BookTalkUNA Summer Edition
Dr. Alejandro Toledo and
The Shared Society
Our summer BookTalkUNA event, presented in co-operation with the International Institute of Education, featured our honored guest Dr. Alejandro Toledo, the former President of Peru, who was invited to present his new book, The Shared Society: A Vision for the Global Future of Latin America.
In 2001, Dr. Toledo was the first Peruvian president of indigenous descent to be elected in five hundred years. In serving his country, Toledo fought against poverty by prioritizing investments in health care and education. With the resulting economic growth and social policies directed to the poorest of Peru, extreme poverty was reduced by 25 percent during his five-year term, and the Peruvian economy grew at an average rate of 6 percent, making it one of the fastest growing economies in Latin America.
Prior to his presidency, Dr. Toledo worked for the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, D.C., and the United Nations in New York. He marked his entry into international politics in 1996 when he formed and led a broad democratic coalition that eventually brought down the autocratic regime of Alberto Fujimori in 2000.
Born in a remote village in the Peruvian Andes, Dr. Toledo grew up in extreme poverty in a family of sixteen siblings. After years of shining shoes, selling newspapers and lottery tickets as a child, to supplement the family income, he escaped poverty through a few unforeseen opportunities, enabling him to eventually attend many prestigious academic centers in the world.
"I am free to be over here, because I have the capacity to choose — and that capacity can only come thanks to teachers and education," he said. "And: I am free to think what I believe, whether you might agree or disagree. That's exactly what education's all about — the contrast of different points of view, which eventually creates new knowledge."
Throughout the evening, Dr. Toledo often blended serious observations a warm sense of truth-telling. "Academicians have a way of indulging ourselves on sophisticated econometric models — to forecast the past! Very few times have we had the courage to take the risk of looking at the future. I'm particularly proud to be at this institution, because I'm fanatic about the principles of the United Nations… and even more fanatic about the quality of eduction of the world — to make people free."
One basic premise of his book is that "never before in history did Latin America have the opportunity to be the most promising continent in the world… the poor now have less patience to continue being poor, because now there is technology, and they see how green the other side of the river is." And so Toledo wants to see a re-establishment of ethical intentions as we move forward, not just promoting endless technological innovation, but empowering the people of the world who need education the most in order to help maximize their self-sufficiency.
Dr. Toledo's own journey through many halls of education assures us that he knows its high value. A recipient of several degrees in Economics from Stanford, and the University of San Francisco, he was also a Visiting Scholar at Harvard, and a Research Associate at Waseda University in Tokyo. After finishing his term as President, he returned to Stanford for three years, as a Distinguished Fellow in Residence, and also a Payne Distinguished Visiting Lecturer at the Freeman Spogli Institute's Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.
Together with many other unresolved and pressing issues, of climate change and renewable energy sources, he suggests current circumstances have demonstrated that it's "time for the world to do less politics, and engage in more leadership — to help shape the lives of our children and their future children."
Even with a past succession of unproductive climate talks, trailing from Kyoto to his own doorstep in Lima, Toledo nonetheless has reasons for his optimism in Latin America. For one thing, the continent contains 47 percent of the planet's clean water, and the Amazon is still one of the few natural preserves left in the world and which is actively co-maintained by the several countries it spans. Also, with an incredible biodiversity boasting 15 different micro-climates, the continent has the means to produce all the agricultural products of the world and of which, in some cases, two harvests per year. And there is the considerable promise of what he calls the "aggregate value" of many biological products, wherein certain substances of natural materials are transformed into medicinal and other health-related uses.
Dr. Toledo touched on many subjects this evening, including the struggles to overcome the dilemmas in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008, but all topics seemed to lead back to his insistence that Latin America has learned to put its economic house in order, which resulted in a much quicker recovery during the crisis than for the U.S. and Europe, as well as its ability to stem hyperinflation.
"But still we are very vulnerable, dependent on the export of raw material. We need to diversify the composition of economic growth. Our agro-industry is labor intensive, with aggregate value, and so we have a competitive advantage — why don't we capitalize on that? We also need to tackle issues of urban malnutrition and health care, which are associated with the quality of education… Of course, in the short term, it would be irresponsible to say no more investment in raw materials — as it would be irresponsible to redistribute poverty."
Toledo rolls out an enticing carpet of potentiality for Latin American achievement, which encompasses "agro-industry, manufacturing, eco-tourism, micro-entrepreneurship, sectors that are labor intensive, which generate jobs, and have less probability of contaminating the water." But with a proviso: governments have the responsibility to be small but strong, with economic, social and legal political stability, yet also must demand from investors their compliance with social and environmental responsibilities, as well as profit sharing with local communities to provide real economic benefits from their natural resource harvesting.
"And we need to invest more in the minds of our people — human capital… investing more in nutrition, health care and educational quality," he insists. "If we could kill the high levels of malnutrition in Latin America and other countries in the developing world, and provide health care and quality of education, we would be ready to transform our economy — and science, technology, innovation, manufacturing — with positive value."
Dr. Toledo has lectured in more than forty five countries on issues related to economic growth, poverty and inequality reduction and democracy, as well as on the benefits of human capital investment. He has received 62 honorary doctoral degrees from prestigious universities in Peru and around the world, and has written 18 books — so far.
We were quite fortunate to host such a distinguished guest for our BookTalk lecture series, and express our gratitude for all that this exemplary world leader had to share with us in a most congenial and inspiring evening. Hope you were there!
Reportage: Peter Muller