Andres Oppenheimer

Andrés Oppenheimer: Latin America’s time bomb: the “ninis”

In this June 20, 2015 photo, youth pick coca leaves in Samugari, Peru. Most of the residents of the area depend on coca production for a living. The number of Latin American youths who neither work or study grew to 20 million during the past decade, according to a World Bank study.
In this June 20, 2015 photo, youth pick coca leaves in Samugari, Peru. Most of the residents of the area depend on coca production for a living. The number of Latin American youths who neither work or study grew to 20 million during the past decade, according to a World Bank study. AP

There was a lot of despair in Latin America about a new International Monetary Fund forecast showing that the region’s economy will shrink by 0.3 percent in 2016, but that’s something that could be reversed relatively soon. What’s much more alarming is a separate report that drew little attention, about the Latin American youths who don’t have a future.

The number of youths who neither work nor study — better known as “ninis” in the region — grew to 20 million during the past decade, according to a new World Bank study released this week. The growing numbers of “ninis” threaten to bring about greater inequality, poverty and crime rates in the near future, it says.

Among the conclusions of the World Bank’s report, entitled “Ninis in Latin America”:

▪ One in five youths aged between 15 and 24 in the region neither work nor study. The absolute number of “ninis” grew by 2 million to nearly 20 million during the past decade, despite the region’s booming economies in the early 2000s.

▪ Latin America’s “ninis” amount to about 20 percent of the region’s total number of youths. This is nearly twice the 11 percent of youths who neither work nor study in industrialized countries, although less than the percentage in the Middle East and Africa.

▪ Within Latin America, Honduras and El Salvador have the highest percentage of “ninis,” about 25 percent of their young populations, while Peru’s percentage of “ninis” is 11 percent of its young. In absolute numbers, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico have the largest numbers of “ninis.”

▪ Throughout Latin America, about two-thirds of all youths who neither work nor study are girls, many of whom abandon school because of pregnancies. But the fastest rising group within the “nini” population is that of young men, many of whom end up recruited by gangs or organized crime.

Why should we be alarmed by these figures? In the short term, because jobless youths tend to drive up crime rates. In Mexico’s northern states, there was “a significant co-relation between the proportion of ninis and homicide rates” between 2008 and 2013, the study found.

In the longer term, the rising population of youths who neither work nor study threatens the economy because these youths are unlikely to find jobs as adults, and because it reduces Latin America’s demographic advantages over the next few decades.

Economists agree that Latin America will enjoy a “demographic bonus” over the next 20 years, because — unlike in European countries with low birth rates — the region will have a relatively young working-age population that will consume more goods and help support its elderly people. But if the percentage of “ninis” keeps rising, it won’t be able to benefit from its demographic advantage.

What should be done? The World Bank study recommends taking more measures to keep youths in schools, such as Mexico and Brazil’s conditional cash transfers to families of youths who remain in school, early detection of potential dropouts, and sharing more information with youths about the economic benefits of finishing their studies.

For those who have already dropped out of school, the study recommends more government plans such as the “Jovenes” programs in Chile and Colombia, which offer three to six-month technical training courses to youths for specific jobs required by private companies.

My opinion: These and other World Bank suggestions are good, but I would add two major suggestions. First, Latin America should create a culture of obsession with quality education — such as exists in most of Asia — which can be done through mass media campaigns tailored for youths. Second, education in the region’s schools should be more fun.

Judging from what I saw in schools in Finland, China and Singapore — they are among the best scoring counties in international student tests — many kids there have fun learning.

Their teachers are better trained, regularly evaluated, are often paid according to their performance, and can teach abstract problems through play. In most Latin American countries, teachers are considered “education workers” rather than professionals, and use 19th century teaching methods.

Unless Latin America focuses on its “ninis,” its next economic recovery will not be as promising as it should be.

Watch “Oppenheimer Presenta” Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera

Watch “Oppenheimer Presenta” Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español

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