Adolescents make up a significant share of Bangladesh’s population. This age demography has created a ‘youth bulge’ in the country’s population pyramid. Those in the youth bulge will soon step into adulthood and contribute to the country’s development process at all levels. This makes Bangladesh an exciting country to observe. 

According to the country’s central data agency, the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, as of 2023 around one-quarter (27.8%) of the population is within the 15–29 years age range. This youth population could become a dividend for or a burden on the country. Bangladesh has to choose how to plan ahead to tap into this human capital. All stakeholders need to act quickly to make strategic decisions to harness the youth potential. 

Bangladeshi policy-makers are aware of the country’s youth potential. They plan to allocate more funds to knowledge development, with a focus on education, and especially on building technical universities and information and communication technology hubs. These funds are essentially for conventional institutionalised education. There is a gap here: institutionalised education, as it has been, does not inculcate moral teachings, social responsibility and life skills, which are ever more needed in the global workforce. There also needs to be a sense of collective responsibility, with a community purpose. Without these ingredients, the country’s growth momentum could be thwarted. 

As Bangladesh moves up to become a middle-income nation, it is experiencing an increase in mental health issues, substance abuse, decay in social values, governance inefficiencies and new types of crimes. Bangladesh is not unique in this, though. Renowned social scientist Yuval Harari has observed this phenomenon globally. He has pointed out that, when an individual grows without having a purpose that contributes towards serving the greater good, s/he actually starts depleting resources, as s/he tends to use them less optimally. In other words, as a nation, s/he fails collectively.

As Bangladesh moves up to become a middle-income nation, it is experiencing an increase in mental health issues, substance abuse, decay in social values, governance inefficiencies and new types of crimes.

This is where orchestrated growth initiatives, especially on knowledge creation, can help with youth development. Just like their international counterparts, Bangladeshi youth can be empowered to become impactful citizens in an uncertain future. An attitude of leadership and conscientious citizenry needs to be instilled in youth. This has to be a collective effort, coming from all quarters. 

There is a saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ This means that the responsibility to create a space for growth lies not only on the family but also on the community. Today’s active engagement with young people, especially in schools and communities, will lead to the creation of responsible and productive adults in the future. Meanwhile, youth’s untapped potential can be realised only when everyone acknowledges their right to participation. This right is not limited to just showing up at the table; youth need to be activated to make meaningful decisions. The more they are allowed to thrive with a sense of ownership, the stronger decision-makers they will become. 

In Bangladesh, young people are expected to vote when they turn 18. This is among the country’s most important civic responsibilities. But if they are to be competent decision-makers for the nation, they need to be equipped with the right tools and knowledge base. This is why one approach to mobilise the youth of today involves developing programmes on active community engagement. Such programmes build a sense of collective responsibility as well as creating the self-esteem and self-confidence needed to make wholesome life choices.

State of youth development

The primary policy framework for youth engagement in Bangladesh is the Youth Policy, initiated in 2003 and revamped in 2017. Its two broad pillars are empowerment and the development of income-generating opportunities such as jobs and entrepreneurship. Importantly, the Policy also encourages voluntary activities – a provision that is often overlooked. 

According to a 2022 study by Bangladesh’s Islami Bank, the government has always been at the forefront in promoting the civic engagement of youth, by means of various programmes. The study also acknowledges the importance of youth in development. One notable point is that the country celebrates Youth Day every year on 1 November. Over the years, the government, along with civil society organisations such as Civic Bangladesh, Jaago Foundation and ActionAid, has steadily built civic engagement capacities among the country’s youth.

In recent years, Young Bangla, an initiative of the Centre for Research and Information that started in 2014, has made great strides. It has become the country’s largest collaboration and engagement-focused youth platform to achieve national goals aligned with the vision of Bangladesh becoming an advanced economy by 2041. 

Bangladesh, with its large youth population, still seems to be taking a backseat in youth development when compared with neighbouring countries.

Meanwhile, digitisation has created many opportunities, contributing to the growth and development of Bangladesh. At the same time, crime, violence, environmental degradation and substance abuse have increased. Moreover, rapid urbanisation has led to the deterioration of neighbourhood connectivity, and fuelled a rising mental health crisis among young people. Over-indulgence in and dependency on electronic devices seem to have robbed young people of the chance to develop effective communication skills. Such skills are crucial to prepare them to be successful productive adults in society.

