Recently, I had the unique opportunity to interact with more than fifty children aged around sixteen years. They had just finished their tenth grade at school. During my four days of interaction with them I gathered some wonderful experiences. This was a bit challenging for the children as they had to answer our questions that ranged from academic to non-academic and current affairs related issues. Moreover, this was a competitive exam. But the spirit and the courage they displayed was something remarkable. These were of course the well prepared and well groomed top students of well-known schools of Dhaka. They knew their subjects. They also knew much more than their subjects. All of them have a profile which is filled with extra-curricular activities that range from sports, music, arts and debating to volunteer services or internships at non-government organisations working for the poor. Very impressive indeed! I was amazed by their versatile qualities. I was also thinking when do they get time to do all this? And so perfectly! They were getting ready to walk into the larger world. I had no doubts that they would be successful in realising their dreams.
These are the children of mostly well off families, some of them being very rich. As opposed to the common perception amongst many of us that children of rich families are not interested in studies or they cannot do well in studies, these children amused me with their talents and creativity. I realised once again that it all depends on how children are raised and what values are instilled in them. Mothers in particular, play a crucial role in shaping the minds of these kids. Irrespective of their educational qualifications, I found how eager they were to get the best for their children and what sacrifices they have made for them.
I also saw a clear division of opportunities. I realised once again that quality education has become an opportunity only for the affluent section of the society. During the interview we found a few bright students from economically insolvent backgrounds who are at par with the students of posh urban schools in terms of intelligence, creativity and enthusiasm. They were also brimming with potential and waiting to utilise opportunities. They were talented, motivated and innovative. This indicates that given the opportunity, children from poor families can perform equally well. Ironically, apart from only a handful of urban based schools, the standard of education in other schools is low. Their academic performance is very poor, let alone extracurricular activities. Most of them do not make it to colleges or universities. This divide in accessing quality education is creating division in the job market, in the income pattern and in the standard of living. This leads to intergenerational division within the society. The poor lags behind, the rich moves forward.
This however, is not a healthy sign for the economy which aspires to advance at a fast pace to reach at the height of prosperity. Among many strengths of Bangladesh, population, particularly the youth is a prominent one. Despite tremendous pressure of people on a small area of land, Bangladesh is in a unique position to reap from its 'demographic dividend'. This is a situation when the size of the working age population is larger than its number of dependents. Bangladesh has a large number of working-age people who can contribute to increased income, more savings, higher productivity and faster economic growth. The share of population within 15- 24 years is close to 20 percent while the median age of its people are little over 26 years. This gives Bangladesh a competitive edge among other countries in the world which are aging fast. It is now widely discussed that economic slowdown in many advanced countries is partly attributable to higher share of aging population.
However, harnessing the full potential of this young population is challenging. Though official unemployment rate is only 4.3 percent in Bangladesh, youth unemployment rate is 8.7 percent. A recent report by the International Labour Organisation reveals that the share of youth not in education, employment, or training is 40 percent in Bangladesh. This is of course a global phenomenon where labour force participation of young population has declined in developing countries and youth inactivity rates increased across the globe. But it is an alarming finding.
For realising the demographic dividend, all working age population has to be accommodated into the workforce. This requires creation of enough jobs in the economy. Major boost has to come from the private sector through higher investment. But from the supply side, these youths have to be educated and trained to cater to the demand of the job market. Unfortunately, employability of our young workforce is low. They lack education and training. However, this is not only about getting education. A lot of university graduates can neither write nor speak a single sentence correctly in English. So quality of education and appropriate skills are fundamental requirements for increased opportunity for youths. Investments in human capital are thus critically important to take advantage of the large young population. Sector specific skills and knowledge are needed for developing their capability, improving productivity and building entrepreneurship. This can fulfil the needs and aspirations of our young and burgeoning population. They can be the change makers and also the power to transform the future of our country.
The writer is Research Director at the Centre for Policy Dialogue.