One of every five Latin Americans between the ages of 15 and 24 wakes up every morning with no school to attend or paid job to do. Bogged down by economic constraints, early pregnancy, violence, or low expectations, they are the so-called “ninis” — ni estudia, ni trabaja (neither studying nor working) — and they are more than 20 million strong.
Even during Latin America’s vibrant economic performance and strong growth, the number of youths who don’t work or study did not drop, driven entirely by a substantial growth in the number of male ninis.
The personal toll is no doubt great for each individual. But also for their communities and the countries they live in.
Ninis help perpetuate intergenerational inequality. Nearly 60 percent of ninis in the region are from poor or vulnerable households, in the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution. Their lack of education and skills tends to lock them into low income conditions from one generation to the next.
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Ninis also are more likely to become entangled with crime, bolstering high levels of lawlessness and violence currently experienced in some Central American countries, as well as Mexico and Colombia. In violent environments new evidence shows that an increase in the number of ninis contributes to the rise in homicides, heightening risks for youth and society as a whole.
Looking to the future, the plight of ninis may also put a damper on the potential gains emerging in the region due to demographics. As the ratio of working-age to overall population rises in Latin America, economic growth and poverty reduction should accelerate. But in order to do so the region will need to generate educational and employment opportunities for all its youth — something that it is failing to do for one fifth of them.
Addressing the ninis challenge will not only ensure a better future for those directly affected but will tap their tremendous potential to contribute to the future of the region as a whole.
That’s why the World Bank Group’s new report “Out of School and Out of Work: Risk and Opportunities for Latin America’s Ninis” is particularly timely. It offers an in-depth diagnosis of the ninis challenge and provides comprehensive analysis on policy options that can be tailored to specific countries and contexts.
To reduce their number, we need to keep youths from early dropout, and also help in the transition toward stable employment for those who are already ninis.
In Mexico and Colombia, for instance, conditional cash transfer programs have increased school enrollment. In Argentina, Brazil and Chile, a move to full-time schooling increased educational attainment and graduation rates. These broad options may prove costly for some countries but other approaches, such as targeted socio-emotional skill development to prevent violent behavior, tutoring, and entrepreneurship programs can help, complemented by early warning systems to identify youth at risk of dropping out.
Considering that two thirds of ninis are female, school-based programs to prevent pregnancy and efforts to help pregnant teens and teen mothers remain in school have proven effective in reducing dropout rates. Extending compulsory schooling, merit scholarships and early childhood development may also be effective.
What’s more, to boost the chances for young people to find work, several countries in the region are having successful experiences with a market-based training approach inspired by Chile’s 1991 Jóvenes program. The training and courses are short, designed in close consultation with employers, and accompanied by apprenticeship experience, as well as job-search or job-placement support.
One thing is clear: we need to fight the perception of ninis as unmotivated youth whose indifference keeps them trapped in poverty and despair. Ninis or not, young people are full of potential and we have the responsibility as a society to help them reach it. It can be done. Many successful efforts are already underway in Latin America.
While that requires significant public investments that may prove particularly challenging in today’s economic slowdown, postponing these efforts may prove even costlier.
Jorge Familiar is World Bank Vice President for Latin America and the Caribbean