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Education: The Path to Overcoming Inequality

By Luis Porto, and Betilde Muñoz-Pogossian, Guest Blogger

Learning processes are both the cause and the consequence of different systems of social interaction, and should be analyzed within this framework when designing and implementing educational policies.

Many of us have heard, for example, that if we know where a person lives – if we find out their postcode or address – it will be easy to predict not just their educational path but also their opportunities for social mobility, for developing a decent life, and for actively contributing (or not) to the transformation of their communities and their countries. This because “where someone lives” provides relevant information about the context in which that child develops, not only from the socioeconomic or demographic perspective but also from the perspective of the set of human rights that person accessed (or was unable to access) even before birth, thereby affecting their psychomotor development: overcrowding, the mother’s education, or nutrition in a person’s early years are some of the factors that impact their cognitive and learning abilities.

This is confirmed by the fact that, despite important investments in education in the Americas in recent decades, reflected in the boost to education budgets with respect to GDP to amounts similar, in some cases, to OECD countries (6%), we still see that the right to access a quality education remains a pending issue for the region. What evidence is there that we haven’t reached the education goals our people deserve? If we look at the results of international exams such as PISA, participating countries in the region occupy some of the lowest spots in the ranking. Problems with school attendance and learning remain and worsen the gap in inequality among groups according to their socioeconomic strata, and in view of other characteristics that produce further situations of discrimination and social exclusion.

To cite a few statistics: at the pre-primary level enrollment reaches 66%, although in some countries it stands at 90% and in others at 20%. In the case of primary education, where the region has a coverage rate of 95%, structural socioeconomic factors have prevented its full universalization. Likewise, the region has seen a very slow advance in average growth in secondary enrollment, which has reached 50%, and just 25% of youths and children in the poorest quintile finish their secondary studies, compared with 75% in the richest quintile.[1] According to UNICEF, 1 of every 3 school-age children is not enrolled in secondary school, and 30 million youths/adolescents work informally and in difficult conditions. This situation is more severe among migrant and disabled populations. Among these groups, only between 20% and 30% attend school.

The persistence of unsatisfactory results at the education level in the region, and of inequality in the Americas, invites us to reflect not only on the results of the practices and policies implemented up to this point but also, fundamentally, to review the intervention methods and the extent to which they address, in combined or isolated form, the factors impacting the success of teaching and learning processes. How is our vision of education and the functioning of our educational system contributing today to the aim of overcoming inequalities and building more inclusive societies? Thinking about this is crucial so that education continues to be socially valued as a basic tool of human development.

It is precisely this that the Organization of American States, in cooperation with Inter-American Dialogue and the CAF Development Bank of Latin America, seeks to do with its “,” a theoretical-practical first exercise that aims to contribute a comprehensive look at the field of education, with its analysis highlighting the importance of paying attention to the socioeconomic conditions of students and their families, and the need to think about the pedagogical offering in a comprehensive way to adjust it to the cultural capital of students and their communities. It is an exploratory paper that seeks to shed light on educational practices that can make up for, or attack on some level, the “prior” inequality of access to personal rights. It is not a recipe book, because as already mentioned, it’s not always possible to translate educational practices that have yielded positive results in certain contexts, certain educational communities, certain aspirational frames of the identities in which people and their families are incorporated, etc…

The text is organized into five sections, covering variables such as malnutrition, socioeconomic background, disability, and access to adequate housing and health services, among other important factors for child and youth educational development that are not always analyzed comprehensively.

Chapter 1 of the Inter-American Guide focuses on child development, prioritizing the discussion of why it is important to deal with inequities from an early age. As the document notes, early childhood is a critical period for interventions that seek to reduce educational and social inequality and poverty in general, as these early years are decisive for children’s physical, cognitive, and socioemotional development. It is during these years when the formation of abilities that help children with lifelong learning is fortified or falls behind. On the basis of empirical studies (Naudeau, Kataoka, Valerio, Neuman, and Elder, 2011), the Guide specifies factors such as poor diet, little stimulation in the home, and/or lack of access to quality care or preschool centers as the cause of many children not developing at the level they should. The document proposes strategies to boost the development of life skills at an early age, such as home visit programs, establishment of child care centers, and better access and quality in early education, among others.

