By Gabriel Sanchez Zinny
There appears to be a growing consensus in US and Latin American circles that our diplomatic relationship has not been very dynamic over the past decade—with hopes that the re-election of President Obama could finally occasion the real hemispheric dialogue that he said was his priority at the beginning of his first term. But this kind of thinking is clearly coming from a US perspective, since many Latin American societies are asking themselves why they would want to engage more with the United States. Indeed, most are trying to diversify their political and economic portfolios.
So what are the major issues in the hemispheric relationship? Certainly, they include democracy promotion and human rights, citizen and border security, and trade. There is also new integration efforts such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Pacific Alliance, as well as the Obama administration’s “Pathways to Prosperity” program, which seeks to promote social inclusion through support for small business and human capital development.
Security and trafficking issues are key to the sustainability of the region, and both the United States and Latin America have a lot at stake in the outcome. But I would argue that the same applies to trade and economic growth, even though it has been less visible on the diplomatic agenda. However, one of the most important issues—education, the human capital that is the foundation for all these topics, the basis and the long-term driver for many of them—is hardly addressed in the hemispheric dialogue.
Human capital is not only an essential factor for promoting economic growth, alleviating poverty and preventing drug consumption, but is also one where both North and South face challenges. In the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) figures, the United States is at or below the OECD average in math, science and literacy, and the US graduation rate barely tops 75 percent. This, even though the United States is the country with the highest per capita spending on education—around $12,000 per student per year.
Latin American is doing even worse, perpetually in the bottom third of the international rankings. If the region wants to maintain its recent spurt of economic growth, it can only sustain it through increases in productivity, innovation and improved competitiveness. The basis of all that is better education.
Some recent State Department initiatives focus on education, like one signed with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, which will send 100,000 Brazilian students abroad, half of whom will come to study in the United States. Education is also addressed through USAID programs, and through the multilateral development community. However, it is an issue that deserves more attention in any diplomatic relationship, given that a well-educated society is a key asset for every country.
We are seeing already some of this in the policy and philanthropic communities. Initiatives like PREAL, Teach for America, the World Fund, and Junior Achievement are all promoting greater hemispheric dialogues and shared experiences around education. They are doing so through many different channels. Some are fundraising in the United States and investing in better teacher training in Latin America while others are connecting policymakers throughout the region to advance the conversation and share best practices from around the hemisphere. It is a good beginning – and diplomacy should follow that lead.
Gabriel Sanchez Vinney is the founder and Managing Director at Kuepa, leading blended learning company in America Latina, and partner at Blue Star Strategies. His previous experience includes development of health services, management of the implementation of new technologies in the education sector and directing the Argentina program for International Scholars at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Prior to Blue Star Strategies, he served as Vice President at Dutko Worldwide, in the areas of Foreign and U.S. Federal Affairs. Gabriel co-authored four books on education policy and is an opinion columnist in several Latin American newspapers. He also was a director at Edunexo.com, one of the first software companies to address the education sector in Latin America. Gabriel studied Economics at the University of San Andrés in Buenos Aires, Argentina and completed his Masters in Public Policy at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.
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