Mr. Sandstrom

Preparatory Meeting for the Summit of the Americas

(October 1, 1997 - Preston Auditorium)

I would like to welcome you to this important preparatory meeting for the next Summit of the Americas. We are honored to see you all here and look forward to a stimulating and productive discussion over the next two days.

The themes, which you will address, including education and the reduction of poverty are central to sustained development in the Region.

Throughout the Region, there has been tremendous economic progress--through the liberalization of trade, the privatization of state-owned enterprises, the freeing of markets, and the reform and redirection of state activities. Accompanying this process of fundamental economic reform has been an equally historic process of democratization and an opening up of political systems to enhanced popular participation, new forms of representation, and the flourishing of grassroots organizations and civil society.

At the same time, we all know that a formidable agenda lies ahead. Despite the resumption of economic growth, at least one-fourth of the total population in the Region--or somewhere on the order of 110 million people--continue to live in poverty. Perhaps another quarter lives just above the poverty line and are thus extremely vulnerable to any economic shocks affecting their employment and incomes. These data reveal the central challenge to Latin America and the Caribbean--poverty in the midst of abundance and growth.

Widespread poverty is a major obstacle to sustainable growth, and arguably the single greatest impediment to long-term political and social stability. Reducing poverty must be at the top of the Regional development agenda, and the strategic priorities for reducing poverty require urgent and systematic attention.

It is therefore very encouraging that, in broad terms, there is consensus on what needs to be done to reduce poverty in the Region:

The agenda for the next two days speaks to this set of concerns. We all look forward to a wide-ranging discussion -- for, while, there is much general agreement, there are many different views on priorities, on sequencing, on the most effective means of implementation, on the financial requirements, on the respective roles of the many different actors engaged in the process, and so forth.

Let me now turn briefly to education, which is the main topic for today's session. The Region has made considerable progress over the last decades. For example, virtually universal coverage has been attained in primary education in most countries, access to preschool education, which is increasingly seen as critical to subsequent education success, has expanded, gender disparities have, for the most part, been eliminated at the primary level and differences between male and female literacy rates are lower than in other Regions of the world.

However, enormous challenges remain -- low levels of academic achievement, high rates of grade repetition and lack of access by the poor to quality education result in unequal education opportunities across social strata. While only two countries from the Region participated in TIMSS, the international test of science and mathematics achievement, the results revealed that the quality of education in the Region is among the lowest in the world. Only about half of students who start primary education ever complete it. Of the 9 million children who enter primary school annually, approximately 4 million fail in the first year.

Overall, 29% of primary students repeat their grade. Enrollment at the secondary level lags far behind primary enrollment. As to be expected the poor bear the brunt of the system's inadequacies. Significant differences in the distribution of educational spending between urban and rural areas exacerbate the disparities between the poor and the non-poor. In addition, ethnic and linguistic minorities are further disadvantaged.

Improving access and quality in education will require fundamental reforms both at the institutional and school level. Reform efforts must ensure that schools have the professional capacity, autonomy and resources to provide effective education. Greater participation of communities and families in managing education seems to pay off in improvement in the quality of education for the poor. Access can be improved through programs and projects that target poor regions, girls, and minority groups (through bilingual education programs, for example). In addition, great efforts should be made to deepen sector-wide institutional reforms, such as decentralization and autonomous local decision making, better information to allow parents to make informed choices, and improved methods for measuring education quality.

The upcoming Summit is especially important because of the emphasis it gives to the Region's education problems and because it will result in a public commitment by the political leaders of the Region to do something about it. However, as we all know too well, the real challenge lies in what comes after the April Summit--converting this commitment into action. Reliable international comparisons of the performance of education systems can help motivate action. We believe it is important to improve the educational statistics and assessment systems of the countries of the Region. The World Bank, along with the IDB and UNESCO, encourage countries in the Region to join the next round of international achievement tests and to develop education statistics systems modeled after the OECD indicators project. Already, Mexico has joined the OECD project and Brazil and Chile recently joined the International Education Association which administers the international achievement tests. We hope the efforts of these countries will be more widely followed in the Region.

We here at the Bank attach high priority to improving education in the Region. The largest share of Bank lending worldwide for education is to Latin America and the Caribbean Region. We are fully prepared to support actions along the lines I have mentioned and also the further measures that will emerge through the Summit process.

In conclusion, I would, once again, like to thank you for the opportunity to host this important meeting and look forward to a fruitful exchange of ideas today and tomorrow.