Education and Economics in Bolivia: Now Let Me Tell You What I Really Think

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 There also exist issues of a lack of accountability, no public information provided by the public universities, outdated curricula, and a misuse of resources.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.

Initial Impressions of Bolivian Education

Yesterday I interviewed someone from a local educational NGO in Cochabamba who offered excellent insight into the current problems occurring with Bolivian education. I have spoken informally with several Bolivians already, read several academic papers written about educational policy, and reviewed statistics. Bolivia surprisingly has a very high rate of literacy, in my opinion, with almost 100% of the youth being able to read and write. Schooling is free at the primary, secondary and university levels. In the past year the Bolivians government implemented a new law requiring students to become plurilingual. What this means is that students whose mother tongue is Spanish, must be taught Spanish, a local indigenous language such as Quechua or Aymara, depending on the region where they live. The third language must be a foreign language, such as English. I’ve found this a good sign since very few Bolivians have a solid command of English and I believe it to be a necessity in our ever-increasing globalized societies. The government is implementing this plurilingual policy step-by-step to allow students and schools to gradually offer quality education. Also, it is now obligatory to finish primary and secondary school in all of Bolivia.

The problem is that in the rural areas, where a large portion of the population lives and is predominantly indigenous and there is a lack of qualified English teachers. In some places there are no English teachers at all and a lack of school supplies. Another problem is that many indigenous students will quit attending school after the 4th or 5th grade to help their families, which primarily are farmers. Some families cannot afford to have their children attend school and instead need their help to provide for the families. Furthermore, some families and students don’t see a need to continue attending school beyond the primary level. Why? They don’t see the opportunities for future jobs. While unemployment is moderate in Bolivia, many skilled workers with university degrees cannot find jobs. Hence, they are underemployed. Many graduates work in the informal sector and taxi drivers, running food stands in the street and some go on to start businesses, sell fruits and vegetables in the street, or work part-time. Another problem that has existed in the universities is discrimination against indigenous students in the classroom. Because of the low standards of education in rural areas, many indigenous students cannot pass the entrance exams to get into the universities. One remedy the government has implemented is a pre-university training program that helps prepare students to pass the university entrance exams. But where the program falls short is there is no continued assistance once the students are accepted into a university. Currently, statistics show that only 20% of students coming from rural areas actually graduate.

What this says to me is the government is still not making education a high enough priority. What it also tells me is that it is not doing enough to create jobs for skilled laborers. When many students see a university education as a waste of time for their future career, even when it is FREE, and when many graduates are greatly underemployed, this spells for a current and future economic weakness. Next week I have a meeting with the World Bank and am attempting to set up meetings with the Bolivian government, UNICEF, UNDP and Inter-American Development Bank to learn more about the current projects and the needs of the Bolivian people. The educational situation in Bolivia is appearing very complex, perhaps more complex than I initially thought.

Bolivia: Reflections from Inside a Socialist Country

I have now been in Bolivia for a month and have experienced numerous ups-and-downs that have stretched my comfort zone. But before I go any further, I must give a disclaimer that I’ve only been to Cochabamba so far, the third largest city in Bolivia. In 2 weeks I’ll be off to La Paz for a week and am planning 2 additional trips: one to Lake Titicaca on the Bolivian-Peruvian border and another to Salar de Uyuni, which is the largest salt flat in the world and resting at 12,000 feet above sea level. It is on the Bolivian-Chilean border. Until then, know that my perceptions of the country are limited and I have yet to experience the countryside, where the majority of the population lives and is the most impoverished.

Before arriving, I purposely researched and planned very little for my trip to Bolivia. Perhaps I’m a bit strange like that, but I find spontaneity to be more rewarding than pre-conceived notions that I obtained on the internet. I originally arrived to La Paz, before grabbing a connecting flight to Cochabamba, at 5:30 in the morning and saw a seemingly excessive police force at one of the smallest airports I’ve ever been to. There were regular police, airport police, customs agents, and guys dressed in SWAT gear carrying sub-machine guns and riding double on dirt bikes around the airport. My first thoughts were wow, this place is way more militant than expected for such a presumably peaceful country. Time for a couple espressos.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised at some of the modernization measures in the county: a western-style movie theater with stadium seating and a huge screen. This is where Saturday night I watched “Guerra Mundial Z”, or World War Z in 3D. I was surprised that a ticket cost $8, as I thought it would’ve been cheaper. It was an experience as I found out that theater etiquette is near nonexistent in Bolivia. From the theater being hot to them turning on the lights just before the movie ended (really?) to the woman behind me constantly kicking my chair to people talking on their cell phones and conversing with one another in a regular tone of voice made following  the movie a bit of a challenge. I’ve been caught off guard by some of the vehicles being driven here. I’ve seen everything from hummers to Harleys to Jeep Grand Cherokees. Some Bolivians drive nicer vehicles than I ever have in the U.S., despite the average income of $5k per year.

It’s a fairly tranquil country and has a drastically slower pace of life. There is an abundance of colorful birds and sounds of chirping I’ve never heard before. However, Bolivia does come with an array of noisy cars, motorcycles, scooters and dogs. Sometimes I feel as if the Bumpus family and their raucous dogs live across from me (if you’ve ever seen the movie ‘A Christmas Story’, you know what I’m talking about). Stray dogs are abundant, yet many don’t seem vile as a few even tried to make friends with me on Friday night. You often have to watch your step while walking down the street, not only because cars have the right of way, but because there are endless holes, cracks, extremely narrow, and dilapidated sidewalks everywhere. Driving is circus act as there are no stop signs on side streets, cars and motorcycles often drive through red lights, and you have to check with the cab driver how much it will cost to get wherever you’re going. On the other hand, however, you can taxi just about anywhere around town for $4 or less. I’ve only once experience anti-American sentiment from a guy running gym who told my friends and I to go back to our country because we complained that he turned the gym lights off 15 minutes early during our wallyball session. I have heard from other foreigners here that there are some spots in the countryside where “gringos” aren’t welcome. Some places don’t mind tourists, but have noted they have no interest in foreigners living in their town.

Several things I don’t understand so far, including why so many cars and taxis, with their impotent 4-cylinder engines, put spoilers and racing decals on their vehicles as if we were living in a ‘Fast and Furious’ movie; and why there is no heating or hot water from the faucets in many houses I’ve been to, including my own; why many Bolivians eat the same meal for breakfast and dinner; and why the citizenry tolerate prevalent corruption throughout the government, universities, and medical systems. Some of the Bolivian food is quite bland and other foods are delicious. Last week I tried some tasty grilled cow heart fillets smothered in peanut sauce. Also, you can easily head over to the local market and pick up some coca leaves, which are chewed on by many Bolivians for an energy shot. It doesn’t interest me per se, but I find it intriguing to see what’s illegal in the U.S. is freely sold in large sacks by indigenous women for pennies on the dollar.

What I can summarily say is, I’m delighted to have met many warm and caring Bolivians who always have a question to ask, correct grammatical errors when conversing in Spanish, and who have shown a curiosity about my American life. I’m almost finished with my Spanish classes and will soon be focusing on my research project. Today is reading time for several academic articles and Tuesday I’ve been invited to a conference on educational policy in Bolivia.

A Tribute to the Adventurous Soul

“If you don’t design your own life plan, chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s plan. And guess what they have planned for you? Not much.” ~ Jim Rohn

About 4 years ago I was giving a presentation to a Rotary Club in Denver about my Peace Corps experience in Romania and world travels. At the end, an older gentleman asked me, “Is it true that once you’re an adventurer, you’re always an adventurer?” I found the question intriguing since I had been living in Colorado for 4 years and didn’t see myself leaving anytime soon. I wondered if it were true for me, that I would soon be on my way again to exploring another part of the world. And it was. Only a year later I was living in Washington, D.C., followed by another move the next year to NYC for graduate school. I suppose he had a great point, but recently I have been questioning myself of whether I finally want to settle down and begin expressing my adventurous spirit in other ways.

