Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Shakira talks to AQ about building global support for early childhood education.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Colombian singer Shakira Mebarak brings her advocacy for early childhood development to the stage and to government leaders in Latin America and around the world.

Americas Quarterly: Since 2005, your philanthropic work has brought global attention to education and social responsibility through América Latina en Acción Solidaria (ALAS) and expansion of the Fundación Pies Descalzos (Barefoot Foundation). What would you like these foundations to achieve in the next five years?

Shakira: The goal of my philanthropic work has always been to make sure that every child has a chance to live up to his or her potential. That means our work won’t be done until every child has access to quality education from early childhood to adulthood. In the next five years, we will be focusing on lobbying our leaders to fulfill the promises of the Millennium Development Goals and provide critical funding for education everywhere. My hope is that every country in Latin America will make a significant commitment to supporting early childhood development programs.

In our on-the-ground work with the Barefoot Foundation, we are currently expanding our proven model of education worldwide. We’ve helped more than 30,000 children and families access education and nutrition in Colombia. For less than $2 per child per day, we can transform  a child’s life with education.

We are already working closely with schools in the United States and South Africa and are in the process of building our first school in Haiti. I’m sure in a few years our Barefoot model will be recognized and implemented at an international level.

AQ: Given your hands-on work in improving early childhood education, what do you see as priority steps that the public and private sectors should take to address key needs in this area?

Shakira: Our goal with the Barefoot Foundation and ALAS is to persuade both the public and private sectors to invest in early childhood development (ECD) strategies. Both have very powerful and unique roles to play in providing children with adequate nutrition, health care and stimulating environments from the moment of conception through age six. The first years of a child’s life are too important for a child’s future—their development, earnings, behavior, and health—for anyone to ignore.

This year, ALAS and the Columbia (University) Earth Institute launched a joint initiative with the World Bank to encourage ECD in Latin America and the Caribbean by providing technical support and $300 million in new loans and grants to countries for early childhood programs. Our goal is to help every country in Latin America understand why ECD should be a national priority.

If ALAS and the Barefoot Foundation can bring quality education to some of the poorest kids in the world, there is no reason that governments can’t do the same. We have to demand that governments live up to their promises and make education a reality for every child.

As for the private sector, I think that business plays a critical role. Obviously, our business leaders yield enormous influence on our political leaders, and they have a duty to use that influence for the greater good. But beyond that, the private sector depends on having healthy, educated and productive workers. One of the best ways to ensure that is to support ECD programs. After all, by providing early access to medicine, nutrition and stimulation, early childhood development creates lifelong improvements in health, cognitive development, school achievement, and social equality. For example, a poor child who receives high-quality early childhood development is 40 percent less likely to need special education, twice as likely to attend college and dramatically more likely to survive childhood.

The private sector has an indispensible role to play in funding ECD programs, supporting local ECD providers and helping to educate the public. In tough economic times, we have to make every dollar count, and studies have shown a return of up to $17 for every dollar invested in early childhood.

AQ: You are a role model for a new generation across the world. What do you believe our commitment should be on social issues and politics?

Shakira: I think this generation can play a very important role. If we act now, this could be the first generation to witness universal education.  I’ve seen the difference quality education can make in a child’s life through my work with the Barefoot Foundation. We are proving that no matter where a child is from and no matter how poor they are, they can succeed if given the chance to learn. I’ve met dedicated people from all sectors of society who are committed to giving children the tools they need for a better future. I’m always impressed by the passionate young leaders I meet. As the pace of change accelerates, so do the challenges we face. However, the chances to solve them increase too. We can work together across countries and cultures like never before through the Internet and social media. Everyone can make a difference, whether it is by building a school, sponsoring a child’s education, volunteering at their local school, or working to hold leaders accountable for their promises.

AQ: Addressing the Ibero-American Summit in October 2008, you emphasized the need for governments to focus on early childhood development. What type of a follow-up have you seen since that meeting?

Shakira: Nine years ago, as part of the Millennium Development Goals, leaders from around the world made a pledge to transform the world so that every child would have access to a primary school by 2015—that is under five years from now. Sadly, their actions have not met their promises. At the current pace of change, we won’t have universal access to education in 100 years, let alone five, and that is unacceptable.

In December, we will be part of the Ibero-American Summit of Heads of State in Argentina. For the first time in history, ECD is going to be a central priority of the discussions. At the 2009 Summit, Colombia, Paraguay, Chile, Panama, Argentina, and Mexico signed up to work with the Barefoot Foundation to combat poverty and bolster early childhood education.

Our Early Childhood Initiative with the World Bank will offer countries the technical support and policy expertise they need to make sure that early childhood development programs are properly implemented. The World Bank, ALAS and the Columbia Earth Institute will present the leaders of Latin America and the world with the best options for making comprehensive, quality early childhood development programs a reality.

This initiative is an example of the incredible progress that is possible when governments, citizens and international organizations make children and healthy development our top priority.

AQ: What role do you see for business leaders? Which ones have you worked closely with?

Shakira: By giving every child a fair start, we are improving our collective future, including the private sector’s ability to find talent in a very competitive global marketplace. I have been fortunate to work with CEOs and leaders from some of the most successful private enterprises—leaders that have made education a development priority for their companies and in their own lives.

Howard Buffett, who sits on the board of the Barefoot Foundation and runs his own foundation, has made an incredible commitment to early childhood development, particularly with nutrition. Howard has worked and traveled in Latin America for many years and has advocated for children as a philanthropist and as a World Food Programme Ambassador. He has committed more than $80 million to address nutrition, clean water, agriculture, and other critical issues in Latin America.

Besides Howard, I’ve had the privilege of working with leaders like Haim Saban, Carlos Slim and others who have made significant personal commitments to supporting education and who serve as powerful advocates among their peers, their business partners and our leaders.

AQ: You have been instrumental in mobilizing other artists in Latin America and around the world to become socially responsible. What are the next steps for engaging the global artistic community, and on what issues should they focus?

Shakira: I’m proud that I’ve been able to work with other artists to make sure that the smallest voices—the voices of our children—have a chance to be heard. Artists can reach, inspire, and motivate young people and leaders in a powerful way.

Music has given a voice to many generations, and I think we, as artists, can be a part of creating a better world. But I am also very focused on creating partnerships with grassroots groups, the private sector and government leaders. It doesn’t matter if you are a musician, a business leader, a president or a student. We all have a responsibility to give back.

I believe education is the key. As an activist and a child of the developing world, I witnessed education’s power to transform lives. Education is literally the difference between success and failure, or even life and death for many children. Studies have shown that education affects every major challenge we face in society. It creates economic growth, paves the way for peace and stability and helps erase the legacy of marginalization.

Education spurs growth and unlocks potential. After all, a single year of primary education creates a 10 to 20 percent increase in a woman’s wages later in life. Education lowers the risk of disease and decreases the likelihood that a child will fall into violence and crime. And a child born to a literate mother is 50 percent more likely to survive past age five. No country has achieved sustained growth without at least 40 percent literacy for its adults.

*Slideshow photos courtesy of Fundación Pies Descalzos


Richard André is a policy manager at Americas Society and Council of the Americas (AS/COA).

Tags: Education, Shakira
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