Latin America: COVID-19 Challenges Higher Education

By Eric Hershberg, Alexandra Flinn-Palcic, and Christopher Kambhu*

Left: Classroom in Campinas, Brazil; Right: Universidad de las Américas, Puebla Library

Left: Classroom in Campinas, Brazil/ Wikimedia Commons/ Priscilla Micaroni/ Creative Commons License (modified) // Right: Universidad de las Américas, Puebla Library/ Wikimedia Commons/ Jose Alonso/ Creative Commons License (modified)

The COVID‑19 pandemic has worsened the challenges that Latin American universities already faced and could have a potentially catastrophic impact on higher education in the region.

  • Average gross enrollment doubled – from roughly one-fifth to two-fifths of the college-age population across the region – since the turn of the century, but budget constraints stemming from protracted economic stagnation have left institutions struggling to meet that growing demand. Annual GDP growth languished at 0.4 percent between 2014 and 2019, according to the United Nations Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). That forced painful cuts at state universities, and private schools have grappled with the stagnant incomes of tuition-paying households.

Due to COVID‑19, ECLAC now projects a regionwide decline in GDP of more than 5 percent in 2020 and forecasts that 29 million people will fall into poverty and 16 million into extreme poverty. To gauge the impact on higher education in the region, last month CLALS surveyed officials at more than 50 Latin American universities. (Read the full report.) More than half are in Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro has already slashed public university budgets, but the survey results show substantial adverse impacts throughout the region as well as deep trepidation about future prospects. Highlights our survey revealed:

  • Nearly three-quarters of universities have transitioned to some degree of online instruction since closing campuses in March, but 90 percent of respondents said that some students, because of socio-economic and territorial disparities, are having difficulty accessing the internet. Half of survey respondents considered that their institutions were “well-prepared” or “somewhat prepared” to make the transition, but half deemed their institutions to have been inadequately prepared. Fewer than half of the institutions represented had taken steps to address students’ need for connectivity, and in some instances, particularly in public schools, this gap was a factor in the decision not to move instruction online.
  • Most respondents believe that on-site classes cannot resume for some time; only a third at private institutions and a fifth at public institutions (mostly in Brazil) anticipate offering courses on campus through August 2020. As for the remainder of 2020, respondents were divided evenly on the prospects for reopening their campuses.
  • Fully 84 percent of respondents predict a drop in undergraduate registration, with half estimating a 10 to 25 percent decline. Predictions are only slightly better at the graduate level. Roughly two-thirds of the institutions surveyed host some international students, and of those, 60 percent of respondents from public universities and 30 percent from private institutions predict enrollment to decline by more than 50 percent.

Our survey leaves little doubt that Latin American universities are facing their greatest crisis in decades. Continued expansion of higher education institutions – one-quarter of which have been created since the early 2000s – now appears implausible.

  • Declining enrollments portend severe reductions in revenue. Half of respondents report cuts during the current fiscal year, and only one in 10 anticipate stable financing next year – with most expecting cuts of 10 to 30 percent. Hiring freezes are already widespread, and salary cuts loom on the horizon.

The responses to our survey may actually underestimate the depth of the dislocation in store. To re-open their doors, institutions will have to make substantial, unanticipated investments to ensure the safety of students and staff – reconfiguring facilities and developing testing and isolation protocols that will be extraordinarily difficult to implement.

Students will need additional support as the pandemic affects their families, campuses, and communities. Nearly three-quarters of respondents to our survey regionwide, and 96 percent in Brazil, indicated that their institutions provide psychological support services for students. There was virtually unanimous agreement – 96 percent – that these needs will increase over the coming two years.

  • An estimated 700,000 people in Latin America and the Caribbean have contracted the virus so far, and more than 35,000 have perished. In most countries these numbers are rising rapidly. In an increasingly bleak landscape, there is reason for concern that Latin America’s university sector may prove to be yet another victim of COVID-19.

June 2, 2020

* Eric Hershberg is Director of the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies and Professor of Government at American University. Alexandra Flinn-Palcic and Christopher Kambhu are Program Coordinators at the Center. Read the full report.

Honduras: Facing the Budget Challenges?

By ICEFI and CLALS*

Honduran Lempiras

Honduran Lempiras/ Alex Steffler/ Flickr/ Creative Commons

Honduras’ proposed budget for 2020 reduces support to the country’s most needy – while protecting the military and security agencies – and, particularly if the debate on priorities is not made more inclusive, risks exacerbating already high political tensions and chronic economic mismanagement. On the revenue side, the draft budget shows a drop in tax revenues from 18 percent of GDP in 2019 to 16.5 percent – which, ICEFI has found, is not justified by technical analysis of the circumstances. Government spending – excluding payment on the national debt but including transfers to funds and trusts – equaled 19.7 percent of GDP, compared to 21.5 percent in 2019. (ICEFI estimates that the average government spending in Central America in 2019 will be 18.5 percent.) This drop will affect most public entities, particularly in social spending.

  • Education faces deep cuts. The budget of the Secretariat of Education, for example, will drop from 4.85 percent of GDP in 2019 to 4.49 in 2020. Transfers to public universities are slated to be reduced 23.1 percent from 2019 levels, and scholarships are also on the chopping block – cut 27.5 percent for national and 37.5 percent for international scholarships.
  • Health spending in Honduras – the country with the highest poverty rates in Central America – will decline from 2.39 percent to 2.37 percent at a time that inflation is more than 4 percent. The budget for Infrastructure and Public Services will be hit hardest – cut from 0.82 percent of GDP to 0.40 percent. Capital expenditures or investment will decline 33.5 percent year on year, including 38.5 percent from machinery and equipment and 34.6 percent for construction.
  • One of the only government sectors seeing increases is in the military and security, according to ICEFI. The 2020 budget proposes a 39.6 percent increase from 2019 on military and security equipment.

At first glance, the budget would appear to produce a surplus in 2020 of about 0.4 percent of GDP, which is double that ICEFI estimates for 2019. But factoring in the transfer of resources to the funds and trusts – a more reliable way of tracking fiscal behavior – the deficit will actually be 1.5 percent of GDP. That’s lower than ICEFI’s estimate of the deficit this year (1.9 percent), but it is achieved at the expense of the wellbeing of a majority of the Honduran population.

If approved and implemented as proposed, the budget will set back several strategic goals that the Honduran government itself has set. The budget confirms the government’s desire to reduce the public deficit principally through cuts to social spending and some capital expenditures – even though the approach contravenes commitments made under the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child and General Comment No. 19 (2016) on public budgeting for the promotion of children’s rights, which establishes that states should not deliberately adopt regressive measures that undermine child’s rights.

  • Although some provisions of the budget in principle could expand production of goods and services, they do not clearly point to either social inclusion, especially in terms of gender, age, and ethnicity. Budget allocations dedicated to attention to women are very low, equaling barely 0.19 percent of all spending. Neither does the budget focus on achieving any particular Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The transparency and inclusiveness of the budget debate in the Honduran Congress will be crucial to determining the longer-term impact of this budget on human rights and the provision of public goods and services to the most vulnerable Hondurans, including children, adolescents, and women. Executive and Congressional decisions on the budget will shift the country’s path toward prosperity and governance – or continue down a path of instability and tension. More breaks for those capable of paying taxes, while cutting essential services to those who cannot, will be a step in the wrong direction. At a minimum, Honduran leaders should demonstrate the benefits of such moves will outweigh the costs. The legitimacy and effectiveness of the Honduran budget will depend on a broad, inclusive, and honest debate.

November 26, 2019

* The Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales conducts in-depth research and analysis on the region’s economies. This is the second in a series of summaries of its analyses on Central American countries.

Latin America: Research Can Drive Inclusion

By Judith Sutz and Rodrigo Arocena*

A woman points to a microscope while a man looks on.

Researchers from Uruguay’s Universidad de la República worked with partners from the World Health Organization on a project to prevent dengue fever in Salto, Uruguay. / PAHO / Flickr / Creative Commons

Research programs that address “invisible problems” in society – challenges that are generally overlooked – increase marginalized people’s inclusion far beyond solution of their immediate problems.  Problems lacking “agency” get little or no attention as competing demands for public funding crowd out resources for studying problems suffered by marginalized groups.  The solutions that arise from most research, moreover, are often too expensive and too elaborate for the less fortunate.

