All Business

A BILLION MINDS UNLEASHED

What happens when the developing world is as smart as we are?

November 14 2005
All Business

A BILLION MINDS UNLEASHED

What happens when the developing world is as smart as we are?

November 14 2005

A BILLION MINDS UNLEASHED

All Business

What happens when the developing world is as smart as we are?

STEVE MAICH

IMAGINE A BILLION educated minds, and what they might be capable of. Now imagine those minds belonging to people whose desire for discovery is matched only by their hunger for prosperity—the kind of hunger that can only be born out of grinding poverty. Picture all those minds growing up and learning in Asia, eastern Europe, South America and Africa. Think about just how different the world will be when those minds turn their attention from the lessons of the past to the possibilities of the future.

Now stop imagining, because that’s the world we’ll be living in within 30 years.

Last week, the New York-based Conference Board released a report on education around the world, and its findings are as exhilarating as they are daunting. The developing world is finally developing. Now comes the hard part.

Already, more than 90 per cent of children in the world’s poorest countries have access to primary school education (up from about 65 per cent in 1970), and that should reach 100 per cent by 2013. In secondary education, the improvement has been slower but is still striking. In the poorest nations, less than half of the population reaches high school, but the World Bank estimates that by 2014, middle-income nations like Malaysia, Mexico, Brazil and the Philippines will have enrolment levels equal to those of the developed world. By then, the poorest nations should reach 65 per cent secondary enrolment.

At the college level, the developing world is on pace to double enrolment within 25 years.

Huge disparities and gaps still exist—most notably in the access of young girls to education, and conditions in war-tom Africa—but at the current rate of improvement, the world should achieve universal basic literacy by 2035. That alone is an amazing breakthrough, but the numbers implied by that education revolution are positively mind-blowing.

In 2001, there were 85 million secondary school students in the world’s 55 “highincome” developed countries. That year, there were 360 million high school students in the developing world. There are now about 13 million students enrolled in college

or university in the United States, compared with more than 24 million in China, India and Brazil combined. As access to education continues to expand, the numbers will mushroom. And in the developing world, students are heavily concentrated in the very disciplines most likely to yield economic advantage: math, science and engineering.

This is good news, right? Of course it is. Social justice demands that this process be fostered, even accelerated. The future wellbeing of the planet might depend on the enormous human potential being unleashed in the Third World. In one of those millions of minds may be the solution to the world’s energy crisis, the key that unlocks the secret of sustainable development, Or the cure for cancer. But are we in the West really prepared for the implications of this

new world? Not by a long shot.

The Western world has gotten fat, lazy and complacent about its standard of living, and Canada is among the worst offenders. Over the past few years Canada’s productivity growth—which measures the value of goods and services produced per hour of work—has gone from anemic to non-existent. In 1970, this country’s productivity ranked fifth out of 24 nations in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. By 1980, we’d slipped to 12th. In 2004, to 17th.

Don Drummond, chief economist at Toronto-Dominion Bank, sounded the alarm

on this issue last month, pointing out that better productivity is the only reliable path to more employment, higher profits, and a better standard of living. Our needs are wellknown: lower taxes, more spending on infrastructure and technology, and major investments in education, research and innovation. But “the subject hasn’t gripped the hearts and minds of most Canadians,” he says.

Luckily, Canada may finally be figuring out this dawning reality. But we have a lot of ground to make up. Despite five years of increases, per capita funding for colleges and universities is still 8.6 per cent below where it was in 1990. Our ranking in primary and secondary education funding is even worse: 19th out of 30 developed nations ranked by the OECD in 2001. Even our much-maligned American neighbours are far more prepared for what lies ahead. The U.S. is home to more Ph.D.s per capita, spends more on research and development, and devotes 17.1 per cent of government spending to education, compared to Canada’s 12.7 per cent.

Technology is only accelerating the Third World’s emergence as an economic power.

Already we’ve seen companies outsource tech support and customer service to Asia, and as the quality of that workforce improves, it’s only a matter of time before they design their own products to rival the best the West can offer. All this is good news for mankind, but to be ready for that shift we need to be as committed to developing human potential as they are. And that starts in the classroom.

The sooner we all wake up to what’s happening the better. Otherwise, we won’t have to worry much longer about the decline of our manufacturing sectors. Our grandchildren will be the ones sewing shoes for middle-class yuppies in Thailand, and moving to Beijing to be nannies for the spoiled children of wealthy Chinese industrialists. ITil

Read Steve Maich’s weblog, “All Business,” at www.macleans.ca/allbusiness

THE WEST has gotten fat and lazy, and Canada is among the worst offenders. Soon, our grandchildren may be the ones sewing shoes for middle-class yuppies in Thailand.