LOS TRES BRAZOS, Dominican Republic -- Much of this barrio sits nearly level with a polluted river, meaning that any major rain floods the shacks and sends residents fleeing to higher ground. A Haitian woman known in the neighborhood as "Bola" pays the equivalent of $35 a month for a single room divided by a sheet. She has lost much of her furniture to water damage. Her latrine no longer works, forcing her family to use a neighbor's bathroom. (Haitians in the Dominican Republic often lack proper documentation, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation.) The conditions, she says, cause problems with skin disease, respiratory illness and infections in "private parts."
Bola's shy teenage daughter happens by, in a neat skirt and blue polo, her hair demurely pulled back. "She dresses this way," says Bola with obvious pride, "because we are Christian people. Are you a Christian?" Like many parents of teenagers, Bola is attempting to construct a levee of values and self-respect against a different flood -- of drug and alcohol abuse, of permissiveness and early pregnancy (which is alarmingly prevalent in the Dominican Republic).
This universal parental hope has become a global development priority. More than half of the world's population is under 30; about 1.7 billion, or 24 percent, are ages 10 to 24. Having recently traveled to the Central African Republic, I've seen a youth development strategy that arms teenage boys with machetes and machine guns. But a youth bulge is not always a threat. It can also be a social and economic advantage, increasing the share of productive workers compared to retirees. "All else being equal," concluded a 2012 USAID report, "lower dependency ratios can favor higher productivity and economic growth ... when appropriate education, labor and economic policies are also in place."
This is the abstract description of a struggle that is always personal. Bola's daughter gets help with school fees, and the glasses that allow her to learn, from Children International, a youth development charity that introduced me to mother and daughter. In eight community centers around the Dominican Republic, Children International provides 32,000 children and youth from very poor families a range of services -- health and dental care, early childhood education, tutoring, structured play, computer training, instruction on sexual health and financial literacy. This amounts to an alternative structure of public services for the poorest, in a country where those services are often weak or nonexistent.
A more effective public sector would address many needs of the young and poor -- except, perhaps, the most pressing. At a community center in Bayaguana, I asked the director, Anny Rosario, what is the largest gap in the lives of the children she serves. "In the end," she said, "what they really want is love." She described the pleasant challenge of walking to work each morning through the community, slowed by dozens of children wanting to be greeted and hugged. "They are asking for love in the street," she said.
The social scientific literature doesn't often employ the term "love," but often implies the idea. "With apologies to Wordsworth and romantics everywhere," Professor John DiIulio of the University of Pennsylvania told me in an email, "'to love' for these purposes is to speak and behave in ways that convey to another person that you harbor a real, permanent, non-instrumental and holistic regard for their well-being, and that you care as much or more about their present and future well-being than you do about your own."
Not to be confused with Wordsworth, DiIulio continued: " 'Love' (yes, manifest empirically as attitudes and behavior that is patient, kind and all the rest) is an independent variable that varies inversely with negative individual, social and civic outcomes and directly with positive individual and pro-social, pro-civic outcomes: lower rates of abuse and neglect, higher rates of self-esteem and self-confidence and more positive educational results."
This is a different way of thinking about the challenge of youth development, and not only in poor countries experiencing a youth bulge. Children in the barrios near Santo Domingo face specific challenges of early marriage and childbirth, sex trafficking and the lure of narco gangs. But children everywhere need safe living conditions. They need effective health and education services -- provided by someone, anyone, in the public or private sectors. They also need responsible adults in their lives who are absolutely wild about them. And the greatest of these is love.
Michael Gerson is a columnist for The Washington Post. Email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
By MICHAEL GERSON