It’s my last day in Bolivia after 7 weeks of living in Cochabamba and La Paz. I’ve saved discussing my project until the last couple weeks as the majority of my time spent here was focused on my Spanish lessons. Today I met with the World Bank and interviewed a Bolivian project coordinator who was able to share with me some wonderful insight into the education and economic situation currently facing Bolivia.
Bolivia is the 4th largest country in South America, yet the second poorest. Although its economy has been growing at an annual rate of 4.7% over the past 7 years, it still greatly lags behind other countries in the region. I purposely chose Bolivia for my research because I wanted to understand why it was so underdeveloped and start to identify the root causes. I thought education would be a good place to start my first phase of research. Some think my topic is too broad, but I’m a big picture thinker and less concerned with minute details than the macroeconomic details. After living here for nearly 2 months, absorbing dozens of academic papers, sifting through country’s economic and education statistics, observing the country through my travels and daily interactions, and speaking with education experts and students, I’d like to briefly share what I think is happening in Bolivia.
The Morales administration has been implementing several new policies, including a conditional cash transfer program aimed at keeping students in school at the primary and secondary levels. Every year they battle with the public universities, which lead to month-long strikes, to gain more influence and control over the administration and spending of the autonomous universities. Currently, the public universities receive funding from the government (so that students may attend for free) but they do not need to disclose what they do with the money. This has led to theories of major corruption within the senior executives of the schools. There also exist issues of a lack of accountability, no public information provided by the public universities, outdated curricula, and a misuse of resources. The public universities argue that they have a right to their own autonomy and freedom from government intervention.
Furthermore, a major problem lies in the fact that there are few high-skilled jobs available. Yet, many Bolivian students pursue degrees in engineering, medicine, and law because they are considered prestigious careers. But there are very few job opportunities for them upon graduation. This has led to massive under-employment and frustration in the labor market. Bolivia has a massive informal economy with taxi drivers and street vendors, amongst others, littered throughout the country. From my observations, the workers in the informal economy do not pay taxes which greatly hinder the capacity of government spending.
However, my World Bank contact informed me of one of their programs that trains high school drop-outs in technical fields such as textiles, manufacturing, mining, and cosmetology. At least 90% of the students in the World Bank program graduate and almost all of them find work in their respective fields. What this shows is that there is a strong demand in Bolivia for qualified technical laborers. There are also abundant opportunities in the service sector, including banking and restaurants. Lastly, the country is experiencing a labor shortage in information technology and programming.
So what do I think? I think the Bolivian government needs to focus much more on job creation and create more incentives in the private sector. Its economy is growing steadily but the scarcity of opportunities in the fields of medicine, engineering, and law, I fear, will eventually create a human capital flight in important career fields. I have heard that many students who graduate degrees in foreign countries do not return to Bolivia because there are so few opportunities. Many go work for United Nations agencies and international organizations. I think the country needs to put more effort into attracting foreign capital that would create additional jobs. I don’t think the government is doing enough to tackle the educational problems in the rural parts of the country where nearly 40% of the population lives. Many youth in the rural areas never complete high school. And very few who attend university actually complete their degrees, despite the free education. There is also a lack of qualified teachers and very limited resources to give quality educations in the rural areas. This, I believe, will quickly lead to high levels of inequality. Lastly, I think that while Bolivia is growing economically it is soon to face major challenges in having an educated and qualified workforce that will propel the country into a developed status. It is a long way away from where from where it needs to be and it will probably many years before a large majority of the citizens find gainful employment and financial abundance.