What can Africa learn from East Asia’s boom?

Today’s record 1.8 billion young people present an enormous opportunity to transform the future. But they can do so only if they have the education and skills they need, health and real choices in life.

Investing in young people’s human capital can help countries reap a demographic dividend that can lift millions out of poverty and raise living standards. The demographic transition underway in many developing countries is resulting in a very large working-age population, which can be a powerful force for economic growth.

In East Asia, harnessing the demographic dividend propelled and transformed the economy in a historically short time and contributed to a 6% annual average growth in per-capita income between 1965 and 1995.

If sub-Saharan Africa drew on East Asia’s experience, adapted it to the local context and made comparable investments in young people, the region could experience an economic miracle of its own, adding as much as US$500bn to its economies every year for as many as 30 years.

East Asia provides an interesting case study. In 1950, the Philippines, Thailand and the Republic of Korea all had about the same total population, around 20 million, and similar GDP per capita, between $800 and $1,000.

Because of South Korea’s investments in education, health and voluntary family planning, fertility fell more quickly than in the other countries, resulting in fewer dependents and more resources available to create or expand businesses, build infrastructure and for productive investments that led to economic growth.

Between 1950 and 2008, South Korea’s GDP grew about 2,200%, while Thailand’s grew 970%, and the Philippines’ grew only 170%.

The success of the international community’s next big push for sustainable development depends on how well we support young people and engage them in decisions that affect their lives and our common future. As countries pursue a demographic dividend, the gains made must result in inclusive, equitable growth that benefits everyone.

Promoting equal opportunities for all can have an exponentially positive impact on economies, communities and nations. This means protecting the rights of women and girls and promoting participation and inclusion.

Investing in young people in ways that enable countries to realise their demographic dividends can boost per capita incomes for decades to come. Key investments include education, health, including sexual and reproductive health, skills training, job creation, and equality for women and girls.

The success of the new sustainable development goals depend on whether young people see themselves as shaping the future.

Babatunde Osotimehin is the executive director of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, and chair of the Global Agenda Council on the Demographic Dividend. This article was first published on the World’s Economic Forum’s blog.