  • Many health problems denominated “neglected diseases” fall within what the World Health Organization calls “the 90/10 gap.” Some 90 percent of all the health research done around the world is devoted to the kind of health issues suffered by 10 percent of the world population, while the 90 percent get scant attention.

Money and political will are only part of the problem.  Research to identify a problem is in itself a challenge.  Our research indicates that some initial research is often all that is necessary to make an “invisible problem” explicit enough for policymakers to be forced to pay attention.

  • In Uruguay, a university research program in 2010 uncovered the link between rice workers’ health problems, including early death, and agrochemicals seeping into the water spread at plantations. The link was difficult to detect because their symptoms were all “normal” and had other common explanations, but an interdisciplinary team analyzed epidemiological data to confirm it, which prompted the Ministry of Public Health to take action.

A second challenge is developing new approaches to adapt existing solutions that work for the well off to sectors without resources.  Many times in the past, research stopped when a solution, albeit a costly one, was found – which has the consequence of excluding sectors of modest means.  But we know that new intellectual directions can break through even those technological barriers.

  • Once a vaccine was found for the bacterium Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), a dangerous pathogen that causes meningitis and other life-threatening diseases in children under five, the threat disappeared from developed countries. But it remained dangerous elsewhere in the world due to the high cost of the vaccine.  Researchers at the University of Havana explored a new approach and designed a synthetic vaccine with a very low cost of production – which many scientists have hailed as an important success.  Argentinean scientists’ development of a probiotic yogurt – called Yogurito – has provided an affordable solution to provide lactobacilli that children need for digestive health.  These “frugal innovations” yield huge benefits.

An inclusive research agenda – promoted by universities and other thought leaders throughout Latin America – can transform knowledge into a tool for social inclusion if the knowledge produced and diffused in the innovation system is focused on the broadest possible segment of society.  A Copernican shift of research agendas worldwide is unlikely in the short term, but a commitment to human sustainable development will necessarily open spaces for broader agendas over time.  Democratization of access to higher education is one important driver in building “inclusive innovation systems.”  In both developed and underdeveloped societies, “developmental universities” can play a big role in solving problems and, importantly, enfranchising broader segments of the population.  Inequality in knowledge – forgetting people with forgotten problems – is a source of broader inequality the reversal of which will be of benefit to all.  Seeing victims of illness who lack the cures that wealthier citizens have as agents, rather than just as patients, is an important first step.

September 20, 2018

* Judith Sutz is Professor and Academic Coordinator of the University Research Council of the Universidad de la República, Uruguay, and Rodrigo Arocena was the University’s rector.  Their recent book is Developmental Universities in Inclusive Innovation Systems: Alternatives for Knowledge Democratization in the Global South (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).

Mexico’s Teachers Between a Rock and a Hard Place

By Christian Bracho*

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Members of Mexico’s Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de Educación (CNTE) at a mass mobilization in 2013. / Eneas De Troya / Flickr / Creative Commons

Teachers in Oaxaca and other Mexican states are increasingly fearful and resentful of both their union and the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI).  Since the 1970s, Mexico’s Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de Educación (CNTE) has operated as a formalized dissident caucus within the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de Educación (SNTE), the national union that has been an essential part of state machinery since the 1940s and strongly aligned with the PRI.  CNTE rallied for many causes, such as union democratization, regional autonomy, and economic justice, and enjoyed the most popular support in the 1980s.  As they accumulated power in the 1990s in states like Oaxaca, CNTE leaders turned to neo-corporatist strategies to incentivize teachers’ participation in union mobilizations.  An extensive point system, for example, rewarded teachers for going to marches, camping out during strike periods, and attending rallies in Mexico City; teachers who failed to participate in a minimum amount of activities lost union privileges and benefits.  By 2005, Oaxaca’s union had split over its focus on politics rather than pedagogy.  Over the last ten years, dissident teachers have increasingly faced government pressure and violence.

  • In 2006, military police broke up a rebellion led by striking teachers in Oaxaca state, in which dozens of activists were killed. In 2013, the massive teacher strike against President Peña Nieto’s constitutional reforms – which would require states to implement national education policies – ended with the violent eviction of teachers from Mexico City’s zócalo.  In 2014, 43 student teachers in Guerrero state were massacred, and last year over a dozen protesters were killed in Nochixtlán, outside of Oaxaca’s capital city.

