Out-of-school & out-of-work youth may heighten citizen security challenges in Latin America

By Jilian Slutzker

January 25, 2016

Nearly 20 million Latin American youth ages 15 to 24 are both out-of-school and out-of-work, posing major economic, social, education and security challenges for the region, according to a new World Bank report.

Youth in this group called “ninis”—abbreviated from the Spanish phrase “ni estudiar ni trabaja”—are more likely to come from lower income households.

As a result of dropping out of school, they have lower earning potential and poor employment prospects, the study finds. Those who do land jobs often find unstable or informal work and are likely to slide back into nini status.

Ninis are also likely to perpetuate an intergenerational cycle of poverty, the report finds, and teen mothers and girls married before they age of 18 are especially vulnerable.

The effects of the nini demographic bulge has widespread implications for the region, say the report’s authors.

“Why should we all, not only governments, but society at large care about this problem?” posed Rafael de Hoyos, one of the report’s authors speaking at the report launch on Jan. 19. “Being a nini today has a negative effect on labor market indicators 20 years into the future.”

Matching intervention to level of risk

For countries facing widespread gang violence and peak homicide rates like El Salvador and Honduras, the nini phenomenon is a citizen security challenge as well as an economic one.

But not all ninis face an equal level of risk of joining these violent groups, says Enrique Roig, Director of Citizen Security at Creative Associates International and a panelist at the report launch.

“What we know from the research is 0.5 percent of those males in hotspot neighborhoods are going to commit crime and violence,” said Roig.

For the majority of ninis who fall into a primary level of risk by virtue of living in vulnerable neighborhoods and lacking jobs or education, Roig said employment and education interventions are appropriate.

However, Roig says that more targeted interventions, called secondary prevention, are necessary for a smaller subset of youth, including ninis, who are empirically most at risk of joining gangs—based on assessed risk factors such as lack of parental supervision, substance abuse, negative peer influence, impulsive risk taking and more. Secondary prevention activities work to lower the risk factors of youth at the highest risk of joining gangs and violent groups.

An even smaller group of ninis who come into conflict with the law require tertiary level interventions, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, life skills training, pyschosocial counseling and more, says Roig, before they can join the workforce and reintegrate into society.

“The important thing is to be able to understand the different levels of risk with regards to the nini population and to fit the intervention to that level of risk,” he said.

Focusing on the family

When designing programs to meet the needs of ninis, Roig says, considering the family is equally critical.

“Oftentimes we talk about youth at risk as though they are this isolated group, but obviously they are part of a family structure, that needs employment and other support too,” said Roig.

Particularly when working with ninis at high risk for committing violence, families can be powerful allies in establishing and reinforcing positive behaviors that reduce youth risk factors.

The security, education & employment connection

Preventing dropout and finding viable, stable employment for ninis must be a priority for the governments of the region, say the report’s authors and the expert panelists.

Panelist Luis Almagro, Secretary General for the Organization of American States, noted that dropout prevention must be tailored to each country’s particular dropout trends and needs.

“We need to design the educational system to bring as many people as possible in, not to leave people behind,” said Almagro.

But for these education and employment interventions to work, Roig said improving the security in many of the hotspot neighborhoods where ninis live is a must.

“It’s very hard for students and for teachers to provide quality education when the schools are unsafe,” he said, noting that for many of these youth walking to school is itself a danger, let alone the risk of gang violence and intimidation at the school itself. Insecurity, therefore, is one potential cause of dropout.

Employment programs must also take into account the effects of crime and violence and the stigma faced by ninis from some of the most notorious communities when they apply for jobs.

“Depending on the neighborhood you come from, or how you look or if you have tattoos, it immediately sends a signal to employers,” said Roig. “More has to be done in that regard to work with the private sector in Central America to get that buy-in and support.”

As governments and development practitioners reckon with the nini challenge and develop solutions to unlock the economic and social potential of 20 million young people, improving citizen security will remain essential.

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