Primary education is a critical time in education provision. While early childhood (years 0 to 5) is the most important period for brain development in humans, it is in primary education that the bases of academic knowledge are laid and such essential skills learned as reading, writing, and doing basic mathematics, which are important in preparing children for more advanced learning and for life in general.

Chapter 2 of the Inter-American Guide on Educational Inequality deals with free and compulsory primary education as a universal human right, which has led to the near universalization in the Americas of primary school attendance, with many countries reaching a net primary enrollment rate close to 100%.

This section of the Guide maps the challenges that persist in achieving full universalization of primary education and lays out the differing levels of education access, particularly for populations in situations of poverty and vulnerability, as well as indigenous and Afrodescendent children and those with disabilities and special needs. The Guide highlights some of the strategies used to strengthen learning in primary education, including the development of student-centered learning policies, emphasis on reading in early grades, inclusive education, and bilingual intercultural education, among others.

Chapter 3 deals with secondary education, putting special emphasis on the education path of children in situations of poverty and vulnerability. This group may develop learning deficits that cause them to fall behind academically, repeat one or more years, and develop negative attitudes toward school. The complexity of adolescence imposes a set of additional issues that challenge the capacity of educational systems to guarantee the quality and appropriateness of education, as well as these youths’ presence in the educational system. Some of these issues covered in the Guide include the situation of those who never enter secondary education or leave it early due to the need to start working or assume other responsibilities, including the situation of young women faced with early maternity as well as those who from a young age have responsibilities associated with domestic work and unremunerated care. How, then, can educational systems transform secondary school to reduce inequality, in doing so improving graduation rates and learning levels among youths living in conditions of poverty and vulnearbility? Among the strategies mapped in this chapter of the Guide are the use of conditional cash transfers, implementation of tutoring and mentoring programs, and school reentry, among others. The final section of the text lists the main lessons for implementing strategies to reduce educational inequality, that is, specific recommendations that can be useful in planning these actions and equity-oriented educational policies.

This contribution from the OAS, in connection with Inter-American Dialogue and support from CAF Bank of Latin America, aims to overturn the aforementioned adage that says “if we know where someone lives, if we know their post code or address, we can predict their educational path.” This document starts from the premise that inequality of access to basic human rights is one of the most important causes of educational inequality, and only by dealing with them in a comprehensive manner can we begin to have the desired results for children and young people in the region. At the OAS we believe we can contribute to connecting actions so that universal rights are expanded and made concrete in the region and to promoting the recognition of the rights to equality and freedom from discrimination. Education is one of the key tools to achieving this.

**The points of view expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent the position of the OAS.

[1] UNESCO (2014). “The State of education in Latin America and the Caribbean.” The document can be accessed at this link.

[2]UNICEF, “Hechos sobre Adolescencia y Jóvenes en América Latina y el Caribe”. Extracted from: http://www.unicef.org/lac/Fast_facts_SP%281%29.pdf. Last visited 17 November, 2014.

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OAS Electoral Observations Can Prevent Future Threats to Democracy

By Geovanny Vicente Romero, Guest Blogger

In 2018 Latin America faced a number of democratic crises, among them Daniel Ortega’s violent repression of peaceful Nicaraguan protestors and Venezuela’s further fall into humanitarian disaster.

In 2019 the world will grapple with exactly how to confront and combat these situations. A mix of sanctions and aid is the traditional policy recipe. In the case of Venezuela, the United States, Canada and others are now putting increased diplomatic pressure on the Maduro Regime and have formalized support of the young opposition leader, Juan Guidaó1.