Although these incidents provide teachers’ unions considerable cause for continued mobilization, my research indicates that teachers in states like Oaxaca are less convinced that their ongoing struggles represent authentic political resistance.  Many say they are fulfilling syndical obligations – less a reflection of personal convictions – because attendance is recorded and assures payment.  Teachers tell me that they trust neither the government nor the union; they see government as an entrenched century-old political machine that has resurged with more impunity than ever, and the union – both nationally and regionally –as driven by special interests and cronyism.  Maestros feel they have little recourse but to fend for themselves and families.  They fear the violence that the government may visit upon them, but they also fear the public shaming they face if they criticize the union’s political tactics or support government reforms.

Education reform in Mexico is vital to improve the overall quality of teaching and learning – and to address the social and economic inequalities across the country.  Government action is essential to such efforts, but endemic corruption has stained the public’s image of national and state leaders, cultivating distrust of top-down policies.  The union is also essential to protecting teachers’ interests and challenging the hegemony of the national government, but its neo-corporatist strategies such as the point system delegitimize the activist banner waved by leaders in states like Oaxaca.  Especially with increasing symbolic and physical violence, teachers are in an impossible position, stuck between two forces they don’t trust and facing dire consequences if they challenge the authority of either the government or union.  Though dissident teachers are important to putting a check on government impunity and corruption, the union’s sustained mobilizations have negatively impacted their profession and student achievement.  While “the teacher fighting is also teaching” – a common refrain in Mexico – teachers must also be free to step away from the march and into the classroom.

March 16, 2017

* Christian Bracho teaches in the International Training and Education Program at American University’s School of Education.

Does Trade Incentivize Educational Achievement?

By Raymundo Miguel Campos Vázquez, Luis-Felipe López-Calva, and Nora Lustig*

Female student walking by building

A student walks around Preparatoria Vasconcelos Tecate. / Gabriel Flores Romero / Flickr / Creative Commons

Mexico’s experience with free trade has challenged one of the tenets of faith economists know well from reading early in their careers David Ricardo’s Principles of Political Economy and Taxation: that “the pursuit of individual advantage is admirably connected with the universal good of the whole” and that “[trade] distributes labor most effectively and most economically.”  Under this principle, “wine shall be made in France and Portugal; corn shall be grown in America and Poland; and hardware and other goods shall be manufactured in England.”  Mexico reminds us that while these benefits exist in the abstract, there are trade-offs to be faced—that there are, potentially, social and individual costs induced by trade liberalization.

In a recently published paper entitled “Endogenous Skill Acquisition and Export Manufacturing in Mexico,” MIT economics professor David Atkin shows the ways in which individual people experience trade and how it affects their decision-making – sometimes in ways that may not necessarily be socially desirable.  It analyzes a time period (1986-2000) during which Mexico underwent major economic transformations, including a rapid process of trade liberalization after 1989 and the introduction of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994.  Analyzing data for more than 2,300 municipalities in the country, the paper tells us that young Mexicans at the time faced a very basic decision: to stay in school and continue studying or to drop out and look for a job (among the many being created in the export-oriented manufacturing sector), most of which did not require more than a high school education.  Atkin found that, on average, for every 25 new jobs created in the manufacturing sector, one student would drop out after 9th grade.  (The World Development Report 2008 on Agriculture for Development had raised the question about “missing” individuals in this age group, but in relation to migration.)

  • While trade brought positive effects including a higher demand for low skilled workers and an eventual increase in their wages – consistent with David Ricardo’s basic notion – Atkin concluded that in Mexico it had the socially undesirable effect of preventing, or slowing down, the accumulation of human capital. The reduction in human capital investment is a trade-off which can have negative effects on the economy as a whole.
  • Factors other than free trade might explain this effect. First, young students may drop out if the returns to schooling are not high enough to compensate for the additional investment.  Second, a lack of access to credit and insurance for relatively poorer households might make it impossible for aspiring students to finance their investment and obtain higher returns by continuing to tertiary education or to cope with shocks and avoid abandoning school.  Finally, the result could be driven by a lack of availability of information about actual returns to investment in education, which could lead to myopic decision-making.

