Mexico is not Libya, Egypt or Tunisia, but it has something in common with them — a huge mass of unemployed youths that is at the center of the violence rocking those countries.
In North Africa, jobless youths are leading revolutions. In Mexico, they don’t have a political agenda, but they commit the drug-related violence that has claimed more than 30,000 lives over the past four years.
Now, Mexico’s silent army of youths who neither work nor study — known here as the “ni-nis” or “neither-nors” — is making headlines.
The talk of the day is a controversial proposal by the governor of violence-ridden northern state of Chihuahua, César Duarte Jáquez, that Mexico’s “ni-nis” be enlisted for three years of paid military service. Duarte says that would take unemployed youngsters off the streets, allow them to earn a salary, and to get access to the military’s subsidized education programs. Many of the young soldiers would even start a permanent career in the armed forces, he says.
The governor’s proposal drew an avalanche of criticism from federal legislators and journalists. Some said it would flood the army with drug gang members. Others say it would only help give millions of unemployed youths military training that they would later use at the service of the drug cartels.
But the Chihuahua governor’s proposal has drawn national attention to a problem that is hurting not only Mexico, but all of Latin America.
According to new data from the International Labor Organization (ILO), there are 20 million youths in Latin America who neither work nor study. Of the region’s total of “ni-nis,” 16 million are not even looking for work, in many cases because they have lost hope of finding jobs.
At the national level, the percentage of youths aged 15 to 24 who neither work nor study is at 28 percent in Colombia, 24 percent in El Salvador, 21 percent in Mexico, 20 percent in Peru, 19 percent in Argentina and 17 percent in Chile. Argentina’s figure is understated, because it only measures urban youth unemployment, ILO officials say.
“Much like in Northern Africa, youth unemployment is a serious problem in Latin America,” ILO youth unemployment expert Guillermo Dema told me. “The fact that there are so many “ni-nis’ has major consequences on countries’ governability and democracy.”
What should be done? Among the many interesting programs to get these youths off the streets is Mexico City’s “Prepa-Si” plan. It offers $45 a month to high school students to remain in school, and up to $65 a month if they get A’s or B’s.
“Essentially, we pay them to study,” says Mexico City’s education secretary Mario Delgado Carrillo. “We have reduced the high school drop-out rate from 20 percent to 6 percent over the past three years. And students’ grades have gone up from a 7.2 to an 8.3 average over the same period.”
Under the program, the money is paid to the students — not their parents — through a bank card, which also helps students learn to manage their own bank accounts. All of the city’s public school students receive this stipend, Delgado said.
Another interesting program taking place in 11 Latin American countries is “A Ganar,” partly funded by the Inter-American Development Bank. It uses soccer and other team sports as a hook to put marginalized youths under the supervision of coaches who encourage them to learn new skills or re-enter the school system. The program plans to train 5,400 youths over the next two years, a relatively small number of the region’s “ni-nis.”
My opinion: In addition to economic plans to increase youth employment, most Latin American countries — and the United States, as well — need a massive restructuring of their university systems to create two-year vocational schools or community colleges that produce certified car mechanics, electricians, and other technicians.
Most Latin American universities offer only traditional five-year careers, such as law or medicine.
In Singapore, I was surprised to see that state-run vocational schools are often better funded than universities. Twenty-five percent of Singapore’s youths go to that country’s highly sophisticated vocational schools, and 90 percent of their graduates get jobs.
Why not create more two-year vocational schools, and give students economic incentives, like in Mexico City’s high-schools? That would be a good recipe to start reducing the number of Latin America’s “ni-nis.”
ABOUT THE WRITER
Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at firstname.lastname@example.org. Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.