In 2002 when I left India to pursue an education in Europe and the United States, there were many who were sceptical about my move. Emerging economies at that time were driving the boom in global output and trade. And Goldman Sachs – an investment bank for which I would later work – had just coined the term BRIC, which defined Brazil, Russia, India and China as permanent powerhouses of the world economy. South Africa later joined the group.
In 2015 when I returned to India, that euphoria seems to have reached its lowest ebb.
This week, the World Bank warned of a structural slowdown as developing nations cede their leading role in global growth to the developed world. Growth in emerging economies fell to just 3.5% during the first quarter of 2015. If the contribution of China is stripped out of this figure, then the average GDP growth of emerging economies is close to 0% in 2015. The process of emerging economies getting richer ‒ much of which was driven by export-led manufacturing ‒ has become more complex, as these economies are now turning away from manufacturing. The fall in overall global trade growth also means that there is less chance that developing countries other than China can export their way to prosperity.
An important reason for this weakness is that few of these countries have invested in the more complex challenges of promoting a learning environment that celebrates creativity, curiosity and risk; changing an exam- and rote-based education system that shapes its youth; or designing regulations that develop high value-added service sectors.
Even now, these countries can hardly build the diverse high-productivity economies to which they aspire unless they have the courage to take a few large strides in fundamentally overhauling the environment that nurtures their youth:
- Abolish the fear of wrong answers
Our schools are creating clones. The rote-based education system prevalent in emerging countries sets the child up for failure, because it causes the child to grow up in the fear of giving the wrong answer and failing the exam.
The child grows up always trying to be right. The beaten path is preferred and curiosity is underrated.
This education system implies that there are only two types of people ‒ smart people and non-smart people. And the consequence is that many brilliant people think they are not because their answers have once been judged as wrong.
Most developed economies now educate their children in a way that encourages them to ask both the right and the wrong questions. The primary role of schools in emerging economies must change to equip children with a life-long appetite for learning. Only then will entrepreneurship and authentic leadership be truly stoked in the economy.
- Teach how to be a career drop-out
Youth in emerging economies grow up building the lines of their CV rather than their life experiences. One precious life wasted fretting over a page of paper! The reason for this, in large part, is often a highly classist social structure that is embedded in the education system, manifested by high parental expectations as well as great peer pressure to land at the most posh university and job.
Society signals to youth that if they work hard, answer the questions right and get a college degree, then they will get a job and thus climb the social strata. Young people need to be educated to not believe that.
Indeed it is better to have a degree than not, but if the route to getting that degree mutes all the things that an individual thinks are important, then it is a guarantee of a life of mediocrity or failure. Aesthetics and the arts are when the senses are operating at their peak, whereas an education system that puts to sleep what a person has within him or her is a good example of an anaesthetic.
Emerging economies need to overhaul such anaesthetic education systems. Instead, we need to teach our youth how to be a “career drop-out” ‒ these are people who have an appetite for living authentically, abandoning the rat race and embracing the risk of following their true calling in what they do as work. Education plays an important role in instilling the sensitivities within an individual to know what their inner compass points towards, and the courage to act on it.
It is through the passion of such individuals ‒ and the organizations many of them eventually create ‒ that emerging economies can be propelled into the sphere of large-scale innovation and economic ingenuity.
- Make time for serendipity and friendship
We still educate children in many emerging economies as if we were living in the industrial era – we ask them to stand in straight queues, tell them that they must ask no questions, make them specialize in a subject and group their entire learning process by the year of their manufacture (date of birth). A child is made to believe that he or she has no time to waste in off-curricula conversations.
How can we expect them to collaborate as adults when their education has been in such an environment? Do we imagine these children will grow up with a porous quality of sharing themselves with others and being genuinely curious about people of other cultures?
Nurturing a collaborative mind-set is especially crucial in emerging economies, where individuals are more likely to be caught up in income- and status-driven work choices, social networks that enhance self-projection and an attitude that is more survivalist and defensive than collaborative.
One solution is to have educators emphasize unstructured chats and serendipitous connections. The best of life happens by chance. Friendships, more communication and collaboration across countries can only help those living in different emerging economies learn new ways of facing many of their common challenges.
Recently, the leaders of the BRICS nations resolved to regain their place as the world’s global economic powerhouse, announcing during the 2014 BRICS Summit in Brazil to create a $100 billion development bank. A less visible but strategically critical demonstration of their collaborative effort on the same forum was their decision to work together to develop their education systems. In 2013, the ministers of education from the BRICS met at UNESCO headquarters in Paris to discuss opportunities for cooperation in education for the first time.
But the problem is that we are trying to meet the future by doing what we did in the past: pumping more money in old programmes, using a data-based approach to evaluate the development of young lives and counting success by the headcount in schools. In this way, we are ensuring that the hearts and minds of brilliant children turn into dull clones that are then converted into an improving statistic.
Author: Miniya Chatterji is Chief Sustainability Officer for the group of companies, Jindal Steel and Power Ltd and a Global Leadership Fellow alumnus of the World Economic Forum.
Image: Primary school students do exercises in the corridor and in a classroom as they avoid outdoor activities due to heavy smog, in Beijing October 11, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer