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Latin America’s Educational Challenge

Education is the only long-term solution to Latin America's development and competitiveness.


Current challenges from India and China are forcing Latin American countries to try to understand what has gone wrong in their socio-economic development processes, since it is evident that they are losing ground to the Asian giants. Once that understanding is reached, the Latin American countries need to decide how to halt their decline in global competitiveness. We believe that the long-term solution to declining competitiveness should focus on education. Latin American children need to become better educated quickly, and the best means of achieving this goal is by making available to them a low-cost laptop with high-speed access to the Internet.

More than 100 million Latin American children ages three and up will not participate in the "knowledge economy" under current government educational programs. The average number of years of schooling in the region is only six1. This includes urban schools. In rural areas, the number of years of schooling is much lower. In addition, the quality of the education received in most of these centers of education is very poor. Most children barely end up learning how to read and write.

The official data from the different ministries of education in the region reporting enrollment in the mid-to-high 90 percent for primary schools and high 80 percent for secondary schools paint too rosy a picture. It is unlikely that the enrollment rates are as high as the ministries claim. A region with close to 500 million people, of which 50 percent are less than 18 years old, with six years of poor quality schooling on average and with no participation in the knowledge economy, is a more realistic description of the situation, not to mention a dramatic and worrisome one that poses gigantic challenges.

Educational programs based on brick-and-mortar buildings, with teachers assigned subject matter and age groups, cannot solve the problem. No government budget can accommodate such a burden without collapsing financially and logistically. Latin America’s entire educational system is based on curricula divided not only by subject matter, but also by age (i.e, history for third-grade of primary school, algebra for tenth-grade, etc.). Even worse, we have developed an army of teachers tailor-made for this type of environment-- the teacher for third-grade history, the one for eleventh-grade physics, and the like.

Departments of education across Latin America end up building schools with 15-20 classrooms and "laboratories," but without a budget for maintenance and no funding for equipment. Many become white elephants. Politicians use them for ribbon-cutting ceremonies. This is especially true in rural areas or in the outskirts of cities.

China and India in particular comprise the most serious challenge to the prosperity of Latin America. If we think that China is only a country producing cheap T-shirts, plastic sandals, toys or other inexpensive (read also poor quality) products, we are in for a rude awakening. China is a giant that has awakened to the market economy and is re-educating its population to meet the challenges of the knowledge economy. Haidian, a lesser-known district in Beijing, is now home to 40 universities, 138 science research institutes and 810,000 engineers. India, also well along the market economy path, is educating its citizens to work more with ideas and concepts than with objects.

Latin America therefore needs a drastically different strategy if we are to include this great mass of hopeless children into knowledge economies. More than an educational problem, Latin America faces a mix of problems in different areas that until now were not directly connected to the field of education. In other words, the problems we face have more to do with issues of connectivity, access to computational capacity, and the costs of computing and of telecommunication, than with content or curricula.

Ironically, in today’s developing countries, the ministries of telecommunications are as important, or perhaps even more important, than the ministries of education. Why? Because the former can provide the connectivity and the access to knowledge (content) that already exists abundantly on the web. With a few clicks of a laptop, with high-speed access to the Internet, individuals can access any content on the worldwide web. From this perspective, the most important words in today’s educational system are Google, Yahoo, or any other search engine of similar size, quality and caliber.

We do not, however, need to destroy current systems of education in order to adopt a new one. Instead, it would be more efficient and useful to build a parallel system where the private sector and NGOs could complement government programs. By combining today’s traditional educational processes with modern learning approaches such as "learning-by-doing," children would have a powerful set of tools at their disposal that would multiply their learning experience exponentially. Creative destruction in the case of Latin America’s educational system does not apply. Too much has already been invested in the current systems for us to advocate eliminating them.

Meanwhile, education in the region has four fundamental flaws:

  • We are teaching the wrong thing. (...) Latin America needs to produce many more engineers, scientists and physicists, that is, people educated in disciplines capable of innovating in areas that will produce wealth in the twenty-first century. Latin American societies have been, and remain, inclined to produce experts in the humanities rather than in science and technology. (...)
  • We are teaching in the wrong manner.  (...) The methodology of teaching, where we divide students by age and subject, rather than by knowledge and speed of learning, is as familiar in 2007 as it was in 1900. This is true despite all the changes in life, learning and technology that have occurred in the more than 100 years that have elapsed. Education, however, has not taken advantage of these changes. (...)
  • We are educating in the wrong order of priorities. Until now, education has been the privilege of a few. Only the elites had true access to a good education in Latin America. We advocate the incorporation of the masses of marginal children of the region into meaningful participation in the knowledge society. If we pretend to include these children by building schools with several classrooms and with teachers for each subject and for each age group, we will never be able to compete in a global economy. Only by complementing the traditional approach with new and more modern technology, can we bring them up to par with competing regions. (...)
  • We are developing this process at the wrong speed.  (...)  To meet the competitiveness challenge presented by of the Asian countries head on, we need to educate our children and bring them into the knowledge-based economies much faster. A more appealing, albeit ambitious, goal is to have one laptop per child by 2010! This goal may seem daunting, but, paradoxically, it is realistic under today’s competitive challenges.  (...)


It is important to recognize that education is the only long-term solution to development and competitiveness. Bottom-up approaches, rather than top-down solutions, are needed if we are to break the vicious circle of ignorance, misery and, in many cases, violence that plagues the region. Underdevelopment resides in the minds of the people. It is not the result of external forces. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Inter-American Development Bank, globalization, neo-liberalism, Uncle Sam, and now India and China, are not the villains responsible for our lack of progress. We are the architects of our own destiny and, as such, we must take responsibility for our current state of affairs. By taking this route with a project like the One Laptop Per Child, we will be doing precisely that. We must think outside the box because current ways of thinking have proven inadequate for bringing the great masses of children into the knowledge economy. Individual access to knowledge is the basis for sustainable social and economic development.

The challenge is gigantic. It resembles the challenge President John F. Kennedy faced when he presented to the people of the United States the idea of putting a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s, as a way to moblize the national will and the energy of the entire nation towards a single goal. In the case of Latin America, we need to set a goal to have one laptop per child before the end of the decade if we are to become globally competitive. Otherwise, China, India, Southeast Asia and other countries will leave Latin America behind, perpetuating its position as a region of followers rather than of leaders. Our children and the children of their children would never forgive us for such a blunder.

Rodrigo Arboleda is the managing director of The Globis Group LLC in Miami and a visiting scholar in the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was executive vice president of the Ogden Corporation in New York for almost 10 years. Arboleda was the founder and CEO of Flores del Caribe and Flower Marketing. This column is based on a report from the Democracy and Competitiveness Task Force at the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami. Republished with permission.


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