Speeches and other documents by the Secretary General


November 11, 2016 - George Washington University, Jack Morton Auditorium, Washington DC

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Latin America and the Caribbean is still one of the world’s most unequal region and still has unacceptably high poverty rates. Having access to high quality, inclusive and affordable education is central to improving economic opportunities of people of the region and can be a powerful tool to achieve what we have set out for ourselves at the OAS –“More rights for more people.”

Dear Friends,

  • At the outset, when taking office in May 2015, we set the goal of fostering inclusive development through expanding opportunities for all, as a central piece of our strategy, while at the same time we work to transform the OAS into a beacon for the defense of human rights and democracy in the hemisphere.
  • Despite significant progress over the last 15 years, Latin America and the Caribbean still have unacceptably high poverty rates upwards of 28% (168 million people, ECLAC) and the region remains the world’s most unequal (18% more than Sub-Saharan Africa and 36% more than East Asia-UNDP). Poverty and inequality restrict social mobility, lower the quality of life in the region and limit opportunities for too many people, particularly for young people.
  • Our region faces a period of economic uncertainty and slow growth –a contraction of the GDP of 1 % is projected for 2016, and a modest rebound of 1,5% for 2017.  
  • Latin America and the Caribbean stand today at a critical point. The gains achieved in the last decade –70 million people lifted out of poverty and a growing middle class— are at risk.
  • Poverty is not solely the product of low or no income in the region but also the result of lack of opportunities.
  • For instance, progress on employment in recent years has been limited because labor informality remains a structural problem. The proportion of informal wage earners has fallen to 44%, a percentage that is still very high.
  • In many countries the number of informal workers, whether salaried or self-employed, exceeds those in the formal sector, representing in some cases up to 60% of the labor market. Informality predominates particularly among self-employed workers and employees of small and micro enterprises.
  • Today, in Latin America, one in five young people, approximately 30 million people, is a “Nini” –as we say in Spanish– (ni estudia ni trabaja). These young people –mostly women– are notin school and don’t have a job. Half do not finish high school. The average labor informality among those young people who dropped out of high school is 92%.
  • Investing in people is therefore essential. Quality, inclusive and affordable education is the only way to provide our youth with equality of opportunity.
  • The single most important achievement in education in the region has been expanding access at all levels.  In the last decade we have seen great progress in access to primary education, almost reaching universalization, as well as great improvement in secondary and tertiary education.
  • Access to educational services in terms both of quantity and quality has a direct impact on upward social mobility. Intergenerational social mobility in the region has improved but remains very limited. Parents’ education and income levels still substantially influence their children’s outcomes.
  • Inequality declined in Latin America over the past decade, but less so than generally expected given the increased access to education. The education provided was not of sufficient quality, which meant that when young people entered the labor force their skills were less recognized, affecting their earnings.
  • We need to address this skills gap urgently, even more so, in the face of the rapid transformation of our economies and our jobs.
  • According to the World Economic Forum, 65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately be working in completely new types of jobs that do not yet exist. Even "old" jobs will look radically different in workplaces transformed by technology, changing demographics, and globalization.  In the era of Uber, Airbnb and the emergence of the sharing economy, disruptive changes to business models are and will continue to have a profound impact on the employment landscape over the coming years.
  • This is why our young people must have access to education that prepares them for the 21st century: critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, cultural sensitivity, language training, information technology, adaptability and lifelong learning. These are part of the hard and soft skills demanded by the global and technology-driven economy.
  • In today’s economy and society, diversity and inclusiveness are all essential values for our education system, our businesses and our economies. Having ALL the voices, ideas and perspectives at the table is a true strength not a weakness.
  • Our focus at the OAS is to make sure all peoples of the Americas, without regard to race, gender, place of birth or sexual orientation, can aspire to quality jobs. We have an obligation, a responsibility, and a duty to ensure that future generations are architects of their own destiny.
  • Our goal at the OAS is to bring the organization closer to the people of our region and to address their real problems and to contribute as an organization to tackle the main challenges of the 21st century.
  • Since the first day of my administration, the guiding principle of the new OAS has been “More rights for more people.”
  • In this regard, let me emphasize that every young person has the right to be a student based on his or her ability to learn not on his or her capacity to pay.
  • We need to work on making education more affordable, to transform higher education from a benefit for a privileged few to a mass system aimed at the needs of society and instrumental in addressing each nation’s educational goals.
  • With this in mind and for over 50 years, the OAS has provided thousands of citizens of the Americas the opportunity to study through: a) the Scholarship programs which offer opportunities to citizens of member states to study in a country different than their own;  b) the Rowe Fund program which grants interest-free loans to Latin American and Caribbean citizens for studies in universities in the United States; c) and the Professional Development Scholarship Program which provides scholarships for short or medium-term, non-academic courses and training programs.
  • The Internet and new technology is allowing us to reach a larger number of students, at lower costs. Open and distance education, including massive on-line open courses (MOOCs), represent excellent tools to advance education in the region.  At the OAS, we are promoting and effectively using these tools to make lifelong learning a reality and providing more opportunities to the youth of the Americas.
  • There are no magical or immediate solutions to addressing all the challenges we face today. We should focus our efforts on generating equality of opportunity so that every single one of us, as parents and future parents envision our children and the children of the entire region, having access to free, world class universities, vocational training, and paid internships applying, improving and sharing knowledge across the globe, researching solutions to real problems for fairer and more equal societies.
  • We are all part of a shared vision and leadership. Together we must take on the responsibility of building a shared future anchored in progress, democracy, social justice, rights and opportunities.

Thank you.