But more long-term solutions are needed to combat the crises of tomorrow. Undoubtedly, this involves the overall strengthening of democratic institutions and norms, particularly in places where democracy is already being threatened, but also in places that are traditionally democratic strongholds.

One way to do this is through Electoral Observations Missions. During an interview with GFDD, Director of the Department of Electoral Cooperation and Observation (DECO) at the Organization of American States (OAS), Gerardo de Icaza, explained the utility of such initiatives.

Electoral observation missions, like those of DECO, prevent fraud and guarantee free and fair elections by helping carry out electoral processes at the national or municipal level. Vote counting and keeping polling places safe and free of corruption are among their activities. Such independent missions are particularly important for countries that are developing and do not yet have the technical capacity to ensure free and fair elections.

In the Western Hemisphere, countries possess one of the most formidable electoral observation organizations in the OAS’ DECO. In its more than 50-year history, the regional body has carried out over 240 successful missions in more than 27 countries throughout the region. The organization is extremely transparent, offering complete and easy-to-access reports and data on each of its observations2.

But, many countries in the region do not utilize DECO’s capabilities. Chile, Canada, and Argentina have never had visits from the OAS body. In Venezuela, for instance, there has not been a DECO mission since 2006.

Reacting to disasters like those of Venezuela and Nicaragua are complicated, and as the Venezuela example demonstrates, can potentially worsen an already bad situation. A proactive and simpler way of preventing threats to democracy is to utilize independent electoral observation missions, like those of the OAS.

With more electoral observation missions, Latin America and countries around the world, might experience less democratic and humanitarian crises in years to come.

  1. Wyss, Jim & Camacho, Carlos. “Venezuela now has two presidents. How long will the uncertainty last?” Miami Herald. January 23, 2019. https://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/venezuela/article224962020.html
  2. “Department of Electoral Cooperation and Observation.” OAS. 2019. http://www.oas.org/en/media_center/press_release.asp?sCodigo=S-015/16

Latin America Still Faces an Uphill Battle on Gender Equality

By Geovanny Vicente Romero, Guest Blogger

In some ways Latin America has been a trailblazer when it comes to female leadership in politics. Many of the world’s first democratically elected women heads of state were in Latin American nations. In 2014, four females held the highest office in their countries: Michelle Bachelet in Chile; Dilma Rousseff in Brazil; Christina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina and Laura Chinchilla in Costa Rica. But, as pointed out by the Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the OAS, Rita Hernández Bolaños, the region still has a long way to go before achieving gender equality.

In part due to courageous female leaders, many Latin American countries, starting with Argentina in 1991, implemented gender-based quota laws in the 1990s and 2000s. Today the region boasts some of the highest percentages of female lawmakers in all of the world. In Cuba and Bolivia parliaments are majority female and in Mexico, following recent elections in 2018, just under 50 percent of lawmakers are women1. In the United States, for comparison, just about a quarter of all lawmakers are females2.

But there are signs that the region is moving in the opposite direction. Whereas just five years ago there were four female heads of state, today there are none. In 2018 the region elected six male presidents, many who, like conservative President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, threaten women’s sexual and reproductive rights.

The old machista culture remains pervasive too. According to the World Bank, females in Latin America are seriously underrepresented in the labor force and earn on average 16 percent less than men3. Violence against women is higher in Latin America than anywhere else in the world4.

Women played a big part in the passing of the quota laws that allowed for high numbers of female members of congress today. Female legislators also have proven to be more supportive of bills involving women’s rights and those fighting gender-based violence and femicide5. At the OAS, and throughout all of Latin America, more female leadership is needed to combat issues like gender-based violence and bring the region closer to gender equality.

