The Future of Education in Latin America and the Caribbean

Maria Oviedo / Inter-American Dialogue

On June 14, the Inter-American Dialogue hosted an event titled “The Future of Education in Latin America and the Caribbean.” The event launched The Dialogue’s new report of the same name, and featured a keynote by US Representative Joaquin Castro (TX-20), a presentation by Education Program Associate Sarah Stanton, and two panel discussions. The first panel, moderated by Ariel Fiszbein, Director of the Education Program at the Inter-American Dialogue, featured Susan Bell from the Department of State’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, Heather Ward from the American Council on Education, Nichole Johnson from the Institute of International Education, and Michael Lisman from USAID, which provided funding for the report. The second panel, moderated by Michael Shifter, featured Roberta Jacobson, former US Ambassador to Mexico, and Luis Miguel Castilla, former Peruvian Ambassador to the US and Former Minister of Economy and Finance in Peru.

In his opening remarks, Rep. Castro affirmed the report’s conclusions on the need to expand and refocus investment toward skills development, as the region is transforming and increasingly requires a modern, skilled workforce. Highlighting how local conditions in Latin America directly affect the US, he stressed that government actors in development have a responsibility to maximize the impact of taxpayer dollars and “attend to the nations that are closest to us and have been our allies for so long.” He called development actors to action, “to build, in this country and around the world, an ‘infrastructure of opportunity,’ to help people get to where they want to go in life.”

In a brief presentation on the report, Sarah Stanton highlighted findings on educational coverage, efficiency and quality in the region—noting that while there has been substantial progress toward universal coverage for pre-primary through secondary education, there remain significant bottlenecks and inequalities in efficiency and quality at all levels. She outlined the report’s key recommendations for USAID and other development actors, including greater engagement with institutions and systems to facilitate partnership and exchange, and a greater focus on workforce and skills development, to broaden and deepen development efforts in the region.

The first panel focused on US investment in skills development in the LAC region. Michael Lisman explained USAID is currently leading an inter-agency process to develop an education strategy focused on aid effectiveness. He provided an overview of USAID’s current projects in skills development, and spoke of the need for more needs analyses on the labor force and efforts to align research with academic opportunities.

Susan Bell praised the increasing recognition of education as a strategic priority, not only in development, but also in the foreign policy space. “There is a strong shared vision in the region that education has real power to transform its societies and provide opportunity,” she said. “We need to take a foreign policy team approach, and communicate about this more as part of education diplomacy conversation, not a USAID project.”

Bell highlighted the 100,000 Strong in the Americas initiative and it’s Innovation Fund for university students, which has become a platform to facilitate exchange between the US and Latin America and collaboration on common problems. She also addressed key challenges that the program has faced, such as building a culture of collaboration among key stakeholders, adapting to evolving market forces and concepts of higher education, and promoting greater engagement by local government actors.

Nicole Johnson noted that the demand for collaboration with US institutions has shifted significantly in recent years as student interests are out of step with the demands of employers. “There is a disconnect between what students want to study and what the labor market needs are,” she said. “There is an opportunity with companies to not just fund and support training, but dialogue with universities and ministries of education about what their needs are.”

Johnson highlighted the example of a locally-driven higher education alliance in Indonesia, in which the Ministry of Education works with top universities to identify key areas for growth, and then works with lower-performing universities to build capacity. She also touched on new efforts to evaluate teacher effectiveness, and frameworks to help educators lead and manage change.

In her comments, Heather Ward suggested that while higher education has become a global ecosystem of ideas, tools and technologies, opportunities for mobility and connection through study abroad are incredibly limited for students both within and outside of the US. She acknowledged how virtual technologies can facilitate exchange, but also noted how local community colleges can become key players in increasing in-person engagement opportunities throughout the region.  

The second panel focused on the role that education can play as one tool in the foreign policy arsenal. Roberta Jacobson asserted that, in today’s political climate, education is more foundational to foreign policy priorities than many people realize. “We’re not doing this because it is philanthropy or charity,” she said. “It is very much self-interested foreign policy to engage in education…What more efficient way could the US government have for the policy benefit of reducing violence and migration at its root, than investing in education?”

Amb. Jacobson noted key challenges, including one-year budget cycles and pressures to justify short-term returns on investment, and the lack of credible buy-in from local governments, without which she said investments in education cannot succeed. She suggested the biggest problem in education is a lack of exchange in places where it is needed most (i.e. Central America, the Caribbean) to support policy strengthening, violence prevention, and grow the base of LAC consumers of American products. “Like the oil can for the tin man in the Wizard of Oz, these efforts to cooperate in education are critical for resilience of relationships that may be under stress,” she said.

Amb. Castilla touched on the roles of both bilateral and multilateral actors as partners in the region. Bilateral actors, he said, have effectively enabled private sector participation, and have diversified foreign policy priorities from US federal and state governments. He highlighted three key areas of focus for multilateral work: 1) understanding impact, 2) focusing on outcomes and 3) mobilizing both resources and best practices.

Amb. Castilla also remarked on how the disconnect between higher education and labor market needs can seed unrest and radicalization in local contexts, when expectations are unmet and unemployment—especially among youth—is high. He highlighted how tech disruption and other shocks to the economy can boost productivity only in communities equipped with the skills to adapt and participate.

In the concluding Q&A, an audience member commented that student performance on assessments is often an inaccurate indicator of cognitive development and learning, so measuring success and building interventions around these metrics may not serve students in the long-run. Amb. Jacobson agreed, but further noted that even the best, holistic educational reforms have become politicized in contexts like Mexico, and may not persist across administrations to show long-term results. In response to a question about how to disseminate data that can influence policy change, Jacobson suggested civil society groups have perhaps the most critical role in gathering and spreading information, and holding policymakers accountable.



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