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Business Supports Education Reform

Latin America’s private sector gets behind education reform


As it becomes increasingly clear that a high-quality educational system is crucial for success in a globalized marketplace, the growing momentum for reform has engaged previously passive sectors and brought together some unlikely allies. In Latin America, education reform – when it has even broken onto the political agenda – has long been seen as a stereotypical battle between the free-market right wing and the powerful, entrenched teachers unions. Now, however, a consensus seems to be growing, with leaders from across the ideological spectrum throwing their weight behind reform. And, perhaps most significantly, the private sector throughout the hemisphere seems to have decided to “get off the bench.”

In country after country, Latin American businesses are teaming up with NGOs and governments to deliver better educational outcomes.

In Nicaragua, the influential Zamora clan (one of the “twelve families” that have played an outsized role in the nation’s history) has teamed up with the non-profit group One Laptop Per Child to provide thousands of Nicaraguan schoolchildren with access to the internet for the first time. The Fundacion Zamora Teran is largely funded by the Roberto Zamora-owned Lafise Bancentro – a regional investment group worth over $600 million – and has handed out a total of 35,000 laptops in Nicaragua, with a donation most recently of 5,000 units to the island of Ometepe, making it the "first fully digitized island in Latin America." The One Laptop Per Child organization – itself founded by companies such as Google, eBay, and Nortel – cites Nicaragua as "the first time the private sector has taken this up with such enthusiasm."

And the Zamoras are just one example of a region-wide trend.

In Brazil, the O Globo empire – the largest media conglomerate in South America – has thrown its substantial weight behind nation-wide educational initiatives. Through the Roberto Marinho Foundation, named after the visionary businessman who expanded the O Globo newspaper from its humble beginnings to the status of a regional powerhouse, O Globo has focused largely on expanding student access to educationally and culturally important media. The largest of these is the Telecurso television series, which offers Brazilians a government-accredited, complete elementary education through free television programming and accompanying materials such as books and DVDs. Today, Telecurso is currently training 500,000 students.

In Mexico, the group Mexicanos Primeros has placed the failure of the education system at the forefront of the Mexican national political campaign by financing and producing a scathing documentary entitled "De Panzazo" ("Barely Passing").

Colombia is another example of a particularly active private sector. The Fundacion Empresarios por la Educacion has mobilized nearly 4,000 businesses, entrepreneurs along with employees and union leaders to support the "transformation of the education system." The natural gas conglomerate Gases de Occidente, which supplies most of southwestern Colombia, for instance, offers a scholarship program for students from that region. Another energy company, Promigas, operates the Fundacion Promigas, which focuses on an array of educational initiatives in Colombia's Caribbean coast, such as the Institutional Education Program, which analyzes the management and effectiveness of preschools.

These are just a few representative examples of the wave of increased private sector involvement that is redefining the hemisphere's educational reform efforts. No longer is it an issue that businesses, who rely on human capital to power their growth, feel that they can afford to ignore. Their support could add crucial momentum to a growing political coalition for reform that cuts across the political spectrum – and may help reshape education in Latin America.

Gabriel Sanchez Zinny is the managing director at Blue Star Strategies. He wrote this column for Latin Business Chronicle.


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