Shaping Up The Future: Can Sri Lanka Set an Example in Achieving MDGs for Youth?

Special Feature Article Marking International Youth Day (12th August)


Youth Policy in Sri Lanka


Whatever the political regime, youth and their development have always been a priority of the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL). During the post-conflict development efforts, the GoSL has made provisions for special institutional setups to help develop youth, and allow them to actively participate in the policy development processes. The mandate of the ministry is rooted in the “Mahinda Chinthana: Vision for the Future”, which is the main policy framework of the GoSL[1]. The ministry is empowered with several other institutions that look at different aspects of youth development. In materializing its main objective the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Skills Development (MYASD) was successful in finalizing the draft youth policy for Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka national youth policy is drafted with the vision to develop the full potential of young people, to enable their active participation in national development for a just and equitable society[2]. In achieving its policy objectives, the MYASD initiated the “Youth Parliament” in 2011. It was set up to enable youth to actively participate in policy debates, and to groom future political leaders. The second term began in 2013.


Youth Employment and Poverty


Over the years, the unemployment rate, youth labour force participation rate and poverty among youth, reduced and number of youth in wage employment has barely changed. The youth unemployment rate was recorded at 17 % during the year 2006, and was reduced to 15 % by the year 2010. For the same periods, the youth unemployment rate was reduced in the estate sector, and in the rural sector. However, the youth unemployment rate rose in the urban sector. Regarding the youth labour force participation rate, it declined from 51 % in 2006, to 44 % in 2010. This trend extends across the sectors also. Youth at wage employment however has not changed significantly over time. A slight increase is evident in the rural sector[3]. Small and medium scale enterprises are one of the main employment generators for youth in the urban, rural, and estate sectors. Today there are better opportunities for youth to start up their own businesses than before, especially since the end of the war. There is much assistance extended towards improving the Small and Medium Scale Enterprise (SME) opportunities for youth. The government has begun initiatives to start up new industrialized zones, such as the Achchuveli Industrial Zone to facilitate SMEs in the Northern Province, and these efforts will be expanded in to the Eastern Province also. There is an influx of educated youth starting own enterprises. Vocational training related to SMEs is mainly given through the Vocational Training Authority (VTA) through the National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) qualification, and youth can even earn a degree from University of Vocational Technology (UNIVOTEC). Youth play a significant role in the broad discussion of poverty in Sri Lanka. Approximately 14.6 % of Sri Lankan youth were below the poverty line during the period of 2006/07. This figure reduced to 8.9% by 2009/10, reflecting the overall poverty reduction in the country between these two periods[4]. Therefore, income poverty among youth has reduced overtime in all the sectors. These results are attributable to the government’s attempts to reduce poverty in the country as a whole, and it is satisfactory to see that the youth of the country also receiving the benefits of these efforts[5].


Youth and Education


Career guidance and counseling at school level is a necessity. Sri Lanka’s educational policies are quite comprehensive. The O-Level and A-Level examinations are very competitive and they are set to high standards[6]. Each year, about 200,000 and 90,000 students leave the school system without succeeding at the O-Level and A-Level examinations, respectively. The O-Level and A-level dropout rates and the provision of vocational education to cater to this segment is a major challenge for Sri Lanka. The possible avenue for these fallouts is the Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TEVT) sector. However, the general acceptance of the country’s TEVT sector has been low due to poor recognition of the qualifications, low employability of graduates, and the ineffectiveness of the course in catering to the demands of the market. The government, especially the MYASD and the Ministry of Education (MOE), are doing quite a lot of work on promoting the vocational education, allowing students to acquire even bachelor’s degrees in technical and vocational education and training. The MYASD and Ministry of Education (MOE) recently introduced vocational education to A/L stream. Approximately 244 schools were selected for the initial programme and will be expanded to reach 1000 schools in the near future. Approximately 300 teachers for these programmes are being trained at the moment under the guidance of the UNIVOTEC.

Youth and Health

Female youth malnutrition, teenage pregnancies, awareness on HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, suicides and smoking and use of alcohol and other drugs, are the major youth related health concerns for Sri Lanka. Further illustrations on these concerns are as follows: (1) According to the Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) carried out in 2006/07, one in six women of reproductive age (15-49 years) was malnourished. The highest proportion of malnourished women was observed in the youngest age group of 15-19 years (40 per cent), followed by the second lowest age group of 20-29 (22 per cent). Nearly one-third of female youth were anemic. Nutritional deficiency among young girls has an adverse effect on reproductive outcomes, as well as on the continuation of the life cycle of malnutrition in Sri Lanka, (2) According to the DHS 2006/07 survey, 6.4 % pregnancies in Sri Lanka were teenage pregnancies. Further, teenage pregnancies were highest in the estate sector (9.6 %) whereas child malnutrition and low weight births were also highest in this region when compared to urban and rural sectors[7]. Poor knowledge on reproductive health among adolescents could be a major reason for these teenage pregnancies, (3) Knowledge on sexually transmitted disease and HIV/AIDS among adolescents was also found to be poor[8], (4) Smoking and alcohol use among youth is significant, and need careful attention. According to Alcohol and Drug Information Centre (ADIC) in 2012[9], among current smokers and alcohol users’ in the 15-24 year age group, the majority reported that the main reasons for use of substances are to be social with friends and to enjoy themselves, (5) Deaths due to suicides were highest among females in the 21-30 year age group. There were more than 500 deaths due to suicides, with nearly one-fourth of them being young males.