The movement of capital toward locations with lower labor costs is an expected, and intended, result of an agreement such as NAFTA, pursuing higher export competitiveness at the regional level.  David Ricardo would have said that TVs and automobiles shall be made in Mexico, while software shall be made in Silicon Valley.  What completes the story, however, is that because of distortions like the ones mentioned above – low educational quality, under-developed credit markets, or weak information that skews decision-making – free trade might lead to socially undesirable consequences.  And it did in the case of Mexico, as Atkin convincingly shows in his paper.  It seems that when Ricardo gets to the tropics, the world gets more complex.

November 7, 2016

* Raymundo Miguel Campos Vázquez teaches at the Centro de Estudios Económicos at el Colegio de México, and is currently conducting research at the University of California, Berkeley.  Luis-Felipe López-Calva is Lead Economist and Co-Director of the World Development Report 2017 on Governance and the Law.  Nora Lustig is Professor of Latin American Economics at Tulane University.

Colombia: University Professors Appeal for Post-Referendum Solution

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

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At a march for peace in Bogotá, Colombia, a woman holds a sign that states, “We are the generation of peace.” / Agencia Prensa Rural / Flickr / Creative Commons

A group of Colombian university professors have organized an appeal to their colleagues in and outside the country to sign a petition “requesting an effective solution without delay” to overcome the impasse created by rejection of the peace accord on October 2.  The text of the petition, which currently has more than 1,700 cosigners, is as follows:

[We] university professors, from different disciplines, universities, and regions, join our voices with those underscoring the urgent need to reach, as soon as possible, a final Accord to end the conflict with the FARC.  Delay poses enormous risks.  It is essential to set, with all urgency, an agenda for talks limited to points requiring discussion, with concrete and viable proposals for modifying the existing text.  Reflecting the extremely close results in the October 2 plebiscite, the agenda should address the concerns of the No voters, who won the vote, while respecting the voice of the equally numerous Yes voters, who supported a text that cannot be wholly reevaluated, as well as those who did not speak at the polls.

The result of the plebiscite on Sunday [2 October] provides the unique opportunity to adjust the existing Accord in a way that draws a majority of society.  Capitalizing on that opportunity is the responsibility of all sides:  the FARC, the representatives of No, and those of Yes.  The plebiscite leaves no doubt – and the mobilizations in the streets and social media confirm – that society demands that all be flexible in their positions.  That’s what the youth demand as they convoke marches and other actions to push a quick Agreement, and which we support without hesitation.

The professors are an important voice of society and, as the statement explicitly states, of young people throughout the country who aspire to have a peaceful future.  The statement dodges specifics on what needs to be changed in the accord, but its assumption that sufficient pressure can be brought on all parties, including those who opposed the accord, to find common ground is credible.  Appeals such as this – unprecedented in the sheer number as well as in the wide range of institutions, disciplines, and regions that are represented – will be a good test of the capacity of Colombian civil society, such as the Academy, to push compromise, and for others, such as the economic elites, to achieve compromise.  Agreement may emerge, for example, to move discussion of certain social issues, such as those that riled some religious groups, into another venue so they aren’t an obstacle to agreement on war-and-peace issues.  The professors have their finger on the pulse of the nation and grasp the underlying political, economic, and social drivers of peace – and their optimism that neither side will come to a new negotiating table with dealbreakers is probably more warranted than anyone else’s.

Click here to see the original Spanish version of the petition.

October 14, 2016

Can Latin America Achieve Fiscally Sustainable and Egalitarian Social Citizenship?

By Fernando Filgueira*

Uncertain Future

Photo Credit: Jan Tik / Flickr / Creative Commons

Latin America is undergoing a profound transformation of its social policies and of the very concept of social citizenship, but the outcome of this process is far from certain.  Electoral democracy, urbanization, increased educational attainment, and increased exposure to new and broader consumption patterns have destroyed the political foundations for conservative modernization.  The turn of the century has witnessed advances in social outcomes and public policies that for the first time provide a true window of opportunity for achieving more productive and egalitarian societies.

  • Decreasing poverty, lower income inequality, improved and expanded employment, and access to transfers and services to popular sectors were made possible by five critical factors: booming prices for Latin American commodities fueled economic growth and employment; stable prices – a positive legacy of the Washington Consensus era – meant that wages and transfers were not undermined by inflation; increased state fiscal capacity and commitment to social policy enabled a doubling in 15 years of real social per-capita expenditure; a demographic dividend, when combined (the young and the elderly) dependency ratios are lowest as a percentage of the population; and improved education access, completion, and credentials, which facilitated enhanced opportunity and increased productivity.

