Shadow Government

Why the U.S. Should Worry About the Global Education Problem

I just finished Gabriel Zinny’s Educación 3.0, which covers the changing landscape of education both in the United States and in Latin America. The radical changes needed have major implications on U.S. foreign policy and development policy and should also be considered what my colleague Carl Meacham calls an "intermestic" issue, of both domestic and ...

YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images
YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images

I just finished Gabriel Zinny’s Educación 3.0, which covers the changing landscape of education both in the United States and in Latin America. The radical changes needed have major implications on U.S. foreign policy and development policy and should also be considered what my colleague Carl Meacham calls an "intermestic" issue, of both domestic and international concern. Zinny’s book makes a robust case for education and human capital to be placed far higher on the agenda with the same level of focus as transnational health threats, migration, or trade. While focused on the United States and Latin American regions it has larger implications in a world with a youth bulge in the Middle East and Africa and growing youth unemployment. Young people can elect to use their energies either productively or not — we ought to work towards channeling those energies or we will all pay a heavy price.

Zinny is an education expert who spent some time in George W. Bush’s administration at the Department of Health and Human Services. He is also an entrepreneur who has started a for profit company — Kuepa.com — that trains young people in Mexico, Colombia, and Argentina. So he writes as an entrepreneur and as a policy entrepreneur.

He uses the Latin American and U.S. contexts to describe the changing nature of wealth, the exploding role of technology and the private sector in education and the implications of the current failures of education systems stuck in a 19th century paradigm. The current argument around education is stuck in a frozen conflict about the roles of the state, parents, civil society, technology, and the private sector.

Zinny draws on the fact that the last 10 years have been great economic years for much of Latin America, that there have been amazing potential technologies recently deployed in the United States and more slowly in the rest of the world (MOOCs, for example). At the same time, Zinny describes that current and future wealth will be knowledge driven. Although there have been many gains in access to basic education, and even higher education in many middle income countries, the quality and relevance of what is being taught is not valued by the marketplace. In the Latin American context that means there are 15 million young people not employed and another 20 million people neither in school nor working — classified by the acronym "NEETS" for "not in education, employment, or training."

Where do these young people go who are failed by their education system? Some emigrate — often to the United States — often illegally, some join gangs, some engage in other forms of criminal activity, and many others lose productivity and creativity. Countries who want to progress beyond a certain level (called the "Middle Income Trap") require certain skills and abilities among their people and many countries do not have that.

The United States has its own challenges with education including inadequate vocational training that is relevant and not stigmatized, and these problems replicated themselves in many developing countries. However, the United States has a great community college system that has helped to fill the gap, and our elite research universities are envied and coveted by other countries. We should leverage these strengths strategically for their and our benefit.

The United States has effectively utilized the assets at our disposal on a sporadic basis. There is a Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs at the State Department, and there are significant resources focused on basic education in developing countries administered by United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and other donor agencies. The problem is if you look beyond foreign aid funding for basic education, there is little political support, and little money for vocational training, workforce development or youth employment, partially because there is not an organized political constituency to organize to lobby congress — a problem of our system of doling out foreign aid.

At the same time, large dollops of foreign aid may not be needed — just some. Companies need a trained workforce and they are getting more involved; technology is offering emerging improvements that are yet to be harnessed. Governments regulate and often provide but innovation will often come from outside government. Both the Bush administration and Obama administration made inroads on using education: Bush started a large community college and training program with Mexico and the Obama administration has launched a 100,000 student exchange program with China and another 100,000 student program with Latin America, mainly with foundation and corporate support.

The good news is that developing county governments can pay for their own education and training themselves without relying on foreign aid. That said, foreign aid can be catalytic by paying for some exchanges, finance innovation, and providing training or reforms of a system (Zinny’s book misses this nuance a bit). For example, Brazil is bank-rolling 100,000 one-year scholarships for Brazilian engineers to study in the United States, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere and then return home to help develop its oil wealth and other opportunities. Zinny argues that governments should unleash private approaches by serving as a regulator not just a provider. This continues to be hard in the United States and in the other contexts but with the stakes so high in terms of lost productivity or other bad outcomes, this needs to be urgently rethought.

The 250-page book is an easy read for an airplane and worth the investment of time. These issues are going to be more salient not less salient over the next 10 years and this is a good way to get up to speed on the challenges, emerging opportunities, and some ways forward.

Daniel Runde served in the George W. Bush administration at USAID. He also worked at the World Bank Group (IFC). He currently holds the William A. Schreyer Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola