India, China and Egypt: turning demographic bombs into assets

The nation that best educates and empowers its growing youth population may be the one that leaves its competitors behind to thrive in the 21st century

By Thomas L. Friedman  /  NY Times News Service, NEW DELHI

Fri, Feb 08, 2013 - Page 9

It is hard to escape a visit to India without someone asking you to compare it with China. This visit was no exception, but I think it is more revealing to widen the aperture and compare India, China and Egypt.

India has a weak central government, but a really strong civil society, bubbling with elections and associations at every level. China has a muscular central government, but a weak civil society, yet one that is clearly straining to express itself more. Egypt, alas, has a weak government and a very weak civil society, one that was suppressed for 50 years, denied real elections and, therefore, is easy prey to have its revolution diverted by the one group that could organize, the Muslim Brotherhood, in the one free space, the mosque.

However, there is one thing all three have in common: gigantic youth bulges under the age of 30, increasingly connected by technology, but very unevenly educated.

My view: Of these three, the one that will thrive the most in the 21st century will be the one that is most successful at converting its youth bulge into a “demographic dividend” that keeps paying off every decade, as opposed to a “demographic bomb” that keeps going off every decade. That will be the society that provides more of its youth with the education, jobs and voice they seek to realize their full potential.

This race is about “who can enable and inspire more of its youth to help build broad societal prosperity,” says Dov Seidman, the author of How and chief executive officer of LRN, which has an operating center in India. “And that’s all about leaders, parents and teachers creating environments where young people can be on a quest, not just for a job, but for a career — for a better life that doesn’t just surpass, but far surpasses their parents’.”

Countries that fail to do that will have a youth bulge that is not only unemployed but unemployable, he argues. “They will be disconnected in a connected world, despairing as they watch others build and realize their potential and curiosity.”

If your country has either a strong government or a strong civil society, it has the ability to rise to this challenge. If it has neither, it will have real problems, which is why Egypt is struggling. China leads in providing its youth bulge with education, infrastructure and jobs, but lags in unleashing freedom and curiosity. India is the most intriguing case — if it can get its governance and corruption under control. The quest for upward mobility here, especially among women and girls, is palpable. I took part in the graduation ceremony for The Energy and Resources Institute last week. Of 12 awards for the top students, 11 went to women.

DIVIDEND

“India today has 560 million young people under the age of 25 and 225 million between the ages of 10 and 19,” said Shashi Tharoor, India’s minister of state for human resource development. “So for the next 40 years we should have a youthful working-age population” at a time when China and the broad industrialized world is aging.

According to Tharoor, the average age in China today is about 38, whereas in India it is about 28. In 20 years, that gap will be much larger. So this could be a huge demographic dividend — “provided that we can educate our youth — offering vocational training to some and university to others to equip them to take advantage of what the 21st-century global economy offers,” Tharoor said. “If we get it right, India becomes the workhorse of the world. If we get it wrong, there is nothing worse than unemployable, frustrated” youth.

Indeed, some of India’s disaffected youth are turning to Maoism in rural areas.

“We have Maoists among our tribal populations, who have not benefited from the opportunities of modern India,” Tharoor said.

There have been violent Maoist incidents in 165 of India’s 625 districts in recent years, as Maoists tap into all those left out of the “Indian dream.” So there is now a huge push here to lure poor kids into school. India runs the world’s biggest midday lunch program, serving 250 million free school lunches each day. It has also doubled its number of Indian Institutes of Technology, from eight to 16, and is planning 14 new universities for innovation and research.

However, this will all be for naught without better governance, says Gurcharan Das, the former chief executive officer of Procter & Gamble India, whose latest book is India Grows at Night: A Liberal Case for a Strong State.

“The aspirational India has no one to vote for, because no one is talking the language of public goods. Why should it take us 15 years to get justice in the courts or 12 years to build a road? The gap between [youth] aspirations and government performance is huge. My thesis is that India has risen despite the state. It is a story of public failure and private success,” Das says.

That is what he means by India grows at night, when government sleeps.

“But India must learn to grow during the day,” he said. “If India fixes its governance before China fixes its politics that is who will win. ... You need a strong state and a strong society, so the society can hold the state accountable. India will only get a strong state when the best of society join the government, and China will only get a strong society when the best Mandarins go into the private sector.”