Yet these five advantages will lose steam in the next couple of decades.  Growth will wither as the commodity boom ends and expansionary monetary policy is limited.  Most Latin American economies are facing increased inflationary pressures. Existing tax structures and in some cases productivity levels will not permit social expenditure to increase at the rate of the last 15 years.  The easy phase of the demographic transition (when dependency rates are going down) is or will be over in most countries towards 2025.  Some countries in the region will face the European dilemma of an aging population, but they will do so with a lower GDP per-capita, weaker fiscal capacities of states, and a significantly more unequal income distribution.  While the soft targets of expanded education – primary school and expansion of lower middle school – have been achieved, the tough ones remain: extended coverage in early childhood, completion of high school, quality improvement, and true reduction of inequality of outcome in learning.

  • Five fault lines in Latin American social regimes make these problems a major threat to the sustainability of both social and economic development. A) Women’s incorporation into the labor market remains low (50 percent) and is highly stratified.  B) The absence of a robust state-led care system for early childhood and the persistence of a patriarchal distribution of care burdens undermines a route to development that is both more efficient and egalitarian.  C) Stark contrasts between insiders and outsiders in informal and formal labor markets and access to social protection and cash transfer  systems contribute to an expansionary monetary and fiscal policy that mainly benefits insiders unwilling to be taxed for redistributional public and collective goods and insurance. D) The region’s middle class and new emergent class, moreover, are not willing to increase taxation, since they do not perceive the quality of public goods and collective social services as adequate. And E) the pattern of fertility shows some of the worst patterns in social terms, including that most biological reproduction is left to the poor: Latin American governments do not equalize opportunity early on and through the educational system – which in the most unequal region of the world with diminishing but non-convergent fertility rates – leads to a productivity failure since underinvesting in the poor is underinvesting in the frontier of productivity enhancement.

These challenges will condition the possibility of a new social citizenship and a social investment model based on robust public goods, expansion of merit goods, and universality of entitlements.  It is not enough that elites are no longer able to control the political and economic game through status enclosure and authoritarianism.  In order to craft truly universal social policies conducive to providing inclusion for all, societies must confront narrow corporatism and restricted targeting – and the political economy they sustain.  Contributory models based on formal wages and targeted social policies based on need will not disappear, but they have to take a back seat to a model of basic universalism where access to quality public and collective goods is truly universal, and entitlements in transfers and services are not dependent on need or labor formality.  There have been important advances, such as a marked increase in non-contributory systems of cash transfers in terms of pensions and child-family transfers, but the commodity boom and the rise of the emergent and middle classes that drove them are not permanent.  A coalition that is willing to forgo private spending power in order to enhance quality of life through collective services is needed.  Such a coalition is made conceivable by these political, economic, and social epochal changes, but it is by no means guaranteed.  If reforms do not make it a reality, the promise will be shattered, and the pendulum between failed populism, with state-led “Robin Hood” incorporation attempts, and a technocratic closure of democracy and state bashing, will remain the central and tragic dynamic of the region.**

July 18, 2016

*Fernando Filgueira is a Senior Resarcher at the Centro de Información y Estudios del Uruguay (CIESU) and Collaborating Researcher the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.  He is a member of the International Panel for Social Progress led by Amartya Sen.

**Read the full version of this essay, which is based on research done for the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and for EUROsociAL on social policy, labor dynamics, and demographic change.

Mexico: Repressing Organized Dissent

By Marcie Neil*

Mexico teacher protest

A photo from the protest on June 19. Credit: LibreRed / Google / Creative Commons

The Mexican government’s latest reaction to the country’s largest teachers union’s challenge to education reform is triggering accusations of gross human rights violations at a time that President Enrique Peña Nieto is already under severe pressure over the case of the missing 43 students from Ayotzinapa, even if the union’s reputation – and the government’s historical demonization of it – may undercut the teachers’ cause.  Protesters associated with the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (CNTE) clashed with state and federal police in Nochixtlán, Oaxaca, on June 19, leaving eight dead, more than 100 wounded, and at least 25 detained.  The clashes culminated a series of CNTE-led protests over a 2013 reform that puts the onus on teachers for student success through government-mandated tests and teacher evaluations – akin to the U.S. “No Child Left Behind Act.”  CNTE members consider the reform disconnected from the realities of teaching in Mexico’s underprivileged, indigenous, and rural environments, and view it as a threat to their collective decision-making authority and hard-won benefits from the 1980s and 1990s.