I came to Cochabamba, Bolivia to live for 7 weeks not only to learn Spanish and research the country’s educational policy, but because I wanted to know if living in a developing country was something I wanted to do again after graduating from school next year. I’m 35 years old now and have tasted the zest of exploring the world and living overseas on and off for the past 13 years. By the end of this summer I’ll have traveled to 30 U.S. states, 23 countries and 5 continents. My lifetime goal is to visit all 50 states, 35 countries and all 7 continents and I still see that goal being achieved. However, I find myself at a point in life where the things I have given up to explore the world are now enticing me. After spending a semester studying and working in Geneva, Switzerland during my senior year of undergrad, I knew the traditional lifestyle of getting a good job, working my way up the corporate ladder, maxing out my 401(k), getting married and living in suburbia was of little interest to me. The thought of spending my weekends mowing the lawn, washing the car, taking the kiddies to their little league game, and sitting at the same desk day-in and day-out made me nauseous. I sought adventure. I wanted to create a life that suited me and live it on my terms. I wanted to do what I wanted, when I wanted, and wherever I wanted with no one telling me how to do it. I’ve lived quite an extraordinary life, in my opinion, but I’ve also foregone many magical experiences.

I can now look back without worry or regret for my choices in life. Because I’ve learned what it means to be an adventurer. I’ve had my breath taken away in the Sistine Chapel. I’ve marveled at the shooting stars while in the Gobi Desert. I’ve sat in total awe of the moonstruck clouds cascading through the peaks of the Swiss Alps. I’ve hiked the rolling peaks of the Carpathian Mountains in Romania, explored majestic caves and ziplined down a canyon in the Julian Alps of Slovenia, climbed to 14,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains, and overlooked Bolivia while standing atop the Andes. I’ve sailed the Nile, climbed an Egyptian pyramid, and walked amongst the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. I’ve made friends with Russians while sharing vodka and singing a song about the collapse of the Soviet Union. I’ve almost been stranded in the Ural Mountains of Russia while fetching some Snickers while traveling on the Trans-Siberian Rail. I’ve hyperventilated while swimming in my underwear in the freezing waters of Lake Baikal, Siberia. I’ve meditated in complete wonder with Buddhist monks in a mountain-top temple. I’ve experienced what it means to live with a host family in a foreign country and share deep, cross-cultural communication. I’ve learned what it means to make new friends while riding a subway in Vienna, Austria and end up becoming pals for just one evening, in a transient moment that I’ll never forget. I’ve lain out in the nude under the Black Sea sun while playing Texas Hold ‘Em and putting back cold ones with other butt-naked friends. I’ve gnawed on grilled snake in Beijing and been grossed out by the taste of camel cheese in Mongolia. I’ve wandered and gotten lost amongst the cobblestone streets of Venice. I’ve almost accidently burnt down a bar in Prague because my Absinthe caught fire. I’ve been pick-pocketed by Gypsies in Pisa and seen my life flash before my eyes while nearly being run over by a car in Paris. I’ve saved a girl from being gang-raped in a sleazy club in Romania. I’ve listened to the traditional polka bands in Munich while drinking German beer by the liter and relaxed in the tile-woven, “men only” bathhouses of Budapest.

However, over the past year I’ve begun to notice that I’ve gotten tired of the cold showers, lack of heat when it’s 0 degrees outside, running to the bathroom in the middle of the night because the local food didn’t sit well with my stomach, holding my nose from the stench of an outhouse in 90-degree heat, living out of a suitcase, and moving every 6-12 months. Yet I wouldn’t give up any of my glorious travel and living abroad experiences. They have been incremental in becoming the cultural and distinguished man I am today. A regular job with 2-weeks of vacation per year never would’ve provided the opportunities I sought out.

