Latam's aspirational new generation's demands

Rising numbers of university students could help to ease the cycle of inequality and violence in the region but they need quality jobs, says Rebeca Grynspan, general secretary of the Ibero-American General Secretariat

Unemployment in Latin America and the Caribbean increased in 2015 for the first time in five years, from 6.2% to 6.7%, a figure that could rise further over the coming year. It suggests a bleaker outlook for young people; a lack of opportunities that is engulfed in the region’s issues concerning violence and the war on drugs.

How can this vicious cycle of insecurity be broken? The assertive Rebeca Grynspan, general secretary of the Ibero-American General Secretariat (SEGIB), says succinctly: “Employment is the problem, and education is the answer. But we need quality education, and at the moment we don’t have that.”

Grynspan has been trying to find answers to the problems in Latin America her entire life. Small, intensely focused, and yet disarmingly friendly, the economist, educated at Sussex University, is a powerful and credible voice on inequality, poverty and gender issues. Elected vice-president of her native Costa Rica from 1994 to 1998, she then moved to the United Nations and worked as UN assistant secretary-general and associate administrator of the UNDP.

Now she runs SEGIB, the secretariat of the Ibero-American Summit process that brings together the heads of state and government of 22 Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries in the form of a Commonwealth. Established in 2003, SEGIB’s core goals are to create more opportunities, better livelihoods and education. Its “agenda for young people” includes education, science, technology and innovation.

In an area that is home to 10 out of the 15 most unequal countries in the world, the roots of its development problems, including unemployment, are mostly social. While 100 million Latin Americans have risen out of poverty since the early 2000s, 220 million are still living just above the poverty line, many young people don’t finish school and problems of violence continue to trouble the countries in the region.

This insecurity has been described as the “achilles heel” of Latin America’s development: femicide is a leading cause of death for young women, and fourteen of the top twenty countries in a ranking of murder rates belong to the region.

From her work at the UNDP, Grynspan is an authoritative voice on Latin America’s history of insecurity. She traces current violence among youth and gang culture – which in turn leads to employment issues – back to when many young illegal migrants were deported from the US to Central America, particularly the “northern triangle” of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. This was especially bad at the time of the economic crisis in the 1980s, where there was little social mobility and no support network to respond efficiently. “You were left with these youth without hopes, or education,” she says.

Gryspan emphasises that SEGIB doesn’t directly address violence, and instead focuses on prevention, targeting disillusioned young men and enabling a space for development away from gang culture and needless violence against women.

Offering innovative, creative jobs for young people could be one solution. At least 27 million young people in Latin America and the Caribbean currently work in informal employment, according to the International Labour Organisation. This implies poor working conditions, instability, low wages and no social protection or rights. Another 20 million neither work nor study.

“How do you make it possible for young people who have made it through the educational system to realise their possibilities of a better employment and job?” Gryspan asks. The answer: quality education. “You need better institutions, which are more efficient, more able to hear what people are saying. And in many countries we don’t have that.” Latin America currently has some of the worst educational results, according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa). Even Chile, the highest Latin American performer in the Pisa rankings, scored 10% lower than the global average.

But even if education is transformed, the jobs have to be there to go into when students qualify. Gryspan says 70% of the jobs where young people will work have not been created yet. At the same time, more people are completing school: 70% of university students are the first in their family to go into higher education. “That’s the pace of change we’re seeing. There’s a new middle class coming to university, but what jobs are waiting for them?”

The young people on whom Gryspan focuses her attention – around 108 million – are part of a new demographic in Latin America. From 2002 to 2012, 90 million people entered the middle class. It was the only region in the world that reduced income inequality during the first decade of the 21st century.

And after experiencing sustained periods of democratic rule for the first time, what used to be apathy among students has turned to activism. Chile, for example, has seen the biggest student protests in the last four years since the return to democracy in 1990. Gryspan says: “The issue is how the system will respond to the aspirations of the new middle class, who are more demanding on the political system, institutions, and transparency. That is why we’re putting so much emphasis on how these young people are prepared for this new world.”

The Guardian | Naomi Larsson

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