By Dr. Manuel Otero, Director General of the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA)
Education is an essential public good. Without high quality, inclusive and equitable training, countries will not succeed in breaking the cycle of poverty that is leaving millions of children, youth and adults behind.
This reality acquires even greater importance, given the impact of the COVID-19 crisis. Countries will need to rehabilitate their economies to overcome the severe consequences of the pandemic. Education is key to this process.
Agriculture, rural territories and their integration with urban centers stand to play a critical role in this agenda. Realizing the potential of rural areas will call for innovation and technology to trigger virtuous cycles of economic growth, job creation and the bridging of social divides.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, agriculture is a central activity and one of the few sectors that remained active after the outbreak of COVID-19. In the coming years, the sector will take another qualitative leap, incorporating the benefits of digitalization and other technological advancements.
This change will be inevitable and will necessitate the development of new capacities, because agricultural digitalization can assist in increasing the supply and quality of food, even while maintaining a harmonious relationship with the environment.
In tandem with these processes, the rural population and upcoming generations will need access to proper education, which will enable agro-industrial transformative processes to capitalize on the benefits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Technology in and of itself will not drive these changes, but rather human talent and duly empowered organizations. Therefore, once rural activity implements the digitalization agenda, we must then take steps to ensure that education enables the rural population to assume a leading role.
In recent years, in a joint effort, international organizations, such as the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), in collaboration with private sector allies, such as Microsoft, have issued a warning regarding the urgency of addressing the problems of rural connectivity and digital skills development.
In the Latin American and Caribbean region, there is a 34 percentage point gap between connectivity access in urban and rural areas. Digital skills development among rural dwellers is also limited, with only 17.1% of the population having acquired specific digital skills.
Furthermore, in Latin America, only 33% of schools have access to adequate broadband or internet speed. In rural areas, in eight of 10 countries, less than 15% of schools have sufficient broadband access or internet speed.
Education has been particularly hard hit by the pandemic, with the closure of schools and abandonment of schooling. According to UNESCO, 3.1 million youth and children in the region have fallen out of the education system. This scenario points to the challenges facing a rural education agenda.
It is therefore a matter of priority to align actions with future demands and to drive the development of agro-technical education, by modernizing rural educational institutions to prepare qualified resources among rural youth, fostering rural
retention, linkages with the production sector and the integrated and inclusive development of rural areas and their people.
We must prepare leaders to transform our agri-food systems. Thus, providing better opportunities through first-class education in agro-technical schools should be prioritized.
This is the path to laying the foundation of a new rurality: better education, full connectivity and a population that is equipped to make intensive and intelligent use of new technology, thereby transforming rural areas into zones of opportunity and engines of economic development.