High Cost of Youth Risky Behavior
Caribbean Kids

High Cost of Youth Risky Behavior

Many Caribbean youth are doing reasonably well. They live in loving and caring families, attend school and are involved in various social activities in their communities. The health and well-being of children and youth in the Caribbean is, and has been, the center of attention of many studies, meetings and policy directives set at the regional, sub regional and national levels.

Programs have been put in place to address the basic needs of young children in the areas of health and education and to provide guidance and directives to youth and adolescents in the area of professional formation and transition to adulthood. Critical issues such as reproductive health and family planning combined with access to education and information on these topics have been promoted to some extent. The Caribbean is known for rather high school enrollment rates in primary education that hardly show any disparities.

While the situation is still good for some, growing numbers of children and youth cannot cope anymore with the challenges experienced quite early in their lives. Absent parents, unstable care-taking arrangements, violence and aggression subjected to at home, in schools, and among their friends, lack of a perspective in schools and the labor market, early sexual initiation and teenage pregnancies are some of those issues faced by a rising number of young persons in this part of the world.

Emotional instability, psychological stress and increased violence are among the key triggers for involvement in crime exhibited by younger youth and children. Further, the region is grappling with rising drop-out rates in secondary education, declining quality of schooling in the classrooms and increasing numbers of students who leave school without a formal certification. Youth unemployment in the formal labor market is high and improving the quality of professional formation along with the provision of adequate employment opportunities would be critical to enable youth to complete consistently and effectively the transition into adulthood and to take advantage of the opportunities to develop and use their human capital in the process.

A recent study on the situation of Caribbean Youth has revealed that youth "risky behaviors are wreaking serious havoc on the economies of the region." The study was conducted by former World Bank Economist Jad Chaaban as part of research done by the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Commission on Youth Development (CCYD) in keeping with its mandate from CARICOM Heads of Government to analyze the situation of Caribbean youth and recommend policy interventions to empower them and improve their conditions.

According to the study young people comprise the sector of the population best positioned by virtue of their creative potential, to play the leading role in responding to the challenges of globalization and, therefore, to the demands of regional integration and the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME). However, despite positive measures to tap their participation, not only do they know little of the CSME, their commitment to the region is overshadowed by the multiplicity of problems with which they are confronted, including half-hearted attempts at meaningful governance structures.

Murder rates in the Caribbean – a t 30 per 100,000 annually- were higher than any other region of the world and youth were the primary perpetrators as well as the victims of crime and violence. The study revealed that the economic costs of youth crime had two components: the first were direct financial costs related to public expenditure on security, policing, arrests, judicial processing, and incarceration. The second component was indirect costs linked to the foregone earnings of the criminal while he/she was in prison, and to the loss in tourism revenues linked to youth crimes. Lost tourist revenues as a result of crime had reached in excess of US$200 million per year for the CARICOM region, and overall youth crime was costing at least 7% of the region's Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Based on the findings of the study, teenage pregnancy was seemingly costing CARICOM governments on average US$2,000 per year for every young pregnant mother. These mothers were also losing potential earnings they could have achieved, if they had been able to delay their motherhood and continue to higher educational levels.

With regard to HIV/AIDS, the report suggested that this is the main cause of death among youth, followed by violence and motor vehicle accidents (Report of the CARICOM Commission on Health and Development, 2006). However, of growing concern is obesity, in addition to early sexual initiation and unprotected sex. It is estimated that countries in the Caribbean were spending US$17 million per year on HIV treatment, with an average cost of antiretroviral therapy estimated at US$641 per person. But this is not the only cost associated with HIV/AIDS. Every young man or woman with untreated HIV faced a risk of death, and society would lose much of its human capital as a result of the AIDS epidemic.

"Each person dying from AIDS could have joined the labor market at prevailing conditions and earned an annual income, which if summed up across individuals would represent a potential for each youth cohort of nearly US$1 billion for the CARICOM region in future earnings," the report noted.

In quantifying the costs incurred by governments and individuals as a result of these risky behaviors, estimates indicate that if youth unemployment were to be reduced to the level of that of adult unemployment (i.e. on average for the Caribbean a reduction from 23% to 8%), the Caribbean economy as a whole would benefit from an average increase of 1% in GDP.

In outlining what is to be done, the report calls for four critical actions: understanding the transitional character of adolescents and youth; tangible recognition of their contribution in the region; more investment in them for greater returns to both country and region; and a radical shift towards partnering with them to tackle many of the burning issues.

In making the following recommendations, the CCYD underlines the importance of embracing all categories of youth, irrespective of gender, race, ethnicity, class, abilities, religious persuasion and sexual orientation:

  • Youth are a creative asset and a valuable human resource to be developed, and not a problem to be solved;
  • Youth should be seen as partners in the development of the region and not only as beneficiaries;
  • Youth are the future but also the present – they can and do contribute to national and regional identity and development;
  • The majority of youth transition successfully to adulthood. The failure of a minority to do so is largely attributable to the fact that adults and society have not adequately discharged their responsibilities for their development;
  • The dominant paradigm in which youth are viewed is problem-focused, and does not adequately take into account their assets, contribution and achievements.

CCYD posit that youth policies are weak, outdated and rarely implemented and concludes that current investments in structures and programs for youth development in education, health and well being, culture, sports and job creation, such as they are, are just not enough and in some instances, are misdirected. Accordingly the Commission recommends that there must be a change in mindset and refrain from using the minority to brand all youth since the vast majority is making the transition to socially responsible and productive adulthood. Secondly, with the minority itself, the change in thinking must be to see them first as potential assets to be nurtured, "not as a cancer to be repressed."  CCYD said what is really required is more investment to provide youth with additional opportunities to develop their creative and productive capacities.

"While efforts must necessarily be made to limit the negative impact of risk and vulnerability factors, the first line of thinking must be to allocate more resources to strengthen the institutions that should serve as protective factors – the family, the community, the school, the faith-based organizations," CCYD aid.

The Commission further recommends that CARICOM States encourage more research on youth and crime, and to this end, improve their collection of crime statistics, disaggregated by age, sex and other relevant demographics and variables, using regionally agreed templates.

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), a strategic partner of the CCYD, conducted studies on the 10 to 14 age group in support of the Commission's work. This report draws from a number of discrete regional studies on each research module and reflects regional issues and trends. The findings of the study have been incorporated in the Report of the CCYD and were submitted to CARICOM Heads of Government at a Special Summit which was held in Suriname earlier this year.

The Summit was supported by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP); the European Union (EU) and the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB). The CCYD's work has been supported by the governments of Spain and Italy, and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Technical support is also given by UNICEF, United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and the Commonwealth Youth Program (CYP).

Allison S. Ali

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