CDE Country Talks Address Culture, Education, and Obstacles to Progress in Developing Countries

On Tuesday and Thursday nights during the Winter Study period, students at the Center for Development Economics (CDE) gave presentations about the culture, traditions, and development of their home countries. The students represented nations as diverse as Kazakhstan, Cambodia, and Swaziland, and discussed issues such as higher education, governmental corruption, and rural development.

Karla Córdova and Juan Carlos Sosa presented about Peru. Córdova discussed the diverse religious traditions of Peru, manifested particularly in their unique mix of Incan and Catholic national festivities. For example, the annual Lord of Miracles festival held in Peru’s capital, Lima, celebrates a painting of Jesus Christ that has survived countless destructive earthquakes since its creation by an African slave in the 16th century; at the same time, in Cusco, the traditional Incan Festivity of the Sun occurs, celebrating the sun god, Wiraqocha, and giving thanks to the earth for the harvest. “This diversity of cultures enriches us as a nation, but presents challenges for the design, application, and success of public policies,” Córdova said.

During his presentation, Sosa described these challenges in greater depth. For example, many environmental concerns arise from foreign enterprises that extract petroleum in the area. Because natural resources belong to Peru’s central government, this extraction and mining often occurs in jungle tribal territory, not only disrupting the natives’ daily lives but also threatening their health with leaks of mercury and other poisonous substances. The extraction and mining thus incites conflicts between the government and its people, harming the tourism industry that is key to the area’s well-being.

Nakhonsy Manodham gave her presentation about women’s rights in Lao People’s Democratic Republic, or Laos. During and directly after the French colonial period, Manodham said, women were “dominated by colonial and familial rule,” with poor education and health care and no opportunity for political activism. However, the formation of the Lao People’s Democratic Party in 1955 brought women into political life for the first time as the country struggled for nationhood. Today, significant challenges remain, especially in poor rural areas where women still do not have access to adequate health care and face much discrimination. The country’s goals for the future will include “the dissemination of laws on the rights of women, expanding institutional arrangements for counseling for women, and implementing policies of gender equality,” Manodham said.

Nino Javakhadze discussed higher education and the fight against corruption in her home country, Georgia. Although Georgia has a 99% literacy rate, until very recently, its college education system was corrupt and biased towards the elite and those with ties within the school system; it was therefore difficult for the socioeconomically disadvantaged to attain a good education. After the Rose Revolution in 2003, however, the new government brought in reforms against corruption, instating nationwide entrance exams for Bachelor’s and Master’s degree programs, and restructuring the entrance system to make it merit-based. These anti-corruption policies have been quite successful, but Javakhadze believes there is more to be done: “The high school curriculum hasn’t changed since the Soviet era,” she said. “The Georgian people value the quantity of education, not quality of education.”

Khanyisile Dube addressed the problem of HIV/AIDS in Swaziland, whose HIV rate of 26% is the highest in the world. Dube attributed this pandemic to the poor health care and widespread practices of polygamy and widow inheritance in Swaziland, as well as to a general opposition to contraceptives and refusal to attend hospital clinics for treatment. Due to the death of many of the young working people, the country has become increasingly impoverished, with the government spending money on AIDS prevention rather than development projects. Dube cited several ways to prevent the further proliferation of the disease, including encouraging testing before marriage, preventing mother-to-child transfer through breast feeding, and changing local attitudes and myths about the disease.

Other presentations included discussions of human rights and forced evictions in Cambodia, the development of education in Vietnam, and wedding traditions and festivals in Armenia and Azerbaijan.