Depending on which source you read, youth – defined as those aged between 15 and 29 years – account for up to 70 percent of Afghanistan’s estimated population of 29 million. The median age of the nation is just 15.6 years. Referred to by demographers as a ‘youth bulge’, Afghanistan’s demographic realities present a stark contrast to the ageing populations of the West and much of South and Southeast Asia, providing a unique set of economic, political and social challenges. Described by experts as a ‘statistically risky population’, the desires, demands, successes and shortcomings of this generation will shape Afghanistan’s future in the years and decades to come. At present, the challenges this reality presents are sobering.
Factors related to demographic trends such as unemployment, heightened expectations among job seekers, urbanisation, and environmental stresses due to scarce resources contribute to social unrest and violence. Given Afghanistan’s adverse security situation, it is possible that this relationship will be exacerbated. Indeed, there is a consensus that the insurgency – as much as the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police – offers a source of employment, albeit high-risk, to Afghan youth. This results in an alarming correlation between unemployment, poverty and inequality on the one hand, and radicalisation on the other: young men often join insurgencies simply in order to earn an income or increase their status. For many youth caught between self-actualisation prospects (pursuing an education, etc.) and the survival needs of the family, life’s choices are at times dismal. Often, unemployed youth can neither feed their family nor afford education.
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Demographic issues likewise affect the democratic project. Youthful populations are likely to apply significant pressure to job markets that may not have the means to incorporate new workers. Faced with a large percentage of unemployed and dissatisfied young people, it is possible that elites will be more willing to back an authoritarian regime to maintain stability. In Afghanistan, the population imbalance is likely to exacerbate already high unemployment rates (currently estimated at 40 percent) and could potentially lead to high levels of socio-political dissatisfaction. According to UNICEF, only 49 percent of Afghan youth are literate, drastically limiting employment opportunities for much of the population. Female literacy rates in the same age bracket are even lower at just 18 percent. Given the current unemployment rate, finding a job in Afghanistan is challenging for both unskilled workers as well as university-educated youth. At present, universities are producing more graduates than there are jobs, while there is a growing perception that employers seek candidates with experience that new graduates often lack.
The ready availability of hard drugs, as well as opportunities in illicit smuggling have the potential to foment further unrest. Since 2005 the number of drug users has increased from just over half a million to over 1.6 million. At 5.3 percent of the population, this is twice the global average. After three decades of war-related trauma, unemployment, and the unlimited availability of cheap narcotics, a growing addiction problem has gripped Afghanistan. Opiate use is responsible for behavioural, social and health problems as well as crime and loss of productivity in the workplace. The situation is most dire in camps for the internally displaced, where life’s hardships are starkest and most egregious. A survey conducted by the Afghan Ministry of Public Health and Johns Hopkins University found that HIV was present in seven percent of the drug-using population. The unfortunate practice of some parents giving their children opium to soothe hunger or illness further places the next generation at risk of drug addiction and other health problems.
In the wake of the Taliban’s demise in 2001, a significant surge in incoming aid dollars resulted in the creation of youth groups and civil society organisations seeking to engage with the political process. In 2002, the first Youth Civil Society Conference was held in Kabul, after which the Afghan Youth Coordination Agency (AYCA) was established in 2003. In the same year, the UNDP reported the establishment of 105 youth organisations. Encouragingly, subsequent regional youth conferences were held in Herat and Bamiyan provinces in 2005. The establishment of the AYCA was, however, unable to ensure its survival: in-fighting among NGO sponsors and others resulted in the organisation being ineffectual, resulting in its disbandment.
Despite this setback, in 2005 the Afghan Government created the Afghan Ministry of Youth Affairs (AMYA) within the Ministry of Information and Culture, tasking it with coordinating youth-orientated programs. To this end, an Afghan Government and UN initiative – National Joint Youth Programme (NJYP) – was launched in 2007, with the primary goal being the fostering of robust participation by Afghan youth in socio-political processes, with an emphasis on governance, democracy, reconstruction and peace-building. The programme aims to provide young Afghan women and men with access to education, skills development and employment opportunities. Complementing the NJYP is the Afghan National Youth Policy (ANYP). Prepared by AMYA in collaboration with UNDP and presented to President Karzai in May 2013, the ANYP is a programmatic document created with input from more than 500 youth which outlines legislative strategies to systematically address short, medium, and long-term youth issues. According to its authors, the policy is an attempt “to ensure that investment in young people leads to sustainable and more equitable development of all young women and men”.
