to market inefficiencies in the form of underutilised human capital resources.
Pakistan leads this chart with a staggering graduate level unemployment rate of 16.8 percent, with Bangladesh (10.7 percent), India (8.4 percent) and Sri Lanka (7.9 percent) following suit on the list comprising 28 countries in the region. This statistic is concerning, especially considering the enhanced performances of Saarc member states in several human development indicators. Nevertheless, the common trend of political instability, violations of the rule of law and curtailed civil rights, may explain why a lack of good governance across South East Asia is an indication, if not a cause, of high levels of youth unemployment in these countries.
A 2015 study by researchers at the University of Sussex, theorised that youth unemployment is a symptom rather than a cause of political instability in developing societies. The exaggerated use of state institutions, particularly law enforcement agencies, and the simultaneous construction of any and all forms of dissent being seen as anti-government in nature, has created unwarranted tensions between youth groups and the state. In retrospect, many of the problems we see amongst the youth, particularly with relation to hard drug usage, radicalism and mental health problems, stem from a lack of economic opportunities, or in other words, employment or entrepreneurship schemes. With respect to being active citizens of the country in recent times, whenever our youth have tried to make a valid point regarding problems they witness in society, their actions have been undermined and often politicised by partisan actors. On one hand our political parties repeatedly suggest that their platforms must respect the wills of the youth population, but their actions on certain core issues, have suggested otherwise. The apolitical and non-partisan environment which existed in the recent safe roads movement and the quota reform demonstrations, was transitioned to one where political leanings and conspiracies were brought to the discussion, by those aiming to make both issues controversial. Nevertheless, on a broader scale, if the political stakeholders who wield authority fail to engage the youth in the socio-economic process, then development cannot be inclusive—the increasing youth unemployment numbers pays a testament to this idea.
When it comes to addressing youth unemployment, it goes without saying that vocational training schemes, the creation of a healthy investment environment, the initiation of a quality education system and the improvement of digital technology—all of these aspects are covered as per the mandated pledges of the current government, and will go a long way in increasing employment numbers amongst the youth. And we hope that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her government can fulfil these pledges efficiently. However, a more philosophical change is needed in order to allow our human capital resources to flourish further: one hopes that the development that is being seen in Bangladesh is transitioned to a bottom up approach, rather than a top down one. Otherwise, the small proportion of elite Bangladeshis responsible for creating jobs, will focus on addressing their financial needs, and as such, make economic growth exclusive, unsustainable, inequitable and inefficient. The elite have an important role in our socio-economic journey, that goes without saying. Yet curtailing the power they derive from their wealth, and empowering those with lower levels of financial resources, is an essential responsibility of the state. Resources in the hands of the few, rather than the many, is something which historically has resulted in socially weaker groups being marginalised from the economic process. It is sad to see that people attaining degrees from academic institutions are falling prey to this system.
These aspects of good governance, particularly that of accountability, respect for the rule of law and consensus based decision making, needs to be implemented by the government with the support of opposition political actors and other national stakeholders. Youth unemployment numbers can be reduced if our society cumulatively focuses on the need to listen to the demands of our younger populations. Nepotism, corruption in public institutions and a lack of transparency within our financial institutions, all are contributing to the creation of an underutilised, yet educated workforce.
Rather than simply assimilating jobless people into the workforce, we need to integrate the ideas of common citizens within our developmental agendas—perhaps a community-based approach towards capacity building and economic development, rather than the classic neoliberal approach being taken in modern Bangladesh today, will allow our human capital resources to flourish. Therefore, whilst we appreciate the schemes being undertaken by the government to address our economic challenges, we urge them to instil good governance across state institutions, and encourage private actors to do the same through accountability legislations and a civic demand for transparency in our economic activities.
Mir Aftabuddin Ahmed is a graduate of economics and international relations, University of Toronto.