UN: Central Asia’s Big Youth Population is Key to Progress

Kazakhstan's President Tokayev with Antonio Guterres; image: Akorda.kz

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres shook hands with presidents and addressed dignitaries in ornate halls during a tour of Central Asia last week. But he also spent a lot of time with young people, saying “their potential is largely untapped” in a region where, by United Nations estimates, people under 30 years old make up more than 50% of the population.

Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal, met young climate activists in Kyrgyzstan and students in Turkmenistan. In Tajikistan, the U.N. chief said 70% of that country’s population is under 30 and told young people at a school there to hold elders to account on the pressing challenge of climate change.

“You have the moral authority to talk to others – as those that suffered the impacts of climate change and are not contributing essentially to it,” Guterres said at a school established by UNICEF with funding from the European Union. “You are the victims of climate change. So, you have the right to tell the others, ‘Behave.´ Because they are not behaving.”

Think globally, Guterres told the students. “It’s not Tajikistan or Uzbekistan,” he said. “No, it’s everything together.”

The U.N.’s focus on young people having a say in Central Asia stems from a sense of possibility in what could shape up as an increasingly strong labor and leadership pool, as well as concern that young people with few prospects drift into unemployment and disenchantment, fueling social pressures and instability.

The fertility rate in the wider region comprising Europe, North America and Central Asia has dropped in numerous countries in the last decade, while the “five Central Asian countries, Georgia, Israel and Monaco are the only countries in the region with a total fertility rate at or above replacement level,” the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe said in a report in October.

At the same time, the report said, the Central Asian states are among the countries in the region that have “experienced negative net migration” since 2015, while countries receiving the largest numbers of migrants in that period were the United States, Russia, and Germany. The total population of the five Central Asian countries is about 76 million.

Some of those countries, especially Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, rely heavily on remittances from nationals who struggle to find work at home and seek opportunities abroad, particularly in Russia. The alleged involvement of several Tajiks in a deadly terror attack in the Moscow area in March led to a backlash of harassment and intense scrutiny aimed at many Central Asian migrants in Russia.

At a regional health forum in Kyrgyzstan last month, the Europe director of the World Health Organization, a U.N. agency, noted that Central Asia has a “significant young and educated population” at a time when European populations are aging.

“This will – if the youth potential is maximized – give Central Asia an edge in the decades ahead,” the director, Dr. Hans Kluge, said.