Our youth are craving opportunities
In a first-of-its-kind study, the Economic Relations Division (ERD) under the finance ministry found that around 1.6 million young people lost their jobs and about 20 million youths faced income loss due to the pandemic. No doubt the pandemic has been extremely difficult for young people—as well as people of other age groups—around the world. But the study acknowledged that it has been particularly brutal for Bangladesh's youth labour force.
Part of that obviously has to do with the lockdowns that the government had imposed to contain Covid-19 transmission, and the resulting economic losses. Another part has to do with the unequal recovery that we have experienced. For example, cottage, micro, small and medium enterprises (CMSMEs), which account for 98 percent of all firms and half of all jobs, have been able to access only around Tk 15,000 crore of the Tk-40,000-crore stimulus packages allocated by the government. Meanwhile, large firms have gained access to the majority of the funds that the government set aside for them.
This disparity in disbursement of funds under the stimulus programme is the main obstacle to a comprehensive economic recovery and sustainable job creation, according to former Bangladesh Bank governor Salehuddin Ahmed.
In order to overcome the prevailing crisis, government dole-outs or enhanced safety net programmes cannot continue forever; hence, it is the creation of more jobs that matters the most. However, the pandemic alone is not the only factor that is of concern in regards to the creation of more jobs, particularly for young people.
Even before the pandemic began, Bangladesh was struggling to create jobs and exciting new opportunities for its younger population. According to the Labour Force Survey, 2016-17, youth unemployment in the country (12.3 percent) far surpassed overall unemployment (4.2 percent)—even though the latter (as per the official data) was shockingly as low as in countries such as Switzerland and the US, which some economists deemed very unrealistic. Moreover, during that time, the rate of job creation had already slowed down at a worrying rate: between 2013 and 2016-17, while the average annual GDP growth was 6.6 percent, the average annual growth of jobs was only 0.9 percent.
Lack of long-term and innovative planning are partly to blame for this. But so are bad governance and widespread corruption. The fact that Bangladesh has continually done poorly in the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business ranking shows how the business environment has been hampered by these and other factors.
Corruption and poor governance are always serious drawbacks for business. Corrupt groups and individuals who curry favours from the government not only get "special" benefits that allow them to dominate the business landscape without having to operate more efficiently, but they also create barriers to entry for more skilled competition, which leads to the creation of monopolies and less jobs. The social cost that arises as a result of such corruption far outweighs what is easily detectable on the surface.
Besides the increased unemployment and income loss, about two million college students and one million university students are also facing serious uncertainties about their future. And as more young people sit idle at home, they are also developing various health problems such as sleep disorders, obesity, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, which will have long-term health and economic implications for them and for society as a whole.
Whereas one would expect the youth to be more productive and the biggest source of innovation, the pandemic, along with the lack of space that we have traditionally reserved for them, is stifling their creativity from freely flowing and changing society for the better. Not only are our young people suffering as a consequence, but so is everyone else.
The most unfortunate part is that our young people actually want to get involved and help. According to a survey done by the ERD, the topmost priority of our adolescents is to help other people, while a significant area of their dreams and aspirations are related to the prosperity of society and the country.
And the same survey acknowledges that there is no other alternative but to create an environment in Bangladesh where the next generation can raise their voice, make themselves heard and exercise their agency.
In regards to the pandemic, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has warned that unless action is taken to tackle the way it has affected young people's employment opportunities, many of them could continue to struggle for decades. But the problem we have is much bigger—it is one of giving young people the opportunity to truly and freely get involved, and feel a sense of ownership of this country, which they are being denied by the power-obsessed who simply cannot tolerate seeing others gain any kind of opportunities or freedom.
And that, most definitely, will hold back the progress of Bangladesh for decades, which is why we need to see a change fast.
Eresh Omar Jamal is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star. His Twitter handle is: @EreshOmarJamal