Invisible Children

"Invisibility is a lack of hope, a lack of opportunity, and the inability to access the basic elements that define a safe, productive life, including education, health care, housing, food, clean water, sanitation, and security."  - Invisible Children

The Youth Bulge

For various reasons, including some success in bringing down infant mortality rates and combating infectious diseases, the numbers of young people in low-income countries has increased over the past two decades.  Quite simply, there are more people between the ages of 15 and 24 than ever before, and, in regions where economies are stuttering and educational infrastructures are weak, these young people are often left with little in the way of vocational or social alternatives.  They are the Youth Bulge.

The roots of disenfranchisement start early.  Lack of access to education cuts away the future and leaves young people without direction or hope.  Access to education is critical in providing literacy, skills, confidence and a broader social view, all of which are essential in young people authoring productive roles in their societies.  This access becomes all the more critical as populations grow.  Those lacking such access are far more likely to be left behind, to be swept into the negative, destructive, and often brutal situations detailed above.

Currently there are an estimated 57 million primary school-aged children who are not in school.  This number has dropped from higher estimates of 120 million ten years ago.  While this improvement is welcome, it cannot obscure the problems that remain, especially among the most marginalized who constitute the overwhelming majority of this 57 million.   In 2011, 137 million children began school worldwide.  Of this total, at least 34 million are projected to drop out before finishing primary school.  This translates to a dropout rate of roughly 25%, the same level as in the year 2000.  Clearly, although progress has been made in introducing young people to schools, much is left to be done to keep them there.[i]

It is important to note that ‘primary school’ in most low-income countries entails education through the U.S. equivalent of grade 8.  Because many young people who attend school irregularly have trouble keeping up with their grade levels, adolescents are a component of the primary school population.  When dropout rates within this population run high, the result impacts not only young children, but large number of young teens.

The rates reflecting lack of access to and attendance at secondary schools are significant.   Only 60% of secondary school age children globally are currently enrolled, and this already low figure is buttressed by high rates in wealthy countries.  In Sub-Saharan Africa, less than one third of all secondary school age children are attending any type of school, and this rate is worsening rather than improving.[ii]  In Eastern Europe, Roma children are only one-fifth as likely as others to transition from primary to secondary education.[iii]   In all, more than 71 million young people of lower secondary school age are not in school.  Literacy rates in areas where secondary schooling opportunities are limited run low.  Of the 127 million illiterate youth in the world, 90% live in South Asia or Sub-Saharan Africa.[iv]

The most marginalized continue to suffer.  In Nigeria, for example, women in economically stressed rural areas average 2.6 years of schooling, an increase over the past two decades.  Yet the average for urban women in Nigeria is approximately nine years, highlighting a large disparity in opportunity. [v] In Equatorial Guinea – a country with a burgeoning youth population, a depressed economy and a repressive political regime – only 45% of all students, overwhelmingly boys, ever complete their primary education.[vi]  In Sub-Saharan Africa more than 20% of all children have never been to school at all.[vii]

For those who do find their way to school, quality can be an issue.  In low-income areas, schools are often little more than warehouses, lacking adequate educational materials, basic curricula, or teachers with sufficient expertise or motivation to engage the young people they seek to teach.  Schools in some regions with pronounced civil divides are prone to ethnic discrimination, harassment or even violence directed at social or religious groups, or girls.[viii]  Access to education that lacks integrity provides no benefit.  School attendance in these instances does not guarantee literacy, nor does it provide any avenue out of the poor social conditions that surround these schools.  Denied the tools to craft alternative futures, young people outside quality educational systems are prone to become a lost opportunity of the Youth Bulge.

When the proportion of young people in any population increases significantly compared to other age groups, those young people create, among other things, a surplus of labor.  Indeed in most low-income countries, the majority of the population is under 25 years of age.  More than 200 million young people are unemployed and idle, with high concentrations in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.  Idle young men become a fertile recruiting ground for violent activities, including the more extreme politically or religiously motivated movements, social unrest, and dissolution. 

In 2011 almost 75 million youth globally between 15 and 20 were seeking work, up four million from just four years earlier. Africa has the world’s youngest population, where youth make up 37% of the working age population and 60% of the unemployed.  In all, nearly 25% of the world’s young people are economically inactive, pursuing neither education nor engaged in the work force.[ix]

At 1.2 billion, the number of young people in the world is at an all-time high.  Within the next decade, another 1 billion young people will come of working age, and they will be seeking jobs.[x]  Those who remain unengaged will face huge risks for stress, stigma, unrest, drugs, crime, and the sex trade for jobless youth who already face too many risks.   

[ii] UNICEF, 2012.  Progress for Children: A Report Card on Adolescents, p. 13-14.
[iii] UNICEF, 2012.  Progress for Children: A Report Card on Adolescents, p. 16
[iv] UNICEF, 2012.  Progress for Children: A Report Card on Adolescents, p. 13-14.
[vi] “Equatorial Guinea". 2001 Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor. Bureau of International Labor Affairs, U.S. Department of Labor
[ix] “The Lost Generation,” The Economist, May 1, 2013;; and
[x] “Global Youth Unemployment: A Ticking Timebomb,” The Guardian,  March 27, 2013.

Demographics of Invisibility