Education is one of the most powerful tools against racism in Latin America

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Niña afrodescendiente en una aula de clase con lapiz en la mano y un libro sobre el pupitre Niña afrodescendiente en una aula de clase con lapiz en la mano y un libro sobre el pupitre

I never get tired of saying it: skin color has no place in a just and inclusive society. But reality contradicts me. For 34 million children and adolescents in our region, being of African descent is synonymous with invisibility: not only are they forgotten and neglected; they are also actively discriminated against. 

I am writing these thoughts on the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, but it is a conversation that should be ongoing - in classrooms, homes, offices and hallways - until racial discrimination has actually been eradicated and we no longer need to establish dates on the calendar to remind us of its presence.

I emphasize the classroom because education is one of the most powerful tools against racism: it not only allows us to educate to eliminate the prejudices that motivate it; it also potentially equips future generations with the intellectual tools they need to break down the racial barriers and cycles of chronic poverty that affect a disproportionate number of Afro-descendants.

Unfortunately, Afro-descendants are among the groups who have most suffered from the effects of the crisis in education triggered by the pandemic, not only owing to the crisis itself, but also because of their condition of profound inequality when it occurred.

Their children often have fewer educational opportunities, attend schools of lower quality, have limited access to digital tools and are much more likely to drop out of school, jeopardizing their future prospects. Various forms of discrimination explain some of these gaps.

Although Afro-descendants’ access to education has improved in recent decades, their school dropout rate is much higher than that of other racial groups. 

The data are overwhelming: one in five Afro-descendant children do not complete primary school, double the average for the region, and less than two-thirds finish secondary school, according to an upcoming World Bank report. In terms of higher education, although Afro-descendants represent a quarter of the population over age 25, they account for just 12%  of graduates.
The pandemic has exacerbated these inequities. According to the report, over half of Afro-descendant primary- and secondary-school students had no access to basic tools to continue their education remotely during the extended quarantine.

Recently, the Latin American and Caribbean region has gained awareness of the existing gaps and the enormous costs generated by structural racism. Much remains to be done, however. 

Breaking down racial barriers to education requires concrete action, including the following:


  • The school must be a key player in the fight against racial discrimination. The classroom must be a safe space free from expressions of racism, as well as an inclusive space that addresses the aspirations of young Afro-descendants and the many important contributions of people of African descent to our societies, which are rarely recognized.
  • The socioeconomic barriers that prevent Afro-descendant students from advancing in primary and secondary education must be eliminated. This will require investing more in the schools they attend in greater numbers. Subsidy programs or direct cash transfers to families, as well as scholarships and incentives for schools, will help reduce dropout rates and encourage the return of Afro-descendant children who have dropped out of school.
  • Closing the digital divide is key to eliminating disparities. This involves increasing access of Afro-descendant families to the Internet, computers and training in the use of digital tools and platforms so that young people can access the jobs of the future.


The Change Agenda

At the World Bank, we strongly support this agenda for change and inclusion.

In Ecuador, for example, we support a project that, among other objectives, seeks to remove the barriers that prevent access to education and employment for boys, girls and young people of African descent, as well as for those of other vulnerable groups. In Brazil, we support an educational reform for a full-time high school, which focuses on the most neglected sectors and includes the distribution of non-discriminatory textbooks that highlight the enormous contribution of indigenous and Afro-Brazilian cultures.

In Argentina, thanks to ongoing dialogue with organizations of Afro-descendants, we contribute to building institutional capacity in human rights and establishing training, job placement and productive development programs. We are following a similar path in Honduras, in a strategic partnership with Garifuna civil society organizations.
Last year, we started an inclusive internship program at the World Bank for students of African descent and for other minorities from Latin America and the Caribbean. This program will give them the training and tools necessary to work in the area of development.

We can do more. The post-pandemic recovery gives us the opportunity to build better, in an inclusive and sustainable way, with education as a fundamental pillar to ensure that no one is left behind or discriminated against. 

The conversation about ending racism and the actions we take have become increasingly visible and urgent. It depends on us to keep these efforts alive so that in the near future, we may be able to remember racism as a thing of the past. I have no doubt that on that day, Latin America and the Caribbean will not only be a more just region, but also a more prosperous, sustainable one.



Carlos Felipe Jaramillo

World Bank Vice President for Latin America and the Caribbean

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