  • The CNTE denounced Nochixtlán as another example of excessive police force, and press reports and citizen testimony have refuted the President’s claim that police met protesters unarmed. The administration subsequently offered to meet with union leaders to discuss the reform, but it was seen as offering too little too late.

The CNTE is not the country’s most respected institution, but its complaints about the brutal police reactions to its protests have merit and have stimulated a national debate on Mexico’s commitment to human rights.  The union’s reputation has been tarnished by repeated disruption of school schedules, internecine strife, recent arrests of leaders on corruption charges, and a recently eliminated, but oft-cited, benefit that allowed union members’ children to inherit their jobs regardless of merit.  But the state’s implicit culpability in the disappearance of the 43 students in Ayotzinapa and the death toll on June 19 seems to have tipped the perceptions of its dispute with the state momentarily in favor of CNTE.  That dispute and others with popular organizations have deep roots – going back to mobilizations in the 1960s, including the Tlateloco Massacre in 1968, and the brutal repression of a 2006 teachers strike in Oaxaca.  The historical pattern is one of state abuse against mostly harmless citizens who feel denied democratic participation.

The Peña Nieto administration’s reactions thus far do not suggest a desire to break with that pattern, even in the face of public outrage over this month’s killings.  The Mexico representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and others have called for an independent investigation into the Nochixtlán violence, but the government’s stonewalling of the Ayotzinapa investigation suggests these attempts at overcoming impunity face dim prospects.  Education Minister Aurelio Nuño’s statement the day after the confrontation confirming the government’s commitment to uphold the education reforms further fueled public anger.  Absent an independent evaluation, the bloody events of June 19 could remain as evidence that the Mexican government is simply unwilling to overcome its historical tendency to attack those it considers subversive. 

July 1, 2016

* Marcie Neil received her Masters in Latin American Studies at American University in 2015 and served as a Graduate Assistant at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.

How Sustainable are Latin America’s Advances on Poverty and Inequality?

By Eric Hershberg

Brazil Contrasts

“Projeto Contrastes.” Photo Credit: Gabriela Sakamoto / Flickr / Creative Commons

The significant decline in poverty rates and income inequality in Latin America over the past two decades – driven by a combination of sustained economic growth and intelligently designed social policies – may slow or even be reversed as economic conditions deteriorate across much of the region.  Poverty had begun to drop in most countries even before the commodity boom accelerated growth rates in South America beginning around 2003.  The “Washington Consensus” policies of the 1990s impacted wage income and employment negatively, but other factors diminished their impact on poverty.  By overcoming profound macro-economic instability, which among other things produced hyperinflation that devastated disadvantaged sectors of the population, the economic adjustments of that period were not entirely regressive.  Moreover, a concurrent shift toward targeted social programs – which redirected subsidies away from less vulnerable segments of the population in order to protect the poorest of the poor.  By 2002, the number of people living on less than $1.90 a day had declined 4.6 per cent from where it had been at the beginning of the 1990s, according to the World Bank, while the number living on less than $3.10 stayed flat and actually rose (from 135.6 million to 138.1 million).  Performance varied across countries.  By 2012, after a strong decade of growth and a wave of progressive governments, the progress was much more impressive, with poverty dropping to 33.7 million ($1.90/day) and 72.2 million ($3.10/day).

Inequality declined also – a different challenge in the region that Kelly Hoffman and Miguel Centeno aptly labeled the “lopsided continent.”  Measured by GINI coefficients, income inequality in Latin America, which exceeded that of any other world region at the beginning of the century, grew less pronounced under governments of various ideological proclivities.  A substantial body of research shows that this was a product of two factors.