  1. “Women in national parliaments,” Inter-Parliamentary Union. November 1, 2018. http://archive.ipu.org/wmn-e/classif.htm
  2. Desilver, Drew. “A record number of women will be serving in the new Congress,” Pew Research Center. December 18, 2018. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/12/18/record-number-women-in-congress/
  3. Tavares, Paula & Octaviano Canuto. “No women, no growth: The case for increasing women’s leadership in Latin America,” The World Bank. August 17, 2018. http://blogs.worldbank.org/latinamerica/no-women-no-growth-case-increasing-women-s-leadership-latin-america
  4. “From Commitment to Action: Policies to End Violence Against Women in Latin America and the Caribbean. United Nations Development Program. http://www.latinamerica.undp.org/content/dam/rblac/docs/Research%20and%20Publications/Empoderamiento%20de%20la%20Mujer/UNDP-RBLAC-ReportVCMEnglish.pdf
  5. “Latin America has embraced quotas for female political candidates,” The Economist. July 28, 2018. https://www.economist.com/the-americas/2018/07/28/latin-america-has-embraced-quotas-for-female-political-candidates

What is the Inter-American Democratic Charter, Article 20 and Article 21?

By Geovanny Vicente Romero, Guest Blogger

In recent times there has been substantial discussion about the Inter-American Democratic Charter, particularly as it relates to the humanitarian and democratic crises now taking place in Venezuela and Nicaragua. In discussion with the Global Foundation for Democracy and Development (GFDD), Peru’s Permanent Representative to the OAS, Ambassador Ana Rosa Valdivieso, highlighted the importance of the Charter, mentioning that it was adopted in 2001 in Lima, and also discussed Articles 20 and 21 of the agreement.

It’s clear that the document is significant and relates to democracy and human rights, but what exactly is the Inter-American Democratic Charter, Article 20 and Article 21?

According to official oas.org documentation, the Inter-American Democratic Charter is an international document concerning a set of democratic principles and norms that all signees agree to follow. The purpose of the agreement is to strengthen member countries’ commitment to democratic institutions and human rights as well as to promote development and reduce poverty throughout the region1.

The document contains 28 Articles related to OAS electoral observation missions, poverty reduction and female participation in politics, among many other topics concerning human rights and democracy. Articles 20 and 21, specifically mentioned by the Ambassador, are of particular importance. These articles relate to the strengthening and preservation of democracy in the region.

Article 20 establishes that:
“In the event of an unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime that seriously impairs the democratic order in a member state… The Permanent Council, depending on the situation, may undertake the necessary diplomatic initiatives, including good offices to foster the restoration of democracy.”

If the diplomatic initiatives implemented under Article 20 fail to produce positive results, Article 21 may be introduced which states that the OAS can “take the decision to suspend said member state from the exercise of its right to participate in the OAS”2.

Essentially, Articles 20 and 21 are used as a way to punish and then suspend violators of the Inter-American Democratic Charter.

This is why so often Article 20 and 21 are brought up in conversations about Venezuela and Nicaragua. In 2017 OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro suggested that Venezuela could be suspended from the OAS, if presidential elections were not free and fair3. Very recently, on January 11, 2019 Secretary Almagro called on member states to invoke Article 20 of the Charter against Nicaragua for abuses of human rights and democratic principles4. It remains unclear if the OAS member countries will heed either of these calls and suspend Venezuela or Nicaragua from the regional body.

  1. “Tenth Anniversary of the Inter-American Democratic Charter,” OAS, 2019, http://www.oas.org/en/democratic-charter/
  2. “Inter-American Democratic Charter,” OAS, 2001, http://www.oas.org/en/democratic-charter/pdf/demcharter_en.pdf#page=18
  3. Almagro, Luis. “How Venezuela Can Avoid Suspension From the O.A.S.,” March 24, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/24/opinion/how-venezuela-can-avoid-suspension-from-the-oas.html
  4. Associated Press. “OAS Invokes Inter-American Democratic Charter on Nicaragua,” January 11, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2019/01/11/us/politics/ap-us-oas-nicaragua.html