Bangladesh, with its large youth population, still seems to be taking a backseat in youth development when compared with neighbouring countries. On the Commonwealth Secretariat’s Youth Development Index of 2020, it ranks 126th out of 181 countries.

The ‘youth challenges’ in Bangladesh are multidimensional, and include underemployment, cyberbullying, rising violence, substance abuse, mental health issues and early marriage (of girls aged 13–19). Only the transmission of appropriate education and skills can help young people transition these challenges to attain productive adulthood. 

According to Aanchol Foundation, a youth-led social organisation, some 600 students (aged 13–19) in Bangladesh committed suicide in 2022. According to the Annual Drug Report on Bangladesh for 2019, drug use is endemic. Of all drug use by youth, 49% was the result of curiosity and almost 50% was influenced by friends. The report also found youth (aged 13–25) accounted for 46% of drug use. These are major concerns for policy-makers. 

These challenges also pose an opportunity to push forward community-based solutions. Research shows that such solutions to problems related to youth are likely to succeed. Young adolescents who spend time in caring communities show evidence of a higher rate of holistic development.

Today’s youth hold the key to transforming Bangladesh. They also can help transform the world because they have a stake in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. The United Nations Secretary-General has said, ‘Young men and women are critical agents of change.’ Young people can best help achieve the SDGs by pushing for reforms in the political, social, economic and scientific arenas.

Plan International has also emphasised the need to invest in youth so they can help countries achieve the SDGs by 2030. The research recommends that governments make a conscious effort to involve youth in national policy-making processes.

Youth also represents the engine that drives innovation and impact. With their fresh perspectives, they can propel the principles of sustainability, such as environmental protection and community engagement. They will transition into the workforce as scientists, engineers, policy framers, economists and educationists. But they will carry forward the sustainability agenda only if they are prepared through active engagement. 

Youth development through community engagement

Research on sustainable community development identifies youth engagement as a critical element. An array of social and technological changes have touched communities, which has in turn reshaped ideologies and value systems. This is why the youth development agenda needs to be at the centre of policy dialogue now more than ever. 

A cutting-edge tool for developing youth-focused policies is American youth development specialist Richard Lerner’s ‘positive youth development framework,’ formulated in 2009. Lerner proposed the 5Cs (competence, confidence, connection, character and compassion) that need to be inculcated in the youth development process. This 5Cs model has proven successful in communities around the world. The 5Cs are discussed further later in this writeup. 

Creating a youth development setting

Bangladesh lacks the spaces, the resources and the trained experts needed for sound youth development programmes. But with leadership from both the public and the private sectors, a well-designed youth development setting can be created. Community-based approaches will be crucial in this. 

The following are the eight features needed for a daily community-based setting for youth. Bangladeshi policy-makers can study these and use them in their work.

1) Physical and psychological safety: Physical and psychological safety is a prerequisite for positive development of young people. In Bangladesh, youth activism for safer roads in 2018 put a spotlight on the urgent need for action. It addressed an unattended issue of risky roads across the country. Teens in their uniforms took to the streets to build road safety awareness. They also reinstated the need to value every life. They went a little further to show the impact that proper measures to monitor vehicle safety and maintain rules can have in terms of curbing road accidents. 

Laws and policies should create safe places for young people in communities and schools. Regulations should be formulated to encourage school administrators and teachers to take part in training on tackling issues related to youth safety, both mental and physical. Adolescents are exposed to various stressors in schools and social settings and on social media that affect their mental health.

In a report in 2014, the World Health Organization defined mental health as ‘a state of well-being in which the individual realises his or her abilities, and can cope with the normal stresses.’ The report goes on: ‘the state of mental well-being of the young people globally is at risk. This is why hotlines to help kids and teens, who need to report abuse or suicidal tendencies, are much needed.’ The report takes a community-based approach to solutions, stating that, ‘Local law enforcement and community organisations could also develop programs in schools and in local communities to address issues of violence.’ 

2) Supportive relationships with adults: An environment where young people can pursue their interests needs to be supervised by responsible adults. Such an environment will strengthen trust and decision-making. Community-based sports leagues, festivals, volunteering projects, school/college-level programmes, localised cultural events and talent shows can engage impressionable children, teens and youth to help them develop their identity.

