Reducing Youth Crime Through Employment? An Example from Papua New Guinea

Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea has high rates of youth crime – and an employment programme aimed at changing this to the better. How effective are such programmes? Oleksiy Ivaschenko presents the findings of his recent study to URBANET.

Port Moresby: Capital of Youth Crime?

If you have ever been to Port Moresby, the capital city of Papua New Guinea (PNG), you – like the author of this article – have probably learnt that it is a good idea to be vigilant, all the time, at any time of the day. Indeed, the homicide rate in the city was estimated to be 33 per 100,000 persons in 2010. This ranks Port Moresby close to the 50 most violent cities in the world: Cucuta, Colombia, currently ranked 50th, had 34.8 homicides per 100,000 residents.

But beyond such extreme manifestations of crime, what draws attention is the high rates of opportunistic crime, such as robberies, extortion, and theft. Indeed, the first thing you learn in Port Moresby, especially as an international development worker or a tourist, is not to carry any valuables when going out. Unfortunately, this problem is not contained to foreigners. Antisocial behaviour and crime are truly everywhere, and most often it is marginalised youth of Port Moresby that either commit crime or become its victim. Indeed, even the self-reported rates of youth having committed crime are astonishingly high at more than 40 per cent. To me, this indicates that crime has truly become the norm!

Against the background of this crime statistics, it is important to mention that PNG has one of the youngest populations in the world, with 53 per cent of the total population under age 24, and 67 per cent under age 35. Hence, what is happening economically and socially to this group of today’s young people will define the future of the country and its population for years to come.

The observed crime rates are exhibition of the several challenges that urban youth face. Those include lack of education, unemployment or informal employment, rapid increase in rural-urban migration, and high rates of poverty and inequality. All of them contribute to crime and violence, which are highly prevalent in the main urban centres.

As a result, Port Moresby has become synonymous with violent crime carried out by so-called “raskol” gangs who control much of the city, some armed with automatic weapons and machetes; raskol raids on businesses and compounds are common. An average week consists of 3 murders, 4 rapes, and 28 car-jackings.

What Can be Done?

To invest in youth and promote their social inclusion, the National Capital District Commission (NCDC), with technical support from the World Bank, has implemented the Urban Youth Employment Project (UYEP) in Port Moresby. The project seeks to improve employment opportunities, earnings potential, and living standards of urban youth by providing skills trainings and short-term placement into employment, through either public works, or on-the-job (OJT) training.

Since the project started in 2012, over 8,000 unemployed young people in Port Moresby have been supported by the project, 40 per cent of them young women. It is one of the very few programmes that invest in PNG’s marginalised youth and is the main public intervention attempting to address the economic and social marginalisation of unemployed youth.

Personal accounts show that participants immensely appreciate the programme:

“I have learnt about the value of teamwork. About working with people of completely different backgrounds and characters; [that] they may think and do things very different from you. To get a job done, you have to work with them. If you don’t, then you have a problem.”

“It has changed my life. If not for this program I don’t know where I would be. I had no formal qualification. After finishing grade 10, I had nothing to do and nowhere to go. Now I have a regular paying job.”

The Efficiency of Public Employment Programmes

Overall, results indicate that the programme had strong and lasting effects in terms of reducing the kind of participants’ behaviour presumed to correlate with crime: Participants became less likely to hang out with friends late at night, less likely to have a best friend engaged in crime, and less likely to have friends involved in fights or robberies.

With some indicators it is difficult to attribute them directly to the programme: While incidences of theft/stealing have declined among participants, they have also declined for a control group not involved in the programme. The results for physical and verbal assault, robberies, and trespassing were similar – the large drop among participating youth was comparable to that of the control group and therefore cannot be attributed to the programme.

The Need for Further Experimentation

More work is needed to tease out why we find strong positive effects on the reduction in antisocial behaviours, but inconclusive results on the self-reported crime. However, the results are consistent with heterogeneous programme impacts. The programme appears to have helped youth who were least likely to commit crime stay out of trouble. Meanwhile, it may have had weaker effects on youth who were most prone to commit serious crimes, perhaps because they have stronger social ties to gangs. Either economic incentives or a strong personal identification with the criminal lifestyle could mitigate the effect of the programme among violent offenders.

In conclusion, it appears that even in the very challenging social environments, such as crime-ridden districts of Port Moresby, well designed and implemented public employment programmes targeting marginalised youth may bring about positive changes to social fabrics and behaviour. What we need is further experimentation with, and evaluation of, tailored approaches that deliver the results.

Hopefully, we, as an international development community, can support solutions to youth’s social and economic exclusion, violence, and crime. My personal dream is that, when I visit Port Moresby in a few years from now, I no longer need to go through a checklist of what I should not be carrying around. Instead, I just can go out and truly enjoy exploring the city and the beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean that it offers.

Oleksiy Ivaschenko

Oleksiy Ivaschenko is a Sr. Economist at the World Bank, Social Protection and Jobs Global Practice. He is a versatile empirical economist with extensive experience in operations and analytical work in social protection and labour, poverty analysis, migration, and impact evaluations. He has published in various development journals, including Journal of Comparative Economics, Journal of Development and Migration, Journal of Policy Modeling, Migration Letters, World Medical and Health Policy, and Economic Development and Cultural Change. Oleksiy holds a Ph.D. in Development Economics from Gothenburg School of Economics (Sweden).
Oleksiy Ivaschenko

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