Media Center



December 4, 2012 - Washington, DC

Allow me to extend a most cordial welcome to the OAS Youth Conference 2012, whose theme is “Youth in Action for Democracy and Entrepreneurship.” I would like to thank all of you for being here, especially those who have come from far away.

The purpose of this conference is dialogue, talks, and discussions among young people and OAS authorities to raise awareness about our work on matters concerning young people in two fundamental areas: on one hand, youth and democracy, and on the other, political participation, youth, and entrepreneurship. In doing this work we are pursuing the mandates of the Organization on young people.

In 2008, our General Assembly session, held in Medellín, reaffirmed its commitment to the development agenda for young people. Since then an interdepartmental working group headed by the Assistant Secretary General, Albert Ramdin, has been working on the OAS General Secretariat’ youth strategy. We are convinced that young people are invaluable partners whom we must continue to offer participation opportunities in our region.

In the Americas we have a demographic dividend. 57% of the population of Latin America and the Caribbean are classed as young people, which means that very soon, between 2015 and 2050, we will have a huge number of people joining the labor force. This is supposed to be a huge benefit; this dividend is something that we are supposed to take advantage of.

It may be a dividend, and may not be. It all depends on our ability to provide a quality education to a sufficient number of young people to enable them to tackle current challenges. It will most certainly be a dividend if we manage to generate enough jobs and entrepreneurship to genuinely enable those young people to realize their life's ambitions fully. In turn, they must not only be able to make a living for themselves, but also give back to their societies, to their countries, as well as having the opportunity to engage politically and socially and so participate fully in decisions that affect their future and that of others. Those three factors will determine our ability to provide the youth of today, whom we value so highly and call our future, with the necessary tools for successfully surmounting those challenges.

The obstacles are great and the situation is not good. When we take stock of the world around us, we find, according to the International Labor Organization, that there are 200 million people out of work worldwide, one third of whom are under 25. In other words, there are at least 75 million young people out there looking for work and there is a risk that that the number could rise since entry-level positions are increasingly hard to come by. In fact, the ILO estimates that the probability of a young person finding a job is three times lower than for the general population. This situation also includes Latin America.

In the region, under-29s account for 57% of our countries’ populations — the actual figures vary: Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and Cuba have a smaller youth population than countries like Bolivia, Colombia, and Mexico, but the average is 57%. This also means that jobs need to be found for that considerable group of people; however, the reality today is that 60% of youth have not completed secondary education and the urban unemployment rate among young people in Latin America and the Caribbean came to 14.9% in 2012. This proportion is triple the adult rate and more than twice the overall unemployment rate in the region; the registered average is 6.7%.

The average rate of unemployment among young people is, I repeat, 14.9%. Some will say that figures never provide a complete picture, that in Latin America there is widespread informal employment and a great deal of concealed unemployment, but I can assure you that large numbers of young people are also affected by informal employment, given that since it usually entails poor working conditions, lack of protection and rights, and low pay, in addition to low productivity exacerbated by low education levels.

Nonetheless, we must be constructive. We need to tackle these issues rather than simply identifying them. Political participation among young people should also be higher, and that is partly our aim here.

We want to talk about education. Most of our countries have made great efforts in the area of education. Some say that education spending in our region is low, but I would say that it is not as low as all that. The problem, rather, is how to put the resources available to use. In Latin America we like to talk about the quality of government. But the real question is: Who governs education? Who sets it on course toward the necessary goals?

If you compare the enrollment rate in some Latin American countries with those of Asia, for example, the difference is not all that great. The main difference is how education is planned, executed, and run, with the emphasis on entry to the job market. The preoccupation must be to ensure that young people enter the job market with the necessary skills relative to the scientific, technological, and cultural changes taking place today.

Then there is the problem of education coverage, coupled with that of quality, which leads to a very complicated overall situation. Sometimes it is very difficult to interpret statistics from studies on advanced education testing. Take the PISA test, for instance: those of our countries bold enough to participate in that test typically find themselves near the bottom of the results table.

One in four young people in Latin America and the Caribbean is neither enrolled in education nor employed. That not only means a life of frustration for them, it also goes a long way toward explaining why many youths choose paths that we wish they would not and often get into trouble from a young age.

It is not true that juvenile crime is higher than the crime rate in the rest of society. I fear that tends to be over exaggerated. What is true is that most adult offenders committed their first offense as a youth. Hence the need to concern ourselves with ensuring that they too receive an education, not only because it is good for people to be able to make a living for themselves with dignity, but also for the good of the health of our societies in general.

It is imperative that we correct that unfortunate statistic; there are too many young people on the streets in our region who neither have work, nor are in school. Employment is also a crucial issue. We have an initiative that we are implementing; though not all that widespread, the Young Americas Business Trust has provided training to a significant number of young people. It is our hope that those young people will become the seed, that youth entrepreneurship can become a path that large numbers of young people in the Americas can take to become properly integrated members of their societies

Young people are also a priority on our political agenda, yet how often do we see panels or discussion groups in the media with a large group of adults talking about what needs to be done about our youth? Discussions about youth need to be led by youth. Last year and in years before that we saw the number of youth movements that have appeared in our countries, seeking not only to address young people's needs, but also to add a youth perspective to our countries problems more generally.

Strictly speaking, they are not movements in the sense of having a single, precise demand. The young people marching on the streets in our region, demand better education or solutions to other problems, are also claiming and protesting for their right to participate fully in their society's decisions. They are claiming their right to be heard, to have their opinions taken into account through the various media that modern technology offers. And they combine this with other forms of expression, such as mass street demonstrations where their faces are not ones of protest; they are the faces of creativity, the faces of the hope of youth, which are so important to take notice of.

This conference is about all these things; it is a broad dialogue and we are already excited and enthusiastic about the presence of all of you here. I hope that our discussions will yield useful conclusions for working toward the youth integration that we so want to achieve.

Thank you very much.