Camp Abilities Bangladesh was organised by a youth-focused non-profit in 2019. College students were trained by experts in sports and recreation from the US. The aim was to create inclusive sporting experiences for visually impaired children. This was essentially a skills transfer programme. The camp counsellors were exposed to structured programmatic experiences where they could develop skills in time management and empathy-oriented specialised skills to interact with people with disabilities.

Classrooms in Bangladesh need to prioritise supportive relationships between teachers and students. For example, school-level mentoring programmes with role models or senior students can speed up children’s intellectual, social and psychological development.

3) Opportunities to belong: Youth-led Bangladeshi non-profit Heroes for All observed the need to create spaces in which young people felt they had control or a sense of belonging. It has organised a yearly specialised community event, Paara Uthshab, in Dhaka’s thriving Gulshan neighbourhood since 2019. The community programme was put in place in partnership with the city corporation and the neighbourhood support group Gulshan Society. Students volunteered to organise the event without any support from event management companies. Once they were given the authority to implement the programme for the community, they took leadership. 

Classrooms in Bangladesh need to prioritise supportive relationships between teachers and students.

Curated programmes like Paara Uthshab give youth much-needed ownership. Such opportunities allow them to have the confidence to make an impact. They can develop a strong sense of social responsibility as well as decision-making skills. Young people need to belong to groups or to have meaningful pursuits that distance them from self-destructive activities like violent extremism or gang wars. Bangladesh should invest in programmes that give youth a sense of belonging.

4) Opportunities for skills-building: Community-based programmes can be designed to develop skills for youth at different levels. These could cover a wide variety of activities such as volunteering opportunities, cultural gatherings, localised art exhibitions, religious instruction, sports competitions, career fairs and study groups. In Bangladesh, organisations such as Save the Children, Bangladesh Youth Leadership Center, Jaago and Youth Bangla are involved in designing these types of programmes. Through different initiatives, they target communities across the country to promote personal growth, emotional development and social activism.

Activities-oriented community initiatives can build myriad skills. For example, a sport can teach teamwork, problem-solving and discipline, in addition to improving sporting skills. Similarly, localised libraries can encourage young people to develop reading, critical thinking and creative writing skills. In short, local government agencies, with the support of local businesses and non-profits, can make a huge difference in fostering community-based engagement. Bangladesh needs to think local to enhance youth skills. 

5) Positive social norms: Developing good norms is important for youth’s development. There are many low-hanging fruits here. It is important to set expectations for behaviour in institutions and on social media platforms; to create a climate that reinforces the achievement of group goals; to encourage people to keep their neighbourhood clean; to reinforce recycling and enhance energy-efficient habits; and to foster a culture of respect and normalise empathy. Faith-based organisations can play a crucial role in this promotion of positive social norms. Bangladesh’s school curriculum and media content should highlight messages on good social norms. This will help young people grow up with an ethical and moral compass. Policy-makers must be aware of the effort to develop positive social norms. 

6) Support for efficacy and mattering: Building leadership skills should be a major goal in community-based programmes. Young people must be given responsibilities in designing and delivering such programmes. They should be encouraged to help identify community problems that prevent their participation. An effective strategy to increase participation is to develop youth local councils in which youth representatives can discuss their concerns with local governments. Here, youth can be peer counsellors and event organisers. This model has proved highly successful in various leadership/engagement initiatives.

7) Integration of family, school and community efforts: Youth development efforts cannot take place in silos. All contributing entities – families, schools and the broader community – need to work together in an integrated fashion. A large portion of the day of young people is spent in educational institutions and families. Meanwhile, the digital era has disrupted relations between neighbourhoods and youth. In Bangladesh, communities used to play a critical role in shaping the psychosocial development of young people. The neighbourhood would provide a safe place for relaxation, intergenerational interaction and local fairs, all of which helped promote mutual understanding.

These community avenues for interaction should be revived through collaboration between families, schools and neighbourhoods. First, awareness needs to be created on the need for youth development. The first misconception to dismiss the idea that youth development must be limited to institutional learning. In other words, people need to understand that youth development goes way beyond formal education.

Acclaimed psychologist Peter Bensen in 2001 described communities as having three characteristics: 1) a shared commitment, in which adults and groups affirm the responsibility of youth; 2) creating daily opportunities to support youth; and 3) involving institutions and systems (including schools, youth organisations, congregations, businesses and health services) to provide positive experiences to youth.

