For these programs to work, however, children must be ready to enter secondary education. Yet, in Morocco, for example, more than 80 percent of schoolchildren complete elementary school, although fewer than 20 percent have mastered the material.
Second, policies should support young people as they strive to make good decisions. Governments cannot substitute for parents or for communities, but they can encourage young people and their families to invest in themselves. Armed with the right information and incentives, young people can make better decisions about their health and education.
In Cameroon, Horizon Jeunes, a reproductive health program that targets urban youth, increased young people's knowledge of reproductive health and successfully changed their behavior. Condom use among females increased from 58 percent to 76 percent in the treatment group.
Similarly, the rate at which eighth graders from the Dominican Republic entered upper secondary levels increased when they simply were told how much more those who finished high school earned -- an amount they had vastly underestimated.
Bangladesh's Female Secondary Stipend Program was successful in helping girls aged 11 to 14 delay marriage and remain in school.
Governments must also begin to offer "second chances" for young people who have fallen behind because of to difficult circumstances or poor choices. Such programs must be well designed, targeted and coordinated to give the right incentives to beneficiaries. For example, sub-Saharan Africa has thousands of young combatants -- 100,000 in Sudan alone -- who hope to reconstruct their lives in peacetime but will require skills training and jobs, as well as medical and psychological support.
Focusing political will and the efforts of young people to expand opportunities, enhance capabilities and provide second chances can help countries make the most of today's demographic advantage. Countries can either harness this growth -- and in so doing, transform their development prospects -- or face the risk of an alienated generation embittered by the unfulfilled chance of a better future.
Francois Bourguignon is senior vice president and chief economist of the World Bank.
Copyright: Project Syndicate