Building on Educational Successes in Latin America and the Caribbean
Recommendations for Education Investments
A recent report by the Inter-American Dialogue shows that education in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) over the past two decades has been, in many ways, a success story. Since the turn of this century, major efforts by donors, governments and civil society have drawn millions of children to school across all levels, countries and socioeconomic groups.
Authors of The Future of Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), along with representatives from USAID, the Department of State, and education NGOs, discussed how the United States could retarget education assistance to jumpstart development in the region at the report launch on June 14, 2018. Introductory remarks and keynote addresses were give by Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, and Joaquin Castro, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Primary school access is now nearly universal. Secondary-school enrollment jumped 10 percentage points on average between 2000 and 2015, to 76 percent. Pre-primary enrollment was less than 50 percent in most LAC countries in 2000; by 2015, nine countries had attained pre-primary rates of over 80 percent.
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The successes, however, are tempered by disheartening data on the quality, equality and relevance of education programs. According to education program associate and report author Sarah Stanton, “Children are spending more time in school, but they’re not learning as much as they should be, considering the time and money devoted to the educational system.”
International assessments show that LAC students consistently lag behind peers from other regions with similar income levels. Repetition and dropout rates have risen, particularly in secondary school. And nearly everywhere, poor, rural and/or indigenous children show lower rates of both attendance and achievement.
Economic, Social, and Security Effects
Not surprisingly, these shortfalls have economic, social or security ramifications for LAC countries. Employers and investors in LAC complain of difficulties finding qualified workers. The World Economic Forum identified inadequate education as a main barrier to improving human capital—and hence economic development—throughout LAC.
Schooling also underpins security. Each additional year of school leads to an 11 percent reduction in a student’s likelihood to commit property or violent crime and a 30 percent reduction in murder and assault. Meanwhile the threat of violence, particularly in Central America, taints the school environment and accelerates dropouts, leading many youth to join gangs and become victims and/or perpetrators of more violence.
Toward an “Infrastructure of Opportunity”
Speakers emphasized that these trends have led LAC to become known for the so-called “Ninis,” youth who are neither studying nor working (“Ni estudian ni trabajan” in Spanish). In Honduras, Haiti, Panama and El Salvador, for example, more than 30 percent of those aged 15-24 are Ninis.
The need for higher quality, more equal, and more relevant education is clear. Such education is also a prerequisite for what Rep. Castro calls the “infrastructure of opportunity.” Like physical infrastructure, that of opportunity “gives people a strong foundation so they can get to where they want to go in life.” Castro also warns, “The success of that infrastructure of opportunity will determine the economic fate of a country—and its democracy.”
The Future of USAID Education Programming in LAC
To improve education, the report’s authors recommend the following for future USAID education programming in LAC:
- Focus on youth workforce development programs. “We see a strategic role in workforce training and skills development—areas not receiving a lot of attention from other donors, but which are of critical importance from a foreign policy perspective,” said Ariel Fiszbein, director of the Education Program at the Inter-American Dialogue and principal author of the report.
- Expand the geographic reach of programming. Many current USAID education programs center on education in countries with both the weakest policy environments and educational outcomes. But with a shift to the much-needed area of youth workforce development, USAID could consider expanding to other countries as well.
- Build partnerships. USAID should change its role from supporting programs to promoting partnerships and exchanges among a variety of actors—educational, private-sector, development, investment—in both the United States and Latin America. A possible model is 100,000 Strong in the Americas, a State Department initiative to facilitate educational exchange and other cooperation between the United States and Latin America.
- Develop in-country institutional capacity. By taking a more systemic approach to education programming and investments, USAID can increase country ownership, and therefore sustainability, of programs.
Through youth workforce development programs, dynamic partnerships and support for modernizing educational systems, USAID could play a pivotal role in transforming the region of Ninis into a region of 21st-century opportunities.