Opinion, by Michael D. Kerlin
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – On March 20th, U.S. President Barack Obama will visit one of Rio de Janeiro’s newly “pacified” favelas. I stayed for a week earlier this month with a local family the freshly pacified group of favelas called the Complexo do Alemão, long the violent headquarters of the dominant Red Command drug gang.
Speaking with my hosts and their neighbors in brick shacks and twisting alleys, I found satisfaction with the newfound security. But I also found an aching need for something more—equality of opportunity, particularly in education. The lessons from my visit apply to much of Latin America, where inequality and violence tangle together tightly.
My hosts in Rio were certainly benefitting from the 1,700 troops that the national army sent in to their favela. They largely agreed that they were breathing easier now, amid clusters of machine-gun toting soldiers and convoys of armored personnel carriers.
But neither they nor any of their friends had ever considered joining gangs. Indeed, gang members numbered fewer than 1,000 out of a population of 65,000 in the Complexo do Alemão. What the peaceful 98 percent of favela residents really need coupled with their extra security is a chance at a better socio-economic life.
I found my hosts and their neighbors to be hard working. I met a metal worker, a retail clerk, a teacher, a grocery store butcher, a doorman, two auto mechanics, and several housemaids. Many others I met had launched their own businesses—a few retail stores, a home-based clothing wholesaler, and a silkscreen business.
But all of these people conveyed a striking lack of hope that they or their children or grandchildren could ever earn the same amount of money and respect as rich Brazilians in beach neighborhoods like Copacabana and Ipanema. As Mr. Obama has told us, hope flames out in the absence of change.
One long unchanged problem—access to education—most hampers the socioeconomic mobility of Brazil’s poor. State and federal universities are free in Brazil, but their grueling entrance exams favor wealthy children who attended private primary and secondary schools.
In a survey conducted by the NGO Observatório de Favelas, only 30 percent of Rio’s favela residents rated their local public primary schools as “good” and only 17 percent rated their public secondary schools good. The most common other responses included “bad,” “insufficient,” and “non-existent.”
Up in the favela, I met many twenty-something men and women who had given up saving money for private university. Most high school students I met grew uncomfortable when I brought up the prospect of college. And younger children almost never offered an answer for what they wanted to be when they grew up. With such little hope, why not place a bet on drug trafficking as a career?
To change the lot of these children, the governments of Rio de Janeiro, all of Brazil, and much of Latin America need to overhaul regressive education systems that favor the rich over the poor. That means sending fewer resources to tertiary schools and more to primary and secondary schools; offering more stipends for poor students to attend private schools; and, until these larger things change, paying for poor children to join private test preparation courses to fill in the cracks left by their inadequate public education.
Mr. Obama needs to press his own hosts in Rio de Janeiro and throughout the region to couple their laudable public security efforts with these types of education reforms. A 2007 American University study found Latin America to have the world’s highest “inheritance of educational inequality” from one generation to the next.
Just before I left the favela in Rio de Janeiro, one sixteen year old girl told me she hoped to be the first in her family to go to college. She also told me about the day when the military’s Pacification Force held its first armed raid into the neighborhood.
“I was scared,” she said. “My mom didn’t leave the house for two straight days. But I left the house, because I wanted to go to school.”
Imagine how much bigger that small slice of hope could get if only she and her friends in the favela saw some believable change in the education system.
Michael D. Kerlin is a management consultant who has worked extensively on economic development in Brazil. He has been visiting the Complexo do Alemao regularly since 1996.