SUBMITTED BY: Mattias Lundberg, Lead Specialist, Global Youth Programs, The World Bank Group


A number of the World Bank’s development partners have recently acknowledged the importance of working with young people.  DfID’s 2016 Youth Strategy, for example, puts youth at the heart of the process, working to ensure that youth can be advocates as well as agents for global development.  USAID’s Youth Power program, launched in 2015, is similarly based on empowering young people to be agents of their own development.  The 2017-2020 Development Strategy of the Kingdom of Denmark focuses on the role of youth and the need to “strengthen their participation and influence in society.”  Some youth-serving NGOs, such as Restless Development, take this even further, and are actively driven by young people to inform policy and deliver results.

How is this drive to engage young people in economic development reflected in World Bank activities?  The World Bank Group maintains a searchable database of all operations, projects, analytical exercises, strategy documents, and so on that the institution has produced.  In principle, the database goes back to the founding days of the institution, so most of the entries in the database are for programs that have closed.  It also looks forward, including projects that are being designed and negotiated and are “in the pipeline,” as they say.  As soon as anyone in the World Bank group starts to spend time and resources on an activity, it must have a project number and thereby enters the database. 

I look at this database periodically to see what my colleagues are doing in the field of youth.  I did this a couple of weeks ago.  I typed “youth” into the search box, and received 2471 active programs.  This is the list of entries that somewhere mention youth, whether in the title, or description, or motivation, or objective.  Of these, 918 are World Bank Group lending operations. The rest are studies, research projects, technical assistance, strategy documents, and so on.  These represent all the different sectors in which the World Bank operates – agriculture, climate change, education, social protection and labor, energy, environment, finance, trade and private-sector development, governance, fragility and conflict, social development, health, and macroeconomic policy.

The largest number of activities is in sub-Saharan Africa (nearly 900), followed at some distance by East Asia and the Pacific (300) and other regions with even fewer activities.  This regional breakdown surprised me – given the amount of heat and discussion that the region generates, I expected to find many more in the Middle East – North Africa (MENA) region where there are 275 active programs.  This is an enormous amount of activity that is somehow related to young people around the world.  However, most of that has nothing to do with youth directly or explicitly.  These are documents that perhaps refer to a large youth population, or the fact that youth are concerned with climate change, or something. 

I then narrowed the search to look for activities in which “youth” appear explicitly in the list of “Project Development Objectives.”  Each project has to say what it hopes to achieve, and among which target population.  This search yielded 221 activities – fewer than ten percent of all activities in which youth are mentioned are explicitly working to improve the lives of young people.  Now, it’s important to remember that this is an underestimate, because programs that don’t mention youth in the objectives can still have an enormous impact on young people.  Think climate change again.  It’s also important to admit that we don’t know what the “correct” number should be.  How many youth projects should the World Bank Group be financing or delivering?  More?  Fewer?  In proportion to their share in the population?  (And why that arbitrary number?)

In any event, we can say that these 221 are the activities that directly target young people.  Of these, 21 are IBRD/IDA lending operations, and the rest are other activities.  Again, the largest recipient is sub-Saharan Africa with 74, and the next largest recipient is MENA with 33.  This regional allocation accords with my priors.  These also represent all sectors of Bank operations, although by far the largest number of projects has to do with employment and livelihoods.  These include a program on jobs and agriculture in Afghanistan (P155031), violence prevention in Brazil (P156728), voluntary service in Lebanon (P126734), forest management in Paraguay (P156288), employment for urban youth in Papua New Guinea (P114042), and digital jobs in Nigeria (P159231).  (NB – this database is publicly accessible, or you can contact me directly for more information.)

So we have 2471 activities that are somehow about youth, and 221 that are explicitly for youth.  How many of these are with youth, in the sense that they are about voice and inclusion, or involve young people in their design or implementation?  Here the search function broke down, so I had to go through by hand.  Please note that these numbers are wrong, and don’t quote them without this warning.  However, just by looking at titles and short descriptions, I counted eleven activities that have something to do with voice and inclusion.  This is 5 percent of the 221, or 0.4 percent of the 2471.  Three of these are on financial inclusion and expanding access to financial services.  Excluding those leaves eight, or 0.3 percent of the total.

As I said, these numbers are wrong, because we haven’t had the chance yet to go through the documents carefully to see what these projects are really doing, and with whom, and how.  We’re doing that now, and the numbers will only increase.  But even if the number of projects that involve youth increases by a factor of ten, that still only gets us to three or four percent of the total number of World Bank Group activities that mention youth.  And what about the thousands of other activities that do not mention youth?  What about trade and governance and climate change, and other aspects of economic and social and political management that all affect the lives of young people?  Since young people have much longer to benefit from (or suffer from) the decisions made today by policymakers and global institutions, their voices should be part of these discussions and they should be involved actively in making change happen.  There is power in the world’s 1.8 billion young people that is waiting for the opportunity to engage.  This is what we are trying to achieve.