#GoverningForInclusion: A Women’s inclusion agenda for Better Democracies in the Region

Betilde Muñoz-Pogossian, PhD
Director, Department of Social Inclusion
Organization of American States
Twitter: @BeticaMunozPogo

A review of the progress made in terms of inclusion at the regional level suggests that although there is ample consensus on the right to suffrage as a basic political right, as mechanism to redistribute political power and as mediator of socio-economic inequalities, there are still important challenges to the second facet of people’s political rights: the right to be elected. This is specially so for women, who frequently do not compete on a level-playing field. In this regard, the asymmetries that are manifested in the socio-economic realm are replicated in the realm of electoral competition, significantly limiting the possibility of redistribution of political power via elected office. Three key reflections are worth mentioning:

  • On candidate selection processes: Candidate selection for presidential and general elections (for congressional and subnational elections, among others) is one of the most important decisions that a political party makes, as a collegial body. The rules for candidate selection, and the leadership in charge of this, have the potential to promote more equity and political inclusion. This is so because political parties are said to be ‘the gatekeepers’ of political power. Twelve of the 18 countries in Latin America use some institutionalized mechanism for candidate selection. However, political practice shows an important gap between the group of political activities and militants in a party and the group that ends up being nominated for electoral lists. An example that illustrates this disparity directly affects female party militants. According to International IDEA data, whereas women constitute 50% of political party militancy, they barely represent 20% of political party leadership, and a similar percentage in the electoral lists. This is generally so for Latin American political parties unless there are positive discrimination measures in place such as quota or party laws.
  • On the general consensus about the need to create opportunities for women’s inclusion: The existence of quota laws in Latin America reveals another ample consensus, namely, the need to create opportunities for the political inclusion of women and compensate for the obstacles that emerge as a result of other types of inequalities, including socio-economic inequalities. Between 1991 and 2013, fifteen Latin American countries adopted or used quotas[1]. For 2018, the debate in some countries transitioned towards parity. Six countries (Argentina, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua) have adopted political parity measures for national elected posts[2]. The risks associated with political inequalities occur both in terms of the electoral offer to the electorate and in electoral competition, as well as in the exercise of power. Women and other groups in situations of vulnerability generally experiment differentiated conditions of access to this power.
  • On the financing of electoral campaigns: The political financing system, and particularly of electoral campaigns, has a direct effect on the capacity of candidates to compete on equal terms. This is generally so given the fact that the asymmetries in the access to campaign resources determine the level of equity in the exercise of the right to be elected. In cases where access is unequal, candidates do not compete on equal conditions. Women generally have less access to financial resources for their political careers and their campaigns and have less access to the networks where these resources can be found. Moreover, parties tend to designate more men for winning districts, under the expectation that they have more chances of winning than female candidates[3], and generally give women less resources. Thus, the need to regulate and reform political financing systems to generate more equity in electoral competition.

Today it is unquestionable that there has been important progress in the region regarding women’s participation in politics. But this progress has not necessarily translated in equivalent representation in political party leadership or in elected office such as congress, where women’s representation, regionally, is still around 22-24%.  The focus of the work needs to continue to be guaranteeing women’s inclusion in political decision-making processes. This helps ensure they can enjoy their rights. This improves the quality of the decisions that emanate from our political systems, and their participation also improves the democracies of the region.

*Opinions are personal. They do not represent the views of the OAS.

[1] Argentina, Mexico, Paraguay, Bolivia, Brazil. Costa Rica, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Colombia, Honduras, Uruguay (2014), and El Salvador (2013).

[2] Archendi, Nélida and Maria Inés Tula. “Cambios Normativos y Equidad de Género: de las Cuotas a la Paridad en América Latina” in América Latina Hoy, 66, 2014, pp. 47-68.

[3] Ohman, Magnus (2018). Gender-Targeted public Funding for Political Parties. A Comparative Analysis. Stockholm: International IDEA.