Meeting these targets and lifting 2.1 billion people out of poverty through traditional development models will require an enormous and unprecedented amount of foreign aid and political will. Luckily, if the global policymaking community wishes to truly embrace the meaning of sustainability, there are other ways to move forward.
Reducing unemployment is an obvious solution, especially given its toll on young people (three times higher than the adult rate) and in developing countries, where youth joblessness is set to increase in the near future.
Global youth unemployment. Source: ILO, via WEF.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that 60% of young people in these areas are in temporary or informal employment, and 169 million are in severe working poverty. These issues are even more pronounced for women, who in the global picture are more vulnerable to unemployment or poor and unpredictable conditions. Improving quality and security of work will both reduce poverty and improve the wellbeing of workers.
Making sure the next generation have the skills and agency to move into good-quality employment, and later even create jobs for others, is an essential part of countering these negative trends.
So it was perhaps comforting that last month, men in suits at the World Economic Forum in Davos turned their eyes to youth unemployment rates, suggesting investment in skills development as a focus area. Further back, the UN Development Programme highlighted work as key to progress, while sustainable development goal four set global sights on a substantial increase in uptake and equal access to vocational training for both men and women by 2030.
Prioritising skills training in these global conversations is a good start, but so far there is little indication of how goals and improvements will be achieved.
Sticking to principles of sustainable development can provide a roadmap. Vocational training has the greatest impact if it is targeted to the local market and educational institutions can make links with local businesses. This keeps it relevant and helps students take the first steps towards reliable, good-quality employment based on their skills, regardless of their family’s status or connections.
There are plenty of small-scale examples of how to do this well that are already out there – Wonder’s teaching partners in Philippines, Nigeria and DRC are just a few. These projects are embedded in local communities, linked to real workplaces and opportunities, with close to 100% of students moving quickly into good employment. Sadly, these are just drops in the ocean. To make a bigger contribution to poverty reduction, this model must spread. But how?
At the a high level there needs to be commitment to training, and there is evidence that national strategies for vocational training can be helpful. However, to ensure relevance, local partners and their knowledge have to take centre stage. Buy-in from funders and the private sector, which will benefit from better-trained staff and also provide employment, will also need to follow to make these strategies reality, and this is where international donors can play a financial role.
Making these connections has many wider potential benefits, building the community and economy, whether it’s a hospital that needs nurses or a hotel that needs managers. By identifying, funding and listening to existing local initiatives with a good track record, and establishing strategies based on this, we can create an opportunity for real change. Locally relevant education done right can support populations to get the skills they need to achieve better employment and life conditions, and break cycles of poverty for good. So if we’re going to have a good shot at fulfilling the sustainable development goals, we’d better get to work.