  • Investments in primary and secondary education, which accelerated during the neo-liberal years, meant lower wage premiums for those with more than basic skills: near universal attendance in secondary school reduced the significance of gaps between workers who had secondary education and those who had little schooling.
  • Innovative social policies – particularly conditional cash transfers – meant that the lower rungs of the income ladder received meaningful transfers from the state, enabling them to narrow the income gaps vis-à-vis less disadvantaged sectors. Less frequently acknowledged was the positive impact of reforms on minimum wage policies and the creation or expansion of non-contributory pensions, both of which were pushed aggressively by several governments associated with the “Left Turns.”  Non-contributory pensions were especially important since the most vulnerable of Latin American aged populations, having spent their working years toiling in the informal sector, had previously lacked any sort of retirement pension.  (Read further analysis of pension reform.)

The region’s slowdown in economic growth and the pressure on public finance brought about by the end of the commodity boom – and the infusion of cash into state coffers that it afforded – raise questions about the sustainability of these advances.  The benefits of investments in education will endure for some time.  Even if education budgets decline, the costs in terms of lower educational achievement would take years to become evident, and it is not at all certain that the funding will decline.  However, the social programs are much more vulnerable, as are the ambitious efforts to increase minimum wages and labor protections more broadly.  Should the economic contraction underway in some countries and on the horizon in others generate an increase in informality, the labor market achievements of recent years could be quickly eroded.   This would impact inequality, and it might soon exacerbate poverty as well.

June 3, 2016

The Critical Role of Universities in Latin America’s Future

By Rodrigo Arocena*

Tec de Monterrey

University students in Monterrey, Mexico. Photo Credit: ·júbilo·haku· / Flickr / Creative Commons

As the latest commodity boom winds down, universities in Latin America can play a leading role in helping the region rebound from the resulting economic slowdown and build itself a more prosperous and equitable future.  The consequences of the boom for economic, political, and social conditions in the region are hotly (and rightly) contested.  But one inescapable conclusion is that inadequate attention was paid to raising societies’ knowledge and qualifications in the production of goods and services.  This matters greatly, because knowledge gaps and skill deficits lie at the heart of what underdevelopment means today.  If the focus in the decades following World War II was on addressing disparities in industrialization, one of the challenges now is over-specialization in productive activities with low added-value of knowledge and qualifications.  When such specialization persists, social and environmental problems are not manageable in the long term.  Differences concerning knowledge and higher education are also one of the main factors behind inequality, in both North and South.  In Latin America, traditionally considered the most unequal region in the world, inequality in recent years has been reduced in a handful of countries and so has poverty in almost all of them.  But such social progress may be jeopardized soon not only because of economic and political changes but also because of quite weak progress made expanding knowledge capabilities and applying them to collective problems.

Universities are at the heart of the solution.  In the knowledge-based and innovation-driven economies that emerged in the North during the last decades of the 20th century, universities obviously made a difference.  They were fundamental actors in the accelerated expansion of advanced education that is closely connected with that type of economy.  They generated new scientific and technological knowledge and often channeled its use into productive activities.  Even then, in the advanced economies of the North private sector firms perform a quite larger proportion of total research and development than universities.  Moreover, Northern universities are mainly oriented by market demand, meaning that actors who are already knowledge-strong obtain most of the benefits of what universities do, fostering what could be called knowledge-based inequality.  This is different from Latin America in several ways:

  • Public universities in Latin America are the main generators of new knowledge, which is why they should get priority when thinking about the future of the region’s development.
  • They are frequently well plugged into National Innovation Systems, the web of actors and institutions responsible for upgrading productivity through the generation and effective use of new knowledge.
  • They represent a continuation, although at a weakened level, of the tradition of the socially committed university forged by the Latin American University Reform Movement.

In any country of the world, knowledge democratization deserves high priority in every progressive agenda – and Latin American universities are, at least potentially, fundamental actors in this task.  Democratizing access and success in higher education, and thus trying to overcome an ancient social divide that stymies development, is key.  The task also means fostering research in all disciplines and applying it to collective problems, as has occurred with research and innovation oriented to social inclusion.  The Latin American ideal highlights merging the modern university’s two long-established missions – teaching and research – with a third one, called “extension,” which entails cooperation with external actors in knowledge generation, cultural creation, and problem-solving, with priority given to the situation of deprived sectors.  As motors for knowledge expansion, and thus for social inclusion, Latin American universities make an invaluable contribution to development and the deepening of democracy.

April 28, 2016

* Rodrigo Arocena served as Rector of the Universidad de la República, Uruguay, from 2006 to 2014.