The former President of The Dominican Republic, Leonel Fernandez, was recently in Miami to discuss and promote the close ties between The Dominican Republic and South Florida. During this time, the former president, who spent part of his youth in New York City schools, discussed the state of education and its relationship to Latin American competitiveness in a presentation and a one-on-one discussion with Nearshore Americas. Fernandez, who presided over two non-consecutive terms at the helm of the Caribbean nation based on the island of Hispañola, voiced the provocative opinion that throwing more money at the “education problem” doesn’t necessarily reap results.
“There has been, and still there is a great debate in Latin America about how much we should invest in education and in some countries they talk about 4% of the GDP, Mexico is at 7% of the GDP, in Brazil they’re talking about 9-10% of the GDP, but nevertheless what we recognize is that there’s a weakness in the quality of education in all these places so there’s the question: what relationship exist between the volume of investment and the quality of education?” asked Fernandez, who we met at the eMerge Tech Week. “What we have learned is that there is no correlation between the volume of investment and the outcome or performance in terms of quality of education. So the first thing we have to do is have a clear strategy of what education life we’re choosing, what is the nature of a curriculum, what are the goals in terms of education in the 21st century, and focusing more on problem-solving, critical thinking.”
We see the Dominican Republic in the future as a technological hub linked to Miami, linked to Florida due to a geographical proximity, of having a Dominican population in the U.S. and here in South Florida…
According to Fernandez, most countries and administrations go about education backwards, coming up with an arbitrary budget and trying to fit education into that framework—Like selecting a shoe size and then trying to grow your foot to fit the shoe. “We need to have a teacher training program up to a 21st century level, a 21st century outlook where you put this together, then you decide what the cost of all this needed is, bring all those new technologies into the classroom, then after you figure that out, after you have an understanding of the cost, then you can try to budget what are your educational needs are,” said Fernandez.
Education vs. Entrepreneurship
“Now, how then can you connect your education with an entrepreneurial spirit? In Latin America there has never been a relationship between education and an entrepreneur spirit. As a matter of fact, education goes one way and entrepreneurship goes the other way!” exclaimed the ex-President. “ I think we’re beginning a new stage, trying to connect between the business sector; the private sector, the entrepreneurs, and the educational system and we’re trying to do that by first of all introducing new subject matter within the education system that has to do for example with financial literacy, that has to do with how do you elaborate business plans and the whole idea that after school was that you don’t necessarily search for a job but you dream!”
Fernandez spoke of the dichotomy that exists within most countries, but is especially pronounced in developing economies, where children of wealthy families receive prestigious education and may work for well established, large international companies: the scrappy self-made man (or woman) may not have the same access so has to build an enterprise from scratch. “Entrepreneurs generate jobs for the community, so it’s a new mindset, it is a new way of looking at the connection between business and education, or education and entrepreneurship, we’ve never had that in all the history of the education systems of Latin America,” he explained.
“Now if you look at it from a theoretical framework, what we see is that education here in the U.S. or in Latin America in general, has been going through of what we might call the industrial period of mass education in public schools, and in this moment, in the second decade of the 21st century, there’s a shift from this traditional industrialized educational system to more information & knowledge based education, so this is the challenge we have: How can we make that transition when we’re still lagging behind in the traditional system in Latin America?” Fernandez asked. “Now of course the role of education means many things, one is the component of training our workforce in Latin America, but a workforce that would have to deal with new markets that have come up as a consequence of technological development. So there are new job opportunities that would be created because of the new technologies that have been created and then in Latin America, and the Dominican Republic specifically, we have been working on this transition for quite some time. During my tenure as president we have installed computer labs in every public school in the Dominican Republic, elementary school to high school in order to challenge the digital divide; we installed what we called first of all LINCOS, standing for ‘Little Intelligent communities,’ later on, technological community centers so that people in remote areas could have have access to internet, have access to information in education technologies, later on looking at the entrepreneur side we built Santo Domingo Cyber Park which is a scientific and technological park trying to attract investments from the Dominican business sector and also from abroad.”
Fernandez was in Miami as a special guest of the eMerge Americas conference, promoting Miami as a technology hub for the Americas and center for the information economy in its own right. According to Fernandez, Miami offers real value and is an essential link in the Latin America value-chain. “We see the Dominican Republic in the future as a technological hub linked to Miami, linked to Florida due to a geographical proximity, of having a Dominican population in the U.S. and here in South Florida, which is bilingual bi-cultural, with many students in college that are already, I’d say, literate in the different technological fields so looking into the future how we combine innovation, how we combine a new education paradigm, and how we can integrate our economies. ” Upon completing his first presidential term in the Dominican Republic, Fernandez started the NGO FUNGLODE: The Foundation for Democracy and Development. The foundation looks for ways to promote development, with a focus on the Dominican Republic and its multilateral relations with the rest of the world in the realms of politics and economics. “Since the beginning of the 2000’s we began looking at how the Dominican Republic relates to the state of Florida … for example, the Dominican Republic is already an important trading partner to the state of Florida. It’s a $7 billion business yearly between both of these places, there’s also investments from Florida to DR and from DR to Florida,” Fernandez said.
“Then there’s also education, cultural and technological exchange,” he continued, “We created the Santo Domingo Cyber Park as a result of the connection with Florida into that corridor between Miami and Daytona Beach. We created our first community college in the Dominican Republic as a result of a linkage we have with Miami-Dade College, and we brought to the Dominican Republic the NAP (Network Access Point) of the Caribbean because I toured the NAP of the Americas in Terremark a couple years ago, so looking at the geographical proximity, the huge Dominican population, how can we come up with a strategic plan where we can have access on a mutual basis of our resources? I think this is the best way forward and this platform here at Emerge opens doors for networking and building social capital that we can be investing, upgrading this relationship between the two countries.”