Both the UN and the Afghan Government have been quick to stress the NJYP’s legacy, even suggesting that the project has borne fruit. Success, they claim, is evidenced by the numerous youth resource and contact centres, training programmes for youth facilitators, the provision of training for teachers, the establishment of micro-credit and employment service centres, and the development of capacity strategies for the Office of the Minister of Youth Affairs and related agencies. While initial UNDP and Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS) reports highlight some achievements – for instance, the 2010 ANDS report indicated that 20 percent of applicants who register at Employment Services Centres (ECS) find employment – one must be aware of the broader milieu. First, capital and investment flight following the withdrawal of foreign troops will create uncertainty with regards to the sustainability and power of the various programmes, several of which are dependent on foreign financial support. The ECS will be unable to help if there are no work opportunities available. Second, independent analysis challenges the NJYP legacy: several observers allege that the programmes are limited in reach (the rural poor and internally displaced cannot access them) while the quality of the programmes is questionable.
Despite official overtures, much dissatisfaction remains. Though it is far too early to speak of youth groups – at least in a politically coherent and organised sense – the beginnings of an inchoate ‘social movement’, comprising individuals and fledgling socio-political organisations, has begun agitating for reform. Similar to developments during the Arab Spring, Afghan youth harbour grievances that have arisen due to rampant corruption, violence, unemployment and nepotism, even in the face of official efforts at inclusion. Asia Foundation surveys reveal that many Afghans, including youth, are pessimistic about their futures, believing the Afghan government has failed to address their needs and expectations. Sanjar Sohail, editor-in-chief of a major Afghan newspaper, Hasht-e Sobh (8am), stated in a 2011 interview that the youth may pose a threat to the current Afghan government if their concerns and interests are not more fully addressed. This may be wishful thinking, at least in the immediate future. Afghan politics continues to be conservative (dictated by clientelist and self-serving interests) and hierarchical, making it difficult for young people to contribute meaningfully. Thus far, the youth have been subsumed by political parties and more established power-brokers and elites: there are no youth wings which are able to articulate programmes, formulate agendas and advocate a political vision. Elites, meanwhile, have little reason – or indeed, any intention – to encourage this lest it undermine their own position.
The long game
Structural change is likely to change this equation. The fall of the Taliban and the promulgation of a new constitution have ensured some progress in the interconnected sectors of education, health and employment that will prove vital to youth engagement. According to Afghanistan’s constitution, education is the right of all citizens and, up to the tertiary level, is free of charge. In recent years there has been a significant increase in schools, teachers and enrolment numbers. According to the Afghan Ministry of Education, in 2010, 5.4 million children were enrolled (the World Bank estimated 7.2 million), with nearly 37 percent of enrolled students female. As of June 2013, those figures rose to 10.5 million enrolled, 41 percent of which were female. These numbers can, however, be misleading and mischaracterise the gains made. Although the number of teachers grew tenfold from 21,000 in 2001 to approximately 210,000 in 2013, only 22 percent met the minimum qualifications of Standard/Grade 14 – itself a preposterous minimum requirement – while only 28 percent were female. As curriculum development has concentrated on primary schooling, there remains no new curriculum for secondary schools, impacting students’ prospects for tertiary education – about one-fifth of 200,000 graduating high school students, approximately 30,000-40,000, are admitted to universities while the rest join the pool of unemployed. Though more than 65 private institutes have been established and licensed under the Ministry of Higher Education, the majority of the Afghan population cannot afford the higher fees demanded.
Observers remain concerned about the poor quality of education and an overall dearth in direction within the sector. Many argue that schools are not imparting an education, but are rather serving as day care centres, and that the lack of standardisation is proving detrimental to students’ learning and the nation’s overall literacy standards. Despite the well-meaning intentions of expats and returning citizens, the plethora of schools, all with varying standards and little regard for curricula, contributes to a disorganised and dysfunctional system. Quantity, clearly, is not the solution; quality is. Nevertheless, there have been some gains which have gone largely unnoticed. For instance, the greater consumption of education, however flawed, is contributing to a dramatic fall in birth rates among Afghan female youth. Increasing levels of education for women is one of the strongest drivers of decreased fertility, which can turn a youthful population into an advantage through what demographers call the ‘demographic dividend’ (the notion that a large and young workforce with fewer dependents and mouths to feed can generate strong economic growth within a country). Already there are major differences in the total fertility rate of Afghan women based on education levels, with an average 5.3 children per woman with no education compared to 3.6 for those with a secondary education.
