Investments in health and education of adolescents can bring huge returns

By Sophie Edwards 21 April 2017

Adolescent girls in Brazil. Photo by: Gustavo Stephan / UN Women / CC BY-NC-ND

Channeling funds into the well-being, health and education of adolescents can bring huge benefits — and up to a tenfold return on investment — a new report has found.

There are 1.2 billion adolescents alive today — which represents the largest generation of this age group in history, according to a new report by The Lancet commissioned by the United Nations Population Fund, released yesterday.

Most of these young people are in Africa, where 60 percent of the population is under the age of 25, and by 2035 the number of working age people in Africa is expected to exceed the rest of the world combined. While it is widely acknowledged that such a large youth demographic, if turned into a skilled working population, can bring huge benefits to economies — known as the “demographic dividend” — if left unsupported and without jobs, a frustrated youth could turn to violence, the report warns.

Large-scale investment in health, education and employment interventions targeting teens is therefore needed to channel this growth, and if successful could bring major economic benefits. The Lancet estimates a $4.60 per person per year investment in programs to improve outcomes for adolescents could bring a tenfold economic boost.  

Despite such potential gains, the age group typically receives fewer resources than younger cohorts due to perceptions they face fewer health risks. But young people are at risk — two-thirds of adolescents alive today live in countries where HIV/AIDS, early pregnancy and treatable diseases are common problems, and there are new threats from rising levels of obesity, mental health disorders and high unemployment rates, which threaten to spill over into violence, the report finds.

Speaking at a panel session convened by the World Bank on the topic, as part of the Spring Meetings taking place this week, Melinda Gates, the co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, agreed huge investments were needed in adolescent human capital, but said resources need to be directed at girls and not just boys, and special emphasis be placed on family planning services.

“If you’re going to take advantage of demographic dividend as a country you can’t just do it for the boys, you’ve got to do it for the girls … invest in a girl, she will invest in everybody else,” she said.

“One of the tools you have to start with is family planning,” Gates added, explaining that early pregnancy will “lock girls into poverty and not just her but her family.”

4 insights for better youth training in rural sub-Saharan Africa

A recent report by the Mastercard Foundation exposes gaps in African capacity-building strategies and offers suggestions on how to better approach employment trainings to reach more youth in Africa, specifically in rural populations.

Countries must invest in skills development for adolescents if they want to compete in the global economy of the future, according to Jim Kim, president of the World Bank, who opened the session. However, until recently, it was difficult to convince governments to spend money on developing human capital, he said.

“Investing in human beings was not seen as a growth strategy, it was seen as something you did after you did all other things that were directly related to growth like building infrastructure,” he said.

The bank plans to use its financial tools, including blended financing mechanisms, to crowd private investment into countries to build infrastructure, which will free up government resources “to invest much much more in their people,” he said.

“Investing in young people is in everyone’s long-term and strategic interest,” said UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin. “Small investments in empowering and protecting the world's over a billion adolescents can bring a tenfold return, or sometimes even more,” she added.

Devex is on the ground at the World Bank Spring Meetings April 18-22. Read our daily coverage and analysis and tune in for our Facebook Live series. Follow @devex, @Sophie_Ed1984 and @AlterIgoe for their live reporting.

About the author

Edwards sopie
Sophie Edwards

Sophie Edwards is a reporter for Devex based out of Washington D.C. and London where she covers global development news, careers and lifestyle issues. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.

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