My opinion Andrés Oppenheimer : Gates: Latin America needs better schools
Associated Press
April 8, 2008


My opinion Andrés Oppenheimer

Tucson, Arizona | Published:

One of the things that surprised me the most during a rare interview with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates on Latin American affairs was his response to my question on what the region should do to become a world-class technological innovation center and play in the big leagues of the global economy.

Why hasn't Latin America produced a Bill Gates, I asked him, only half-jokingly. Would you have been able to become the world's most successful technological innovator, and one of the richest men in the planet, had you been born in Paraguay?

Gates, who was in Miami as a star speaker of the Inter-American Development Bank's annual meeting, laughed at the question and took a few seconds to come up with an answer.

Interestingly, the first thing that he mentioned was not the need for greater political or economic stability, but education, especially high school education.

"In most places in the world I would have been born, I wouldn't have had the incredible opportunities that I've had: I had a very good education, and I was incredibly lucky in terms of the circumstances I was involved in," he said.

"So, no, in most places, I'd be a bad farmer somewhere. Nobody would have approved of what I've done."

Gates, who dropped out of Harvard to start his software business, said that despite China and India's rapid rise as computer engineering powerhouses, the United States remains by far the most innovative country in the world, and will probably remain so in the next two or three decades.

He added that this is partly because of Americans' willingness to invest in new ventures and an efficient patent and legal system, but mainly thanks to the top universities. "The United States has the best universities," he said.

Still, this may change in the future, he said. China and India are producing many more computer engineers than the United States, where the fastest-growing graduate major is physical education, he noted.

Asked what Latin American countries should do to compete with China and India, and stimulate technological research and development that would allow them to produce higher-value added exports, Gates said that the first thing would be improving the region's high-school system, and the second thing would be improving universities.

"In all rich countries, and also in Latin America, the number of kids going into science and engineering is surprisingly low," he said. He suggested encouraging schools to change the way they teach science and engineering.

"Do projects that are fun projects," he said. "Say you design a little submarine or a little robot. And understand that science is a tool to do something you want to do, as opposed to this desert that you cross and maybe if you get all the way across, there is an interesting job for you."

At the university level, Gates said, China and India are successfully trying to copy some of the best practices of the U.S. university system, such as a culture of government funding of research projects, a tradition of philanthropy where alumni give back to their universities, close relationships between universities and start-up companies, and intellectual property incentives for professors who come up with inventions.

Asked which Latin American countries are most advanced in innovation, the first countries that came to his mind were Chile and Brazil, although he later emphasized that Mexico is doing "impressive things," and "there are some neat new things" happening in Argentina.

"China and India are going to close a lot of that gap (with the United States) over 20 or 30 years, and Latin America should be in that game," Gates said. "It should be in many respects the leader in many things that go on."

My conclusion: Among the things I found interesting were Gates' optimism about the U.S. ability to remain a leader in innovation, and his fascination with China, which — from what I interpreted — he sees as way ahead of India.

Still, the very fact he said Latin America should strive to be in the same league as China and India suggests that he's not ruling it out, which should give the region some solace, and prod it to catch up with the world's emerging technology powers.

E-mail Andrés Oppenheimer, a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald, at