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Boosting Latin America’s Education

How the private sector is helping to improve education.


Despite having grown at a breakneck speed in the last few years, Latin America still faces key challenges on its way to development. One of the most pressing ones is education, which is lacking in most of the region, experts say.

“Technology today allows to transform an industry that basically hasn’t changed in 130 years,” said Marcelo Cabrol, Chief of the Education Division of the InterAmerican Development Bank (IADB), referring to education in Latin America.

Speaking at the Latin Trade Symposium in Miami on Friday, Cabrol said that the bank had identified four steps to generate change in the region. “First, find entrepreneurs. Second, find someone to help those entrepreneurs make their ideas happen – that’s typically the business community. Third, leverage the business community – that’s where the IADB can help. And fourth, transform policy makers,” he said.

Cabrol said that between 90 and 95 of the bank’s work in education is done with governments, making projects to transform policy makers and “redirect the way we do business in education” key.

One of those policy makers shared the panel with Cabrol. Michel Chancy, Secretary of State for Animal Production of Haiti, said that his country considered education as the key to attain a better distribution of income and that the new government had thrown its weight behind an educational reform conceived by the previous administration. The state, he said, also relies on a very committed Diaspora that is funding education through a program created by President Michel Martelly. “In a few months that program was able to gather 20 million dollars, enough to put 125,000 children through school,” said Chancy. “But this is just a drop in the bucket of education. We need to do a lot more.”

The audience at the Latin Trade Symposium also had the chance to hear from a few social entrepreneurs who are trying to spur change in Latin America.

Luanne Zurlo, president and founder of Worldfund, talked about why she focused on education when she decided to start a non profit to help the region. “I do believe that a poor quality education is a main factor affecting growth,” she said, speaking at a panel called Boosting Education, Building Entrepreneurship. Worldfund goes after what it considers to be the root of the region’s educational deficit: teachers. “At Worldfund we think it’s all about the teachers and the principals. That’s where Latin America is doing more poorly than its peers,” she said. Wordfund finances training programs for teachers and principals throughout the region.

Felipe Vergara co-founded Lumni Inc. to incorporate the concept of private investment into social development. “The idea is to take private equity and invest it into people instead of into businesses,” he said. Lumni, of which Vergara is also the CEO, finds talented students who want to go to college but can’t afford it. “We pay the tuition and we accompany them through college to help them navigate the professional environment and find a job,” he said. Once they are employed, sponsored students pay back 10 percent of their income to finance new students. Lumni also works with corporations to help them invest in their people and their families. “There are very talented people in the region. All they need is a chance to develop,” he said.

Eduardo Balarezo is the president and founder of Lonesome George & Co. and of Outward Bound, two companies that work together to change mindsets and train new leaders with a environmental conscience. Balarezo told the audience that he got inspiration to start his enterprises from Lonesome George, a pinta tortoise in the Galápagos that is the last one of its species. “I went to Galápagos and I managed to get authorization to sit with Lonesome George in his corral. So I sat and I looked at him,” he said. “When faced with Lonesome George most people get the same message: ‘Find me a mate! Reproduce me!.’ And people are trying to do that. But the message I got was ‘don’t let this happen ever again!’ Lonesome George is lonesome because of the decisions we as humans have made. So I decided to develop a model that would combine a for profit with a non profit to change mindsets and train leaders to change the way we interact with the environment,” he said.

Balarezo founded Lonesome George Co., an apparel company that donates 10 percent of its income to Outward Bound, a non profit that helps young people develop leadership skills to change the world. “I try to inspire anyone to replicate this model. Because I believe that not all profit is equal. Profit with a social component is a higher form of capitalism,” he said. “Here today I heard a lot of people saying ‘we are the largest, we are the greatest, we are the best’. But having spent so much time in the Galápagos, I believe in Darwinism, and I believe that it’s not the biggest or the most intelligent who succeed. It’s the ones who adapt. And at Outward Bound that’s what we are trying to create: a new generation who can adapt and live in harmony with its surroundings.”

Outward Bound works in association with Ashoka, a global organization that identifies and invests in social entrepreneurs. Lorena García Durán, Miami Hub Director for Ashoka, said her organization looks for business people “with an ethical fiber.” “We define a social entrepreneur as a business person with a new idea to solve a social problem,” she said.


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