Beyond the Ni/Nis: Preparing the Next Generation of Latin America's Leaders

Whether through early childhood education, sports or job training, Latin Americans are using every tool in the box to prepare and empower the next generation.
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Over the past 10 years, the world has watched the transformational growth of Latin America. Those following the epic "Latin American Decade," as it's been coined, find no shortage of gains, from its use of sustainable energy, to its pioneering social programs, to its swelling middle class. Perhaps though the most compelling storyline is the one still being written: how Millennials will build on this progress, to make it their own and to make their region and our world healthier, stronger and more equitable.

Latin American and Caribbean youth are today the highest proportion of their region's population in history. The UN puts the number of 15- to 29-year-olds at more than 154 million -- more than the total populations of Mexico, Haiti and El Salvador combined. More than 50 million young people live in Brazil alone. Close to 10 million young people live in Argentina.

Such a "youth bulge" can be an incredible asset to a community's development -- with their inventiveness, their optimism and their focus on the future. All qualities the world needs more of.

But if society doesn't keep up by providing young people with opportunities, the surge can spiral out of control. In Latin America and the Caribbean, for example, high youth unemployment in the region has given rise to the infamous "ni/nis" (ni estudian, ni trabajan). Neither in school nor in the workforce, these idle young people are disproportionately vulnerable to poverty, violence and unplanned pregnancy. Today this population stands at about 20 million, more than four times the size of Costa Rica.

As daunting as these challenges seem, governments, business leaders and citizens in the region have good plans and good ideas to empower the next generation, many of which were shared this week at the Clinton Global Initiative Latin America meeting in Rio de Janeiro. The meeting convened a wide cross-section of socially aware Latin American leaders who have been working collaboratively across sectors and turning ideas into action -- two things we at CGI believe are critical to getting youth back on track in communities around the world.

My father and I couldn't have been more excited about the work we learned about this week, from providing kids in the favelas with safe places to play, to empowering young people in the Amazon to preserve their land and culture through sustainable energy programs to fostering tomorrow's engineers, to building a game that anyone can use to fight, most surprisingly, dengue fever. Whether through early childhood education, sports or job training, Latin Americans are using every tool in the box to prepare and empower the next generation.

Getting an Early Start

If there's one story I'll always cherish from CGI's Annual Meeting this past September, it was receiving my first Muppet kiss, courtesy of Rosita. Even more exciting is what she helped me to announce: that Sesame Workshop, Pro Mujer, Pfizer and Mayo Clinic were partnering up through a new CGI commitment to help prevent chronic disease in countries spanning from Argentina to Nicaragua, with a special focus on reaching children.

In Latin America, there's a growing awareness that preparing the next generation of leaders requires giving children every opportunity to lead the lives they want, and live out their dreams. Through her ALAS Foundation, Shakira is passionate about engaging children in learning opportunities before they turn six. Efforts such as these serve as inspiration -- and for some, even a clarion call -- to expand early childhood development initiatives throughout the region, because we know so clearly the tremendous positive impact they will have on a child's future.

Reimagining Sports as a Tool to Increase Inclusion

Sports are an inextricable part of the culture in Latin America. Watch a football match (or a soccer game as we say in the U.S.) in Rio and it's immediately apparent why both the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympics are heading for Brazil.

Aware of the unparalleled reach of football among Millennials in Latin America, leading organizations are using sports as a way to engage youth and advance gender inclusion (disclosure: I played 'soccer' as kid so am a huge fan of this effort). The Brazil-based GUERREIRASPROJECT has been working to use football to move local conversations forward on women's roles and empowerment in the country. And the Inter-American Development Bank has been working on a CGI commitment to promote healthy life styles, sexual and reproductive health education, and social inclusion for girls in Colombia, Bolivia and Brazil.

Building the Bridge to Jobs

Youth unemployment is a crisis around the world -- more than 73 million across the world. These soaring numbers of the unemployed threaten to give rise to a "lost" generation.

Many of the most promising efforts to connect young people with jobs involve cross-sector collaboration, and tying educational and training opportunities to real employment opportunities, a trend we saw at the meeting of CGI Latin America. I was particularly inspired by a commitment by the Inter-American Development Bank in partnership with Arcos Dorados and others, which will provide half a million low-income 16- to 29-year-olds in the region with training and internships.

Day of Action

This past Sunday, we led our first 'Day of Action' outside the United States in Vidigal, Rio de Janeiro, at the Mini Creche Santo Amaro - run by the remarkable community leader Dona Zeze. For more than 20 years, she has run the Mini Creche Santo Amaro children day care center working with countless children in her community and giving a safe and educational space for children to come, play and learn regardless of their family's ability to pay the fee.

She does this because she believes -- as we do in my family, the Clinton Foundation and the growing CGI Latin America community -- that all children, regardless of where they are born, deserves the chance to live their best life stories. She also knows that those of us that can, must; the idea that when we have an opportunity to help others, we should embrace it. It may not work every time, but it's always better to be caught trying than to do nothing at all.

Day of Action volunteers successfully restored Dona Zeze's community center and built their first library. She now will be able to serve more children than ever before, providing them with more resources, more opportunities and more room to dream. We could not have done that work without the phalanx of volunteers, private donations and public support. We accomplish more together than we ever could individually. Some things in life are simple.

What unites all of us -- from Jorge Camil Starr to Jurgen Briesbeck, from Rosario Perez to Eduardo Paes, as well the Day of Action volunteers -- is a belief that we all have the power to make a difference; that cynicism and negativity are boring; that we don't need any more talk, we need action.

That's what CGI is all about.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Clinton Global Initiative, in conjunction with the latter's 2013 meeting of CGI Latin America (Dec. 8-10 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil). At the CGI Latin America meeting, international leaders from business, government and NGOs join President Bill Clinton to explore how to carry the region's social and economic progress into the future. CGI members worldwide have already made more than 250 Commitments to Action specifically designed to improve lives in Brazil and across Latin America. To read all the posts in this series, click here, and visit CGI's blog here.