Way Forward

Sri Lanka is a working example of youth development in the region especially when the unemployment and poverty conditions of youth are looked at. Even though the youth unemployment rate has decreased overtime, the current rates are still high. Furthermore, the decline in the youth labour force participation rate is also a major concern.

Youth are more concerned about job security. Majority of private sector jobs are on contract basis therefore the job security is low. Even though the pay is less, government jobs are relatively secure. Therefore, majority of youth are looking for public sector jobs. However, the job market is dominated by the private sector jobs. Hence it is utmost important that the attitudes of the youth and job market characteristics are harmonized[10]. One suggestion is to make the private sector jobs more sustainable, while making the public sector jobs more challenging and rewarding. Basically public as well as private sector jobs should give the same set of incentives to youth, so that the differences are indistinguishable in between.


In Sri Lanka, there seems to be more unemployment among educated youth because they are holding out for better employment opportunities. Spending more time in education is an investment for the future however youth have to be certain that what they are acquiring as education is what the employers are looking for. Youth increasingly use SMEs to come out of poverty. While banks need to be encouraged to help young entrepreneurs with financial assistance, one way to tackle this issue is to encourage youth to develop partnerships. However, more government involvement is needed to make these efforts sustainable, and government institutions can take the lead role in training youth in these aspects.


While Sri Lanka has achieved so much in addressing youth issues of employment and poverty, there are lingering issues in the education and health sector that needs careful attention. This is quite challenging since education and heath are determinants of employment and ultimately, poverty. Therefore sound youth related education and health policies are needed so that Sri Lanka can be an example to the region in all aspects.


Youth in Post-2015 Development Agenda


The Sri Lankan post-2015 agenda puts special emphasis on further reducing unemployment, eradicating poverty, increasing employability, promoting the entrepreneurship, and eradicating issues such as substance abuse and teenage pregnancy. All these issues have relevance for the youth of the country. However none of these can be achieved without an effective institutional setup and a solid policy framework where monitoring and evaluation are part of the structure.


Constant monitoring and evaluation are essential in order to make sure that youth are been given the necessary access to the infrastructure they need to contribute towards growth and development of the country. While there are many evaluation frameworks in place to look at these, the MDGs collectively stand as a popular and globally accepted measure. Youth are represented in many of the MDGs, however, the most important are the ones that cover unemployment, poverty, education, and health. While the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) releases a MDG report for each year, achievements of the indicators are not specifically targeted towards youth. Therefore, in order to fill this research gap, the Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka (IPS) in collaboration with the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Skills Development (MYASD) analyzed some of the important youth related MDGs as highlighted above. Clearly, Sri Lanka provides a good example of placing youth in the global post 2015 development agenda.


[1] Department of National Planning (2010), “Mahinda Chinthana: Vision for the Future”, Ministry of Finance and Planning, Colombo. .

[2] Ministry of Youth Affairs and Skills Development, 2013,, visited online 5th May 2013.

[3] Institute of Policy Studies, 2013 “Youth and Development: Realizing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for Sri Lanka Youth, unpublished report prepared to the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Skills Development, Sri Lanka.

[4] Institute of Policy Studies, 2013 “Youth and Development: Realizing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for Sri Lanka Youth, unpublished report prepared to the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Skills Development, Sri Lanka.

[5] Ministry of Economic Development, 2013,, “The Main Poverty Alleviation Programme in Sri Lanka”, visited online 19th April 2013

[6] UNICEF (2004), “National Survey on Emerging Issues among Adolescent in Sri Lanka”, UNICEF, Colombo.

[7] Jayawardena, P., (2012), “Socio-Economic Determinants and Inequalities in Childhood Malnutrition in Sri Lanka”, Well-Being and Social Policy Journal, Vol. 8 No. 1, pp. 1-22.

[8] Ibid.

[9] ADIC (2012), “Spot Survey on Tobacco Use”, July 2012, Alcohol and Drug Information Centre, Colombo.

[10] Institute of Policy Studies, 2013 “Youth and Development: Realizing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for Sri Lanka Youth, unpublished report prepared to the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Skills Development, Sri Lanka.