“If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable”
President Juan Manuel Santos tends to quote prominent thinkers in speeches. The quote stated above was used to end a speech during his trip to Japan and South Korea last week. As he explained, this visit served to consolidate the path to reach the port, which he described during his presidential campaign as being, “More jobs, less unemployment.” The question, however, is whether Santos has chosen an appropriate sea lane to safely reach that shore.
Colombia is now recovering diplomatic and economic ground lost to its neighbors over the past decade in the most economically dynamic region in the world. During the trip to Northeast Asia Santos conveyed the message that Colombia’s natural resources and infrastructure projects offer enormous benefits to potential investors with the economic and intellectual resources.
Indeed, those areas are part of the government’s five engines of growth. The specific engines are: Infrastructure, housing, agriculture, mining and innovation. With mining as the only engine at full speed. It is ironic, however, that those two countries’ development did not rely on these engines for their rapid development. In fact, Japan and South Korea have no resources, save for their people, which is a resource that cannot be exploited, but only nurtured.
And nurture they have done. Northeast Asian countries have resolutely embarked on the path to sustainable development by way of education. It was such a focus that rapidly moved these countries from being the sweatshops of the world to becoming technological powerhouses. A similar trend is taking hold in China.
It is not a coincidence that these countries’ education systems excel in international rankings. In the latest scores of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measures how well prepared students are for the knowledge economy, China (Shanghai) topped the list with Korea second; the top 8 places were occupied by five East Asian economies. Moreover, according to the 2011 list of top universities in the world, compiled by the prestigious QS World University Rankings, there are ten Asian universities in the top 50; with five from Greater China, three from Japan, and one from South Korea.
It is not coincidence either that Colombia’s education is disastrous. In the PISA assessment, among the 65 participating nations from around the world, except Africa, Colombia occupied the fifty-second place. According to the QS rankings there is only one Colombian university in the top 450.
On its defense the government would claim that the focus has been technical education. To some extent this is laudable since these programs train students in the specific areas the business sectors demands. But it is questionable whether the standards are high enough and whether this route would benefit the country in the medium to long term. This short-termism is evident in the delegation traveling with Santos in the week-long trip. It included the Mining, Transport, Foreign Trade, and Foreign Relations ministers.
Still, there is a silver lining. Colombia’s economic competitors in the region also have similarly deplorable levels of education according to the two aforementioned rankings. Since the momentum of copying Chile and Peru’s neoliberal strategy of economic development in unstoppable, it would be wise to do something different in order to forge not only comparative, but also competitive advantages. The investment and transfer of science and technology that Santos sought in Japan and South Korea will not automatically flow with free trade and other economic agreements under negotiation, unless there are appropriately educated people in the country that add value to those investments.
As these Northeast Asian nations have demonstrated, it is excellent education that develops a country rapidly and sustainably – indeed, in 1961 Colombia’s GDP per capita was three times higher than South Korea’s, now the latter’s is almost four times higher than the former’s. Otherwise, innovation will never be a reality and Colombia will only build houses for the poor who work in the agriculture and the mining sector, while at the same time building infrastructure to rapidly export these primary products that enrich a local minority and maintain the country in the “middle-income trap.”
Without a highly educated working force Colombia’s boat being powered by the five engines of growth that is currently sailing through the neoliberal sea lane to reach the shore of “more jobs, less unemployment” will capsize.