Lately I’ve been feeling that my lifestyle’s been taking its toll after all these years. And the traditional things I’ve missed out on are now beckoning my attention. I’m finding that I want to channel my adventurous soul in new directions. Although the world is my house I often long to live in a single place that I can call “home”. I’ve found working in the yard on a Saturday afternoon isn’t so bad after all. Until recently, I’ve missed out on having a serious, long-term relationship. I want to have a child and look into their eyes and show them what true love is, and look into my woman’s eyes and have her knock me off my feet. I’ve always wanted to partake in amateur auto racing on summer weekends and learn how to play the guitar. I want to buy a fixer-upper house that I can design to my liking. I have no idea how install lighting, lay tile, or put up drywall, but I think that’ll make for a new challenge. I’m looking forward to establishing myself in a career and becoming an expert in my field. And I intend to find a position that will allow for international travel to quench my occasional travel bug. Maybe it will be with the State Dept. or a development consulting firm or an international investment firm. Only time will tell. All I can say is that I’m excited for my future adventures and live without regret.

I salute my fellow travelers, wanderers, and adventurers, who will never relinquish their own path and their own truth. Those who walk to their own beat and powerfully choose to create a life they love. We may be in this world, but we are not of this world. We are whole and complete. WE ARE.

What about you? What lights you up in life? And how do you express your adventurous spirit?

Fair Trade: Are Your Purchases Doing More Harm Than Good?

I’ve been in Cochabamba, Bolivia for just over 2 weeks now and although my research project isn’t designed around Fair Trade, it has come to mind that Fair Trade impacts Bolivian producers. So I feel this blog post to be of importance. Fair Trade covers a multitude of products grown throughout the developing world, including cocoa, cereals, fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices, nuts, tea, and most notably: coffee. Coffee is the second largest traded commodity (by value) in the world, after petroleum.

Fair Trade has been an interest of mine for some time and, as most people would, found the concept of Fair Trade to be noble and important in protecting the rights of farmers in the developing world. The idea that farmers in developing markets could receive enough income to feed their families, be able to send their children to school, have enough income to pay their workers fair wages and be able to stand up for themselves so they are no longer taken advantage of by large, international coffee companies that used to hold more bargaining power.

However, this past spring I was reading a book by renowned economist, Jagdish Bhagwati, who made a negative connotation towards the fair trade practice. And it got me to thinking, why would this free trade promoter, who comes from an emerging country (India), take issue with fair trade? It led me to researching the pros and cons of fair trade, which has ultimately inspired me to question the entire practice.

I believe any compassionate individual would support the idea of fair trade and want to help disadvantaged farmers. I, too, wish to help in any reasonable way to eliminate global poverty and support opportunities for youth education. But upon researching the arguments of those against fair trade, I was disturbed by several facets of fair trade certification. First, Fair Trade USA not only certifies small farmers, but they do the marketing of fair trade products as well. In my opinion, this creates a conflict of interest. Since the certifying organization earns $.10 on every pound of fair trade coffee sold, it is only in its best interest to certify as many small farmers as possible. Remember: non-profit does not mean “no profit.”

However, my biggest issue with the Fair Trade certification process is that it is only for “small farmers”. There are a number of hurdles to jump through to become a designated Fair Trade producer. How it basically works is that the buyers of Fair Trade produced products must also be certified to purchase them. The small farmers can only produce a certain amount of their product each year and employ a certain amount workers. They must also pay fair wages and receive a specific price for their product from the buyers, often above market prices. At least for coffee, the small farmers MUST participate in a large cooperative with other small farmers who make decisions democratically.

This is a great idea, but I ask: What about the medium- and large-size farmers? What about the larger farmers who pay fair wages and follow the guidelines of the Fair Trade regulations? They cannot become Fair Trade certified. What this policy creates is exclusionary practices, not inclusionary. What is happening is that the medium- and large-size farmers are left out of the Fair Trade boom. They, in turn, must sell their products at market prices and are paid considerably less than the small, Fair Trade certified farmers. This certification process is nothing less than discriminatory.

And what about the small-, medium-, and large-size farmers who prefer to make their own independent business decisions not be driven by what other farmers in the cooperative want? Yes, a cooperative of 100 farmers can create more bargaining power when negotiating business deals, but it also binds farmers who want to make their own business decisions. Should the farmer choose to forego the cooperative, they cannot be designated “Fair Trade Certified.”

What I’ve found is that what started off as an honorable idea has come to create substantial problems for farmers in developing countries. I believe farmers deserve an income that affords them the opportunity to put food on the table and send their children to school. And I want to spend my money on products that help them do so. But I do not wish to discriminate against the larger farmers, who employ more workers, also have a family feed, want to send their children to school, and are responsible for their employees putting food on their family’s table and sending their own children to school. I want them, too, to see the fruits of the Fair Trade explosion. Hence, I believe large- and medium-size farmers should be allowed to participate in Fair Trade. I’d like to speak these farmers and see what they think and learn how they’re being impacted, because right now it makes for a difficult decision as a consumer.

What do you think? Do you have any additional thoughts or comments on how Fair Trade can be more inclusive?

You can find more information about Fair Trade and the debate here:

Arrival in Bolivia: First Impressions

I arrived in Cochabamba, Bolivia exactly one week ago and it’s already been an interesting experience. This city is the third largest in Bolivia, with just under 1 million people and a supposed Mediterranean climate. Every day is sunny and usually reaches 75-80 degrees in the afternoon. Since its winter, the temperature reaches a low of around 40 degrees at night. This makes life quite chilly, given that there is no heating or hot water (except in the shower). Every morning and evening is freezing, including the outdoor classroom where I take Spanish lessons daily from 9-1. Bolivia has surprisingly reminded me of my time in Romania as a Peace Corps Volunteer 10 years ago. Hearing a Latin language being spoken, the stray dogs wandering the streets, observing the large walls and fences lining the streets to protect the privacy of homes, dusty streets and the street vendors hawking fresh food are some of the similarities. However, Bolivia seems to display greater amounts of sunshine and dry climate than Romania. But, the biggest surprise so far has been the lack of heat and hot water.

I’m spending my first 5 weeks in Bolivia in Cochabamba and staying with a host family that has graciously brought me into their home. They have given me a private room in the back of the house with a small private bath and serve 3 meals per day. I’ve chosen to spend these first 5 weeks with a host family because it’s a great way to get immersed in a country’s culture and improve my Spanish skills. Taking Spanish classes 20 hours per week, trying to get to know the city, study Spanish, exercise, get to know my host family and work on my research project is proving to be a difficult balancing act. I was hoping to get in some weekend travel while in Bolivia but I’m starting to sense that meandering up to the sacred Lake Titicaca may be one of only a few excursions while here.

All in all, Bolivians are quite friendly, proud of their country, and share warm smiles. Yet I am finding it is a divisive country, rife with corruption throughout the educational, health and governmental systems, and encountering deep racism between the whites, mestizos (a mix of European and indigenous ethnicity) and the indigenous. While I have not witnessed any of the aforementioned prejudices, it has been through word-of-mouth from Bolivians. I believe this will play an incremental part in my research of the Bolivian government’s educational policies and recent initiatives by the President, Evo Morales, to create greater educational equality for the country.

Next week I’ll be discussing the pros and cons of fair trade, how it ‘unfairly’ discriminates against certain farmers, and present some possible solutions to the inequities of trade. Then, I’ll begin posting definitive information about my preliminary research findings and some of the organizations I’ll be connecting with to get the inside scoop on where Bolivia is steering its educational system and preserving opportunities for future generations.

Thanks in advance for any comments!