Chile: Developed or developing?

On the surface, Chile seems like a pretty ‘developed’ country, not so different from many North American cities. That was certainly my first impression on arrival. An afternoon spent in Las Condes, the business sector of the city littered with high rise glass buildings confirmed this. And indeed, there is a lot of money here. Chile was the first Latin American country to be included in the OECD list in 2010, cementing its status as South America’s most ‘developed’ and prosperous nation. Chile also boasts the highest GDP per capita in South America, and as a result has attracted many immigrants in recent years from Peru, Columbia, Venezuela and Haiti. As the largest copper exporter in the world, this is the main pillar of the Chilean economy accounting for 20% of government revenue every year. This is followed by agriculture. Who doesn’t love Chilean wine and avocados?

But what makes a country ‘developed’? That is an essay in itself. Industry, economy, political freedom, life expectancy… many factors indicate and can help define a country’s level of development. And on the exterior, Chile seems to tick many of these boxes.

However, many of my students have repeatedly emphasized that Chile is far from the term ‘developed’, despite its inclusion in the OECD list. Developing, yes, but not developed.

‘Why not?’ I more or less get the same answers every time.

‘Wealth inequality.’

‘The gap between rich and poor.’

Out of all the countries included in the OECD list, Chile has been recognised as having one of the largest economic margins between the rich and poor. And while it does take the crown for being the richest country in South America, it also wins the award for having the largest wealth inequality, with the income of the richest 10 % being 26 times higher than that of the poorest 10 %.

‘Why is this the case?’

Again, the same answers follow:



‘Our public education system.’

Educational inequalities are generally recognized as Chile’s largest barrier to overcoming their glaring wealth gap. The principal reason for this appears to lie with the poor state of the public schools (comprehensive in English terms). Although some public schools are subsidized by the government, these cannot compare with the hugely expensive private schools which naturally only the affluent can afford. This is undoubtedly the case in most countries and Chile is by no means unique here; more expensive education is generally (but not always) better. However, Chile does stand out amongst other countries in the OECD list due to the lack of opportunities available to those who attend free (or even subsidized) schools, making it one of the most segregated educational systems in the world. Public schools here appear to be so woefully inadequate that those who attend them have a very low chance of progressing to higher education, thus further widening the breach between rich and poor.

The widespread dissatisfaction with public education culminated in a series of protests in 2006 and continue up until the present. In the past twelve years, students have not only taken to the streets to demand a rehaul of primary and secondary education systems but have also criticized the rising costs of Universities. The OECD stated that Chile has the fourth most expensive University system in the world. Again, Chile is not unique in facing rising University costs. But again, the system appears to be more classist here than in other OECD countries, as Chilean students receive some of the lowest government funding to help cover these rocketing costs. They are expected to shoulder 55% of the costs, as opposed to 40% paid by US students and the government loan system familiar to English students. The price of universities increased by 87% between 2005 and 2012, making further education impossible for most public-school students, and prompting a stream of protests the following year.

Many view educational inequalities here as a lasting legacy of former dictator Pinochet, who privatized the education system in 1981 out of fear that public institutions were inciting liberal and communist ideals. This naturally paved the way for increasing numbers of private institutions with extremely high tuition fees. The alternative for those who could not afford these fees was a poor standard of lower education and almost no access to higher. Sadly, this is still the case almost forty years later.

Michelle Bachelet’s second Liberal Government in 2013 promised a series of educational reforms to counter this problem. Most notably, this included the promise to make universal education free for everyone, with a proposed budget of CLP$ 1 billion (USD$ 16 million) to improve the quality of education at lower and higher levels. However, these reforms have been insufficient thus far to remedy the poor quality of public schools, while universities are still accused of being ‘profit making’ machines. The new Conservative President Sebastian Pinera faced a fresh round of protests in April 2018, one month into his Presidency with students and professors alike denouncing the inadequate government measures.

Another barrier to Chile being termed a developed country, is its extremely classist nature. It has repeatedly been highlighted to me that powerful family and friend connections are everything. Many high paying jobs are awarded to people on the strength of your surname and a ‘who you know basis’, instead of a meritocracy system making it even more difficult for those from lower social circles to progress. Several students have even described Chilean society as an ‘oligarchy’, with the top businesses being monopolised by only a few families.

Chile’s economic growth is undoubtedly impressive, especially considering the dictatorship ended as recently as 1990. But the educational inequalities still ever present in the country are a huge obstacle to it’s progress. The wealth gap that inadequate public education and hugely expensive universities generate preserve the power in the hands of a few. Widespread protests and dissatisfaction with the current situation are creating changes; but many are of the opinion these changes are not happening fast enough. Chile perhaps has a little way to go before it can be called totally developed.


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