Still, the country remains sharply divided along urban and rural lines – a fact with which any future movement will have to contend. To date, urban youth movements have tended to lack broad support bases as conservative values continue to prevail outside Kabul. For the urban youth, disseminating ideas of change will be an arduous and long-term task, requiring the necessary wherewithal and resources to develop trust between communities. Those in rural areas continue to view urban youth – at least those politically-inclined – as privileged in terms of education and access – a not wholly inaccurate perception given that some active urban youth hold graduate degrees from prestigious Western universities, as well as experience in international politics and business. The challenge facing urban youth will be to convince rural youth and that as stakeholders they should actively participate in nation-building. This must be achieved delicately, ensuring that urban youth do not portray themselves and their aims in a manner that could be perceived as condescending or patronising. The youth movement and Afghan government must embrace all youth as ‘citizens’ who are fully aware of their entitlements and duties. For now, a grassroots approach will prove vital in achieving their objectives. In order to connect with Afghans in remote parts of the country, in April 2013 several members of Afghanistan 1400, a leading youth organisation, visited Farah province, a largely rural region in the far west of the country in the wake of a devastating Taliban attack that left more than 50 people dead. The group members spoke to families of the victims and gave blood at a local hospital as part of an effort to broaden their appeal across the country. It remains to be seen whether such initiatives will bear fruit in the medium and long term.
Issues of migration are likewise affecting attempts to engage in the political process. A decades-long war and worsening security situation, coupled with the impending military transition has resulted in many young people emigrating abroad in search of both security and employment. Hazara migration – both illegal and legal – to Oceanic and European countries is well documented, highlighting the fears of ethnic minorities at a crucial stage in Afghanistan’s transition. In a recent interview with Al Jazeera, one male youth lamented: “The situation is so bad that we can’t even bring back the skills we will gain [in training] to our own country.” Psychologically, this places Afghan youth (many with young families) residing abroad in a bind – why would they risk returning to Afghanistan given current and future uncertainties? While some will undoubtedly return, eager to engage in their homeland’s reconstruction, the Afghan government, international agencies and observers would do well to be more understanding of youth anxieties and seek to allay their concerns in a substantive manner.
As international aid declines and the prospect of capital flight looms, Afghanistan’s economy will struggle to rebuild: investors, both foreign and domestic, are unlikely to feel secure investing in a country that could regress to civil war. International aid organisations have recently made workers redundant, while according to the Afghan government, half a million jobs must be created annually to stave off increasing unemployment. Despite knowing the stakes, the government is doing precious little to achieve this goal. Small and fledgling industries have enjoyed scant official support, ensuring the country remains dependent on imported goods. Although private investors have built manufacturing plants in some parts – particularly in the relatively secure provinces of Herat and Kabul – many of them have since closed. Analysts say these local manufacturers were unable to compete with the flood of imported goods brought in tax-free by powerful traders, often former warlords turned political players. In order to reverse this trend, it is essential that the government marshals the vast pool of labour at its disposal and turns a consumption economy into a productive one.
Despite creating employment for over 2.5 million youth between 2008 and 2012, there is an overwhelming bias towards skilled labour in the private and public sectors. The bulk of Afghanistan’s youth do not have the required skills, making education and vocational training critical to sustainable growth. Although the government has recognised this need, its flagship programme, the 2007 NJYP, had claimed that serious policy gaps have been partially responsible for the current state of youth unemployment. Indeed, the Joint Programme Document reported that vocational and business training opportunities for young people had been scant. Moreover, a 2010 Committee on Education and Skills Policy technical paper appreciates that the current quality and number of vocational schools are under-serving the youth population. Perceptions that government strategies are poorly designed are common, while urban-centric programmes denying rural and poverty-stricken youth access are a familiar gripe. Both shortcomings (among others) were highlighted in the May 2013 ANYP programmatic document.
While much focus has been given to analysing the security ramifications of NATO’s pending ‘withdrawal’, the stability of the Afghan state remains dependent on the extent to which its institutions validate the social contract. To this end, the provision of human security is vital. Given Afghanistan’s demographic realities, it is clear that more needs to be done to engage with and productively occupy the massive youth population, harnessing its energy and dynamism in the effort to rebuild. The consequences of failing to do so could prove more telling than conventional security concerns.
~This article is a part of Reclaiming Afghanistan: web-exclusive package.
~ Srinjoy Bose is a Prime Minister’s Research Scholar at the Australian National University. He is presently working on a doctoral thesis investigating contentious state-society relations in Afghanistan, with particular emphasis on concepts of legitimacy, norms and law, and how they affect the ongoing statebuilding enterprise.