8) Creating long-term outcomes: Bangladesh faces a plethora of modern-day problems affecting youth development. These problems stem from rapid urbanisation, technology dependence, individualistic lifestyles, academic performance-induced stress, unemployment and inadequate adult supervision. These are structural problems. It is impossible for a single community to provide well-designed programmes that can address all issues affecting youth. Policies with long-term outcome goals are needed to help weather such problems. 

Revisiting the 5Cs

With the eight-pronged community-based reform approach, impactful youth development is possible. Within this, there needs to be targeted action in problem areas. Bangladeshi policy-makers should know that one size does not fit all: what will work for youth in affluent communities may not be applicable in low-income communities. This is why community-centred approaches involving local youth can help generate more effective solutions.

Bangladeshi policy-makers should know that one size does not fit all…

Bangladesh has to act now if it wants to capitalise on the youth dividend, which will last till 2035. All programmatic initiatives should consider embodying the 5Cs of youth development model proposed by Richard Lerner in 2009. According to research by US non-profit Positive Coaching Alliance, these 5Cs are integral in enabling youth to contribute positively to the community and the country.

The 5Cs are:

Competence: Social, health and vocational competence

Confidence: Value behaviour; believing in one’s own worth and efficacy

Connection: Positive relationships with others, including family members, peers and communities

Character: Standards of behaviour that promote social functioning in societies; a sense of respect for morals and values

Compassion: Making the world a better place through sympathy and empathy

All these behavioural elements can be instilled in youth through the community-based approach. But the process can only be accelerated through conscious policy implementation.

Youth engagement through effective policies

The conventional model of education and learning is no longer able to sustain Bangladesh in a rapidly changing world. Experts in education and industry are now advocating for learning through experience. For young people to thrive and meet their potential, policies of learning through experience need to be facilitated at national level. The following are some evidence-based recommendations for actions in Bangladesh that have proven successful for youth development in different countries:

1) In Bangladesh, community service should be obligatory from Grade 9. Most public schools in developed nations require all students to serve the community for at least 30 hours before graduation. Students have said they became interested in serving in the community after being exposed to volunteering. Many would not have done so if this had not been mandated. Such a policy, implemented through the education and youth ministry for all public schools, will help build an empathetic mindset while developing an array of skills for youth.

2) Bangladesh’s youth-related policies should promote the active inclusion of youth from all spheres of life (including disabled youth and those from marginalised backgrounds), including in policy dialogue and parliamentary sessions. The parliamentary sessions could involve youth representatives from different districts. These initiatives will help build future leaders for the country who have an interest in serving the nation. 

3) Bangladesh needs to initiate a specialised publicly financed research fund for universities that involves faculty–student teams to study issues that affect youth across the country. The modern era is dependent on data, and involving young people in research will help policy-makers and other stakeholders obtain alternative insights on the youth agenda.

4) Bangladesh can give tax incentives to organisations and businesses that contribute to youth-related programmes. Such an initiative could support youth-focused non-profits and businesses to accelerate youth development. If done smartly, this could be a game-changing policy tool. 

5) Bangladesh should form neighbourhood-based youth councils. These would work with the grassroots local government entity – the local wards – to serve neighbourhoods through programmes on cleanliness, cultural promotion and skills development. A mechanism needs to be set up by means of which the local government representatives – ward commissioners and mayors – can invite youth representatives to council meetings. 

Bangladesh should form neighbourhood-based youth councils.

6) Every Bangladeshi school should include extracurricular activities to help young people discover their talents. Mental health problems are a huge issue in today’s society. Regular involvement in activities such as writing for the school newspaper, taking cooking classes or playing a sport can give young people a safe place to develop their identity and their communication skills. The government should enforce these programmes and provide some performance-incentivising funds.

Both private and public funders should consciously work together to create a resource base to support youth to become better decision-makers. A sense of belonging increases and delinquent behaviour decreases when youth are actively involved in communities. Family, educators, institutions, government and communities have to collaborate to make changes happen. 

 

Cover photo ©️ Young girls attend school in a remote village in Chapainawabganj, western Bangladesh, 10 February 2012 | Photo by Mahmud Hossain Opu.

Photo ©️ Mahmud Hossain Opu

Rehnuma Karim is Founder and President of Heroes for All. She is an academic and a community organiser. She is an adjunct faculty member at the State University of New York, Brockport. She was a founding member of AIESEC Bangladesh. She worked at the United Nations Children’s Fund Bangladesh. She pursued her doctoral studies in health and wellness at Penn State University, USA.