August 12th has been designated ‘International Youth Day’ by the United Nations General Assembly, the most representative body of the UN. ‘International Days’ are marked out by the UN to highlight particular issues and offer different groups and institutions the opportunity to organise around an annual theme.
The focus of International Youth Day 2019 is "Transforming Education", which is number four of the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). The UN website describes its aim as highlighting efforts to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”.
According to the UN, there are 1.8 billion people from the ages of ten to 24. In this period of life, education should ideally be at the forefront. The UNDP places education near the top of the list of the SDGs because of its importance as a “development multiplier”, something which has an important and long-lasting impact on life, especially for young girls and women and the families they are in.
Language learning in a transforming world
There are 750 million adults, two-thirds of whom are women, that are functionally illiterate, meaning that they are unable to read or write a simple statement in their own language. The UN reports a rising literacy among young people, which is a positive development. However, there are also other increasing pressures on young people in an area that Unesco calls "cultural heritage and contemporary patterns of society". This refers to how different languages all over the world are in danger of becoming extinct.
Critical measures of the health of a language include the age of the remaining native speakers and whether young people are raised with it as a home language and have access to educational opportunities in it. Unesco cites different social forces that threaten languages, one of which is economic pressure. In a global economy with increasing levels of income inequality, this not only pushes young people to pursue fluency in a dominant language but can also create a stigma against an endangered language within the community of speakers itself. Unesco also participates in International Youth Day and it is this UN agency that keeps the ‘Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger’, a catalogue of languages that are threatened or will soon disappear.
Problems of development in youth education
The purpose of International Youth Day is to highlight barriers to education that young people face, like poverty and child labour. Different UN agencies monitor and compile information about development issues that affect education. The specifics of how education is administered differ widely between regions and within countries, with each government determining its priorities and delivering education with the resources it has. The UNDP's statistics on educational attainment show inequalities between different regions of the world. For example, there is a wide gap in minimum reading and mathematics proficiency for primary school and lower secondary school students from sub-Saharan Africa compared to Europe and North America. While 85% of students from the former do not have minimum proficiency in these subjects, only 14% of young students from the latter were considered not minimally proficient in reading and mathematics in 2015.
The rate for participation in early childhood education, defined as participation in organised learning one year before the official age of school entry, is more than twice as high in Europe and North America as in sub-Saharan Africa. The UNDP statistics go on further to show how educational infrastructure in the latter region is lagging behind world standards. Basic amenities, such as electricity, water, and facilities for hygiene are nearly universally found in developed countries' schools. In places where they are absent, their lack adversely affects young people in the classroom environment.
While these statistics are useful for understanding the current situation, they do not include a broader historical understanding of why these inequalities exist. There is a clear correlation between different educational outcomes and regions and countries that were most affected by the previous international order of colonial relationships. The exact causal factor of this is more complicated to understand. It is an area of study that has been looked at in the academic field of development studies, especially focusing on monetary flows from the Global South to the North via a financial infrastructure enabled and residing in developed countries.
Educating youth is a critical public good
Education, like health care and national defence, is considered a public good. Under this economic definition, it is in every individual's interest to have all other individuals provided with the same services. In addition to this, a person’s education (or health or security, for that matter) cannot be traded to another person like a physical object. This means the most efficient way to educate young people is through a single public provider, which is effectively the national or local government. This is also in line with the UN's stated development goal concerning education, which is to provide it to all women and men, regardless of economic and minority status.