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291 Million Youth Live With No Electricity, No Computers, No Printers – UN Laments

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By Shanta Roy

NEW YORK (IDN) – When the United Nations commemorated World Youth Skills Day on July 16, there was one strong underlying theme that overshadowed the event.

Despite marked progress in the role of youth in a society increasingly characterized by high technology and artificial intelligence, the new generation, particularly in the developing world, was still lagging far behind in the fast-moving digital world.

Addressing a High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development on July 16, the UN’s Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed pointed out a realistically depressing fact: globally, over 291 million children attend primary schools without any electricity. 

“This means they have no electric lights, no refrigerators, no fans, no computers, no printers,” she declared.

An equally staggering fact was singled out by the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Youth, Jayathma Wickramanayake of Sri Lanka, at an event commemorating World Youth Skills Day: “While we focus on what the work environment will look like in the future, let’s not forget the estimated 71 million youth that are unemployed across the world.”

She pointed out that young people are three times more likely to be unemployed than adults.

This makes a strong case for the need for investment in education and training which are key to realizing the full potential of young people, as well as to achieving inclusive and sustainable development and peace, she argued.

In today’s ever changing, fast-paced, and technological environment, she said, “it is crucial that we equip young people with the necessary skills to seize the potential of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and safeguard against its risks.”

She said digital technologies, including artificial intelligence, could play a big role in new innovations. As technological progress continues to push the frontier of what machines can do, the world of work, as we know it, is constantly being redefined, and ultimately creating a skills gap.

Meanwhile, the United Nations is also planning to introduce a new system-wide UN “Youth Strategy” – the details of which will be released in September – which will focus on putting youth at the forefront of innovation, and bring more young people and their ideas to the United Nations.

Still, the wider question remained as to what governments were doing to close this gap – especially before the 2030 deadline for the implementation of the UN’s highly ambitious development agenda, including the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Wickramanayake warns that there will be little progress unless governments re-shape their policies, companies change their work environments and schools encourage young people to move forward to realize their full potential for a sustainable future.

Dr. Palitha Kohona, former Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka, who was one of the key architects of the resolution declaring World Youth Skills Day, told IDN that policy makers in developing countries themselves have to take the primary share of the responsibility if their youth lack marketable skills.

Many of these countries became independent over 45 years ago and it is no longer possible to keep on blaming their former colonial masters or other external elements.

If the necessary policies had been adopted and resources allocated, he pointed out, the problem could have been addressed many years ago.

In addition, the misappropriation of public funds through corruption has been a contributing factor to problems of developing countries.

“Those developing countries which adopted the necessary policies and allocated adequate resources are reaping the benefits in abundance. China and South Korea are examples of this.”

“If serious policies are put in place, technical assistance and resources can be obtained from the UN system, including UNDP, UNICEF, UNFPA, UNESCO, UNIDO, bilateral donors, and even the private sector,” he told IDN.

The UN General Assembly, on December 18, 2014, adopted by consensus, resolution A/RES/69/145, titled ‘World Youth Skills Day’ spearheaded by Sri Lanka, declaring 15th July as the World Youth Skills Day. Since then, this has been an annual event celebrated at the UN.

This year’s special event at the UN was held under the theme ‘Sustainability and Innovation’ and co-chaired by Permanent Representatives Dr Rohan Perera of Sri Lanka and Francisco António Duarte Lopes of Portugal. The event explored how the issues of exponential technological change and skills development are interrelated and the actions need to be taken to empower youth to become drivers of a sustainable future.

In his opening remarks, Dr Perera highlighted the pros and cons of an increasingly digital world with technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, cloud computing and big data changing the way people consume, live and work. He highlighted that the challenge is to harness the positives of technological advancement, while minimizing the negative of technological unemployment or underemployment.

Miroslav Lajčák, President of the General Assembly, who delivered the keynote address, noted that youth of today face many new challenges unlike previous generations and that the quality of education available to most youth did not respond to current world trends. He stressed on the importance of including young people in making and implementing policies and investing more in skills and education.

According to McKinsey Global Institute, around 15 percent of the global workforce, close to 400 million jobs, could be displaced by automation between 2016 and 2030.

In the same time period, Mckinsey estimates there will be an increased labour demand of 21 to 33 percent, roughly 555 million to 890 million jobs, which more than offsets the number of jobs lost to automation; if the right policies are in place.

While the change in the workforce environment is likely to have a distinct impact in different countries, ILO reported that between 3 and 14 percent of the global workforce would need to switch occupational categories.

So, while there may be sufficient job creation to compensate for technological unemployment, the realization of these opportunities will depend on ensuring that workers can move to newly created jobs.

UN Special Envoy Wickramanayake told delegates the challenge would be ensuring a fair transition for everyone. “To do so, we will need governments, employers, workers, other stakeholders and youth themselves to shape policies and their effective implementation.”

Historically, she said, technology has been a net job creator.

“I believe most of us in the room are too young to know this, but the word ‘computer’ used to be the job title of a person who did calculations and computations manually, until the personal computer that we know today was introduced in the 1970s and 1980s.”

This invention, she noted, reshaped the position and created millions of jobs not just for electrical engineers, but also for software developers, customer service representatives, information analysts, and more.

Although automation has replaced many manual tasks, it has also complemented the work that humans do and can perform tasks that go beyond human capabilities. Artificial intelligence will continue to reshape the job market by taking away some jobs, and simultaneously, creating new jobs that do not exist today, she added.

Just 20 years ago, she said, there were no “social media marketers,” “app developers” or “big data analysts.”

“And I am sure that 20 years from now there will be new technologies emerging beyond Artificial Intelligence with new jobs that we cannot yet imagine. It is therefore crucial that we equip young people with technical and vocational skills, build their ability to be critical and creative thinkers, problem-solve and develop the soft skills needed to be resilient and navigate this complex and ever-changing world of work.”

She said a good place to start is “enhancing, or upgrading, our education system, and shifting the focus toward non-formal and informal education and lifelong learning.”

A multitude of adaptive learning platforms that allow learners to strengthen their skills and knowledge do, in fact, exist. However the question remains, how can we reach those who are “outside the grid” with no access to the internet, and consequently, no access to these educational platforms?

“I am excited to note that many young people are already doing their part in bridging the youth skills gap,” she added. [IDN-InDepthNews – 22 July 2018]

Photo: From Left to Right (front row): Jayathma Wickramanayake, UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth; Karunarathna Paranawithana, Deputy Minister of Science, Technology, Research, Skills Development 7 & Vocational Training and Kandyan Heritage; Dr. Rohan Perera, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the UN in New York; Francisco António Duarte Lopes, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Portugal to the UN in New York; Guy Ryder, Director-General ILO; Marie Paule Roudil, Director UNESCO. Credit: Sri Lanka Permanent Mission to the UN in New York.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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