At a crossroads: a young Afghan waits at a checkpoint in Nazyan district, Nangarhar province. 
Credit: U S Army
At a crossroads: a young Afghan waits at a checkpoint in Nazyan district, Nangarhar province. Credit: U S Army

Afghan youth: challenges to development

To reap the benefits of a demographic dividend, one must first appreciate the development challenges confronting Afghanistan’s youth populace.

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.

Demographic pressures
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.

Government intervention
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.

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Himal Southasian