Many Colombian parents must choose between sending their children to school and keeping them home to help support the family coffee-growing business. Many decide that school is not worth the cost in time and money.
A recent EDC forum brought together corporate, public, and private representatives who identified a variety of innovative solutions. “Supporting Education for Coffee-Growing Families: The Role of Public-Private Partnerships,” was the first of its kind to focus on the role of corporate social responsibility in improving Colombian education. Representatives from major coffee companies, coffee roasters and retailers, the Colombian government, non-governmental organizations, and international donors attended. The event was sponsored by EDC’s International Development Division (IDD).
Progress has been slow, but noticeable over the last 25 years, says Pablo Jarmillo, Director of Education for the Caldas Department Committee of the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia. “When we began this work, coffee growers didn’t worry about whether their children received a good education” he said. “In fact, many of them felt that education and agriculture were incompatible. Today, parents see opportunities through education, and are playing a bigger and more positive role.”
Still many challenges exist. According to Adriana González, Coordinator of the Rural Education Program from Colombia’s Ministry of Education, rural areas had illiteracy rates of 19.5 percent in 2005, and test scores in math, language, and science among rural students lagged two to three percent behind those of their urban counterparts. School attendance is often low in coffee-growing regions, adds Mauricio Perfetti, Executive Director of the Manuel Mejía Foundation. Attendance among 12- to 17-year-olds in some areas falls below 50 percent.
However, these numbers represent a vast improvement from the early 1980s. At that time, coffee growers averaged only 3.4 years of schooling; now, the average is about 8 years. And despite the total rural illiteracy rate of 19.5 percent, only 8.5 percent of rural 15- to 24-year-olds are illiterate.
Participants agreed that public-private partnerships can be a key element in the development and implementation of creative solutions to Colombia’s education problems. Major conclusions drawn from the forum include the following:
1. Colombia has a long and fruitful history of public-private partnerships which are models for the rest of the world. The Escuela Nueva model of community-based schools, introduced in 1975, promotes rural schools that focus on active learning, have an orientation toward rural life, view teachers as facilitators of learning (rather than transmitters of information), and foster community involvement in schooling. With support from the Colombian Coffee Federation, this model has not only survived, it has grown and become part of the national curriculum. The model has also been replicated in many countries as a way to provide sustainable and relevant instruction. Such investment in research and development, along with maintenance and sharing of such a methodology, demonstrates the promise of private sector commitment to the social sector.
2. Education, agriculture, and the economy are linked. Fernando Bálcazar (COF/CCO), who oversees agricultural improvement programs for the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), explained that he was not sure at first why he had been invited to a forum focusing on education. It became clear for him and others during the forum, however, that important relationships exist between agriculture and education, with education supporting improvements in productivity, better and more sustainable growing practices, protection of the environment, and empowerment of coffee growers.
3. Youth need education that is relevant to rural settings.Colombian youth frequently drop out of school, especially when they become active in their family’s agricultural activities (around sixth grade). Only 69 percent of secondary school-age children in Colombia are in school, and just 30 percent of the urban students and 16 percent of rural students complete their basic education. A number of forum particpants advocated for inclusion of workforce development and rural productivity training in education to encourage youth to remain in school and complete their secondary education. For example, the Colombian Foundation for Education and Opportunity supports the Escuela y Caféprogram, which educates youth in managing successful coffee-growing businesses and teaches them to share their newly acquired knowledge with parents and other community members. This program does not encourage youth labor, but rather prepares youth for the not-so-distant future when they will need to support their families. It also encourages an intergenerational change of knowledge and skills desperately needed in the coffee sector. Four young people who have benefited from this program described how they put their skills into action in their families’ businesses.
4. Early childhood education can help rural children succeed. Education specialists at the forum noted that significant numbers of children enter first grade unprepared for school and that few preschools are available. This is a concern especially among families with both parents working. Several private sector companies represented at the forum expressed interest in supporting early childhood education, particularly in situations where both parents work and there are few options for early childhood development.
5. Providing education to the rural poor has proven one of the greatest challenges for the many parties working to improve education in Colombia. Extremely poor families are most likely to seek short-term economic gain, albeit minimal, at the expense of the long-term economic promise offered by education. The children of these families often drop out very early, repeat grades due to high absenteeism, or receive a poor education due to lack of community resources. This makes providing relevant workforce skills difficult. One forum participant noted a desire on the part of private companies to address this problem through basic education, and urged international organizations with matching funds programs to support these efforts.
6. Providing education to populations affected by armed conflict and geographical barriers remains a major challenge. Katharine Yasin, Center Director of the International Development Division (IDD) at EDC, described past and current efforts using media to overcome this barrier. The possibilities range from low technology solutions, such as the Interactive Radio Instruction used in Chocó to train teachers in Escuela Nueva methodologies, to higher technology solutions, such as the internet connectivity and software used by groups of youth in northern coastal areas and in rural interior regions to share lessons on environmental education. Such technological solutions bring quality education to remote regions and provide consistency in the lives of the learners reached.
7. Matching-funds programs for public-private partnerships are critical. Both the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) explained the importance of the private sector to the social and agricultural sectors. USAID provides matching funds through the Global Development Alliance (GDA), while the IDB provides matching funds through the Multilateral Investment Fund. Both of these programs provide matching funds for resources provided by public-private alliances. These programs leverage the private sector’s support, and also to encourage the formation of public-private partnerships.
8. There are numerous advantages to forming public-private partnerships to pursue solutions to the remaining challenges. Participants agreed that there are many motivations for both public and private actors to engage in alliances that work to improve education. Forum groups noted that resources, financial and otherwise, from both sectors can bolster the efforts. Participants also acknowledged that private sector companies are increasingly involved in such alliances not only for philanthropic reasons but also for the general health of the company and its employees.
The forum provided many examples of successful public-private partnerships. The city of Medellín invests 40 percent of its budget in education and has partnered with numerous private entities to build schools and libraries in the poorest sections of the city. The Luker Foundation is working with the Department of Manizales and several private parties to improve work skills among secondary students, and the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia is working with financial institutions to supply youth and young adults with education and credit so that they can cooperatively run coffee growing businesses.
Originally published on September 1, 2007