Young trainees in the leather sector at the Center of Excellence for Leather in Gazipur, Bangladesh. Photo by: ILO in Asia and the Pacific / CC BY-NC-ND

The numbers, although often cited, are still staggering: We need 600 million new jobs over the next decade just to keep employment rates stable and keep up with population growth. Young people are up to four times as likely as adults to be unemployed. Around a third of youth worldwide — 621 million — are not in employment, education or training.

It’s clear more needs to be done — but do we know how much more?

Not according to a report published in August by the International Youth Foundation and Center for Strategic and International Studies, titled “Urgent and Important: Measuring Investments in Youth Economic Opportunity.” The report found there is “virtually no data” on how much global donors are investing in youth economic opportunity: Spending in this area is rarely categorized as such and is often embedded in larger projects, meaning few donors provide specific numbers.

A rare exception, said Ritu Sharma, a senior visiting fellow at IYF/CSIS and co-author of the report, is Citi Foundation, which reports spending $30 million in 2015 on youth economic opportunity programs.

Sensitive — and impractical?

Based on publicly available and easily accessible data for 2014, the IYF/CSIS research calculated that globally around $1 was spent per young person in developing countries on vocational training, employment services, life skills or enterprise development programs.

“It’s very little,” said Sharma, who acknowledged the study probably significantly underestimated the reality. But even if that $1 was quadrupled, she said, it would still “pale against spending on other areas such as health or agriculture.”

Such comparisons may make those controlling budgets wary of tracking and publishing figures. But Sarah Huxley, a U.K.-based independent youth and child rights specialist, said a continuing “stigma” around supporting youth, especially young men, was also to blame. While there’s rightly broad political will behind the adolescent girls agenda, she said, “the term ‘youth’ is still often associated with violence and unrest” — and the implicit focus is often on countering extremism and prioritizing control, not opportunity.

Donors point primarily to the difficulty of extrapolating figures. The U.S. Agency for International Development’s workforce programs are financed by several sources within the agency, depending on whether they come under, say, agricultural development or higher education. That makes it complex to pull together youth-focused spending, said Nancy Taggart, a youth and workforce advisor in USAID’s education office.

Mattias Lundberg, a lead specialist on youth at the World Bank, told Devex that around 150 of the bank’s active programs (worth around $8 billion) are focused directly on youth — but many more include young people among their beneficiaries, such as those boosting access to finance or enterprise support.

But Sharma believes drawing out figures from multiple strands is feasible. Donors within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee separate out spending on gender equality, though these funds are often part of other programs. Efforts to monitor investment in basic education or reproductive health have resulted in a much clearer picture of funding shortfalls. A similar exercise for youth opportunity, Sharma said, would allow a “bigger conversation” to take place: whether we are putting in enough resources.

Smarter spending

How, though, should those resources should be spent?

A recent review led by the International Labor Organization found that investing in labor market programs for youth impacts positively on earnings and employment outcomes. But robust evidence is still limited, said lead author Susana Puerto, a senior youth employment specialist at ILO.

“We spend a lot of money and effort on expanding economic opportunities,” agreed Lundberg, “but we haven’t been very good at understanding what the impact is.” The World Bank-supported Youth Employment Inventory, a database of around 1,000 youth-oriented jobs and employment programs worldwide, is trying to change that. The findings are helping build a picture of what works but, Lundberg said, few of the listings include detailed information about impact.

Until about five years ago, “there was not a lot of rigor” in measuring results of international workforce programs, compared to those in the U.S., said USAID’s Taggart.

“Interventions were experimental,” she said. Her office is now trying to improve indicators and tools for measuring progress in employment and skills development. A donor coordination group on youth employment — of which USAID is a core member, along with ILO, MasterCard Foundation and others — also offers opportunities to identify common indicators and potentially aggregate data, said Taggart.

Donors may be improving their processes, standardizing reporting requirements for grantees and paying more attention to evidence — as is the case for MasterCard, according to Puerto — but rigorous impact evaluation is a bigger, more costly undertaking.

But it’s important, believes the World Bank’s Lundberg.

“Let’s say you can reach 10,000 people without an evaluation, or 5,000 with,” he said. “You might say: I’ll go for 10,000. Fine, but you’re going to reach 10,000 people and still not have a clue if whether you’re having an impact.”

The bigger picture

There’s growing interest in investing in sharing knowledge and filling in the gaps. An ILO fund for impact evaluation, long focused on sub-Saharan Africa, has turned its attention to the Middle East and North Africa region where evidence is particularly lacking, funding seven studies there since last year. The ILO’s Evidence Gap Map tracks what we know — and don’t know — about youth employment support, while the World Bank-led coalition Solutions for Youth Employment aims to build evidence and promote evidence-based policies.

For Huxley, pushing donors for data solely on economic opportunity programs could mean neglecting many other factors affecting a young person such as governance rights or sexual and reproductive health.

“I’d want to see more tracking of investment in youth development overall, and as part of that, economic opportunities,” she said. “Programs need to move beyond single issues.”

Programs for education in emergency settings often do this successfully, Huxley added, covering sexual education, protection, formal and nonformal education and vocational training.

Some donors are expressly tackling youth development as a cross-sectoral issue. USAID's YouthPower initiative, launched last year, supports workforce development, violence prevention, education and civic engagement; projects worth over $300 million in seven countries have been funded so far. The U.K.’s Department for International Development, which set up a team earlier this year to implement its new Youth Agenda, promises to consider young people across all departments and country programs, alongside funding projects aimed at youth protection, work and education, and participation.

With more attention given to measuring progress than ever before — and with youth-specific targets on employment and skills within the Sustainable Development Goals — will donors and governments face more pressure to share and compare the numbers? Have your say by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Anna patton profile

    Anna Patton

    Anna Patton is a freelance journalist and media facilitator specializing in global development and social enterprise. Currently based in London, she previously worked with development NGOs and EU/government institutions in Berlin, Brussels and Dar es Salaam as well as in the U.K., and has led media projects with grass-roots communities in Uganda and Kenya. Anna has an master’s degree in European studies — specializing in EU development policy — and is a fellow of the On Purpose social enterprise program.