Growing pains of a young nation

bdnews24 desk
Published : 27 March 2017, 01:44 PM
Updated : 27 March 2017, 01:44 PM

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Young aspirants take the admission test to enter state-owned Dhaka University

© bdnews24.com/asif mahmud ove

Selim is a degree college student from Narail. His father is a farmer. He is the eldest of three children. For him, passing the secondary examinations without any external tutoring help was a struggle. But he has made it to the local degree college. He believes he will need a university degree in order to make any decent inroads in this job market. So currently he is going through the motions, not knowing clearly how his family will afford this education and whether it will merit a job and a pathway out of poverty in the long run.

Bakhtiar goes to a local madrassa (a religious school). His parents are too poor to afford his education. He doesn't think too much about his future because it is too uncertain. Once he graduates, he may work at a local madrassa or a mosque or, hopefully, will come by some vocational training on the side in fixing watches, and maybe even start a small shop.

Hridoy is a second year student at a Dhaka-based private university. Both his parents work in the private sector, earning enough for him to be able to afford an education at this university. He is working part- time at a local fast food shop to pay his own expenses. He doesn't feel he is learning a lot at the university but is looking towards getting a BBA degree that will help him in the job market.

Their backgrounds could not be any more different, but they have a few things in common. They are energetic, proud, young Bangladeshis, who are extremely confused about their future. They are products of an education system which only helps them to produce certificates, while barely helping them to acquire real-life, relevant skills. They all face an uncertain future. Their capacity to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity is weak.

As the country delved deep into its soul, searching for answers to the rise of radicalism among the youth after the Jul 1 massacre at Holey Artisan restaurant, it is now forced to confront some scarier truths. Are we taking the issue of education, skills and employability seriously enough?  Are we really addressing the needs of the young?  But first let's look at the larger context.

Bangladesh is a young country but the youth population is not homogeneous.

In terms of sheer numbers, Bangladesh is a young nation. A hundred million of its current population are aged 30 or below. Forty-eight percent of its current population was born after 1992 and they are all from varied backgrounds. When we think about the youth of Bangladesh, we often conceive them as one big, homogeneous entity. But, they are not. Not only is Bangladesh currently in the midst of a large demographic shift, it is also in the middle of a massive transformation from a traditional rural agrarian society to an urbanised one. Thirty percent of the country is now urban, with the urban-rural divide becoming less and less relevant as a result of rapid improvements in communication. More than half of the country will live in urban areas by 2040. Just like the urban-rural divide, a diversity in their educational background greatly limits their potential. If we look at the secondary enrolment of the young, about 53 percent return to school after completing primary. As many as 320,000 enrol in primary Qawmi Madrassas, 162,000 enrolled in secondary Qawmi Madrassas. Approximately 1.42 million enrolled in primary Alia Madrassas and 1.4 million enrolled in secondary Alia Madrassas. In effect, one out of every five secondary school enrolments in Bangladesh is in Alia Madrassas.

What do young people want?

In a recent survey conducted by the British Council, this diversity is also reflected in their aspirations and needs.  On one hand, urban youth see corruption and political instability as the main problems facing the nation, while rural youth see the lack of electricity and the weak transportation system as their principal concerns, but asked about the five factors that inspires them to take violent action, a whopping 69 percent said it was unemployment, 54 percent said it was poverty.

Youth and unemployment

Like young people everywhere, the biggest risk that plagues the country is lack of employment for an age group bubbling with energy. The situation is alarming.  Forty-five percent of people aged between 15 and 24 are not involved in education, employment or training. Eighty percent of young women are in this situation. Every year almost 2.2 million people join the work force, but Bangladesh is not creating enough jobs for them. More than 95 percent of the group then end up finding some work at the informal sector and are perennially underemployed.

Weak signals and side effects

A recent survey by ICDDR,B shows an alarming rise in drug abuse. There are about 6 million users and their average age is 22. Of them, 56.1 percent are unemployed, or are students. About 10 percent of outpatients in public hospitals come from drug-related illnesses. Another survey by East West University shows that about 10 percent of private university students support terrorism. Fifty-one point seven percent of this group come from well-to-do families. Eighty-four percent of them think that the trend towards extremism is getting worse and 90 percent blame family indifference and political instigation for the situation.

Where do we go from here?

If we start to connect the dots, we can see that these trends actually add up.  Rapid urbanisation, the emerging economy and its social challenges, an education system not keeping up with these changes, the breakdown of traditional family structures leading to frustration and the search for alternative solutions – these are all a part of the growing pain of a less developed country that is trying to rapidly become middle-income.

However, underneath all these problems there is tremendous opportunity. Women are going out to work in large numbers, entrepreneurs are increasingly driving growth, large segments of the population are rapidly adapting to new technology and the government is committed to more inclusive growth. If we use all these opportunities and take a more holistic view on addressing the needs of young people, we can rise even stronger.

One obvious place to start is the rapid popularisation of skill development opportunities in sync with the changing needs of the economy. In a country where there is a dearth of employment opportunities, it boggles the mind to see NGOs still having to give incentives to bring people to training centres and empty government institutes. That is partially due to skill training not being linked with job placements and also because society still believes that going to university is the only way out of poverty. We need to change how we, as a society, view success – particularly for low income students who must overcome additional barriers to achieve it. Similarly, the option of opting into a meaningful vocational track must be championed from early in the secondary school system. I stress the word 'meaningful' because despite the existence of a vocational track, it remains primarily driven by theory.

There is no magic bullet

However, providing skills and employment is only the first step towards supporting the young nation and there is no magic bullet. Post-Jul 1, we went out to meet young people from various backgrounds across the country. Beyond skills and employment, there were a few common issues that we heard repeatedly and that is where the need for support lies.

  • Lack of mental health counselling in an extremely confusing world
  • Lack of entertainment – cultural activities/sports/activities in this urbanised society
  • Lack of local role models
  • Widening disconnect with parents and the necessity of supporting parents who do not understand a new, socially networked world and need help with their children
  • An urge to connect to larger causes goes unnoticed

The growing pains that we face now can veer out of control very quickly, as we are learning the hard way. But in order to get it right, the NGOs, government and the private sector need to come together, more than ever before, to provide help in according to their strengths.


Asif Saleh is a Senior Director at BRAC, overseeing strategy, communication and empowerment programmes. He is also on the board of various youth organisations. He is a former Executive Director of Goldman Sachs in London
Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher