Mercedes Mateo Diaz, Chief of Education, Inter-American Development Bank

Mercedes Mateo Díaz is Education Division Chief at the IDB Group, where she leads an ambitious initiative to rethink education and strengthen the learning ecosystems to equip citizens with 21st-century skills. She coordinates the research, design and execution of innovative education projects. Her work covers different areas of international development and social policy, with a strong emphasis on inequality.

Recently, in an exclusive interview with K12 Digest, Mercedes shared her insights on the challenges faced by Latin America and Caribbean communities when it comes to higher education, her professional journey, current roles and responsibilities as the Chief of Education at Inter-American Development Bank, pearls of wisdom, and much more. The following excerpts are taken from the interview.

Can you shed light on some of the challenges faced by Latin America and Caribbean communities when it comes to higher education?

Let me start with the macro. Over the past 30 years, productivity growth in the region has been slow, with an average annual rate of only 1%. There is also a significant skills mismatch between supply and demand in the labor market. To improve productivity Latin American and Caribbean countries need to invest more in human capital development.

Now, the story of education in the region in recent decades presents a mixed picture. On the positive side, compared to their parents’ generation, more children pursue higher education, and they accumulate more skills than their grandparents’ generation. This trend reflects increasing access and opportunities for education in the region. However, today’s generations are still slightly below the skill level of the average grandparent in OECD countries. While schools do add value when we compare the skills of students who stay in school versus those who drop out, it is still not sufficient considering global trends.

In terms of access to higher education, gross enrollment rates have risen from 19% in 1999 to 52% in 2019, and access to higher education has improved for lower income quintiles and women across most countries. However, these rates still fall behind OECD countries, where enrollment in postsecondary education reached 75% in 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic had a negative impact on enrollment, particularly in countries where a significant percentage of education is provided by private institutions and access to grants and student loans is limited. Access is also highly inequal: despite a significant expansion, the proportion of students from the highest income quintile is three times higher than those from the lowest quintile. And we know that, in terms of employment, higher education truly makes a difference. There are significant wage premiums for individuals with higher education, even after controlling for socioeconomic and demographic characteristics.

An interesting trend emerged during the pandemic, with an increase in demand for online courses alongside a decrease in enrollment in traditional programs. The region has also witnessed the emergence of new universities, both public and private, leading to an increase in the supply and diversity of higher education institutions. Approximately 2,300 new higher education institutions and 30,000 new programs have been created. Additionally, technical and vocational education and training (TVET) enrollment has also seen an increase, representing around 35% of enrollment in countries like Colombia and Peru, and 45% in Chile.

Women remain underrepresented in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields, despite efforts across the region to increase their participation. On average, only 14% of university degrees in the region are in STEM careers, compared to 17-19% in other regions. And less than 10% of STEM graduates are women.

Quality and relevance are also critical issues in postsecondary education. A recent study conducted by the IDB in collaboration with IDB Lab and HolonIQ highlights that while one-third of higher education institutions in the region recognize the importance of digital learning for the future, many lack the necessary digital maturity to make a successful transition. Insufficient digital skills among teachers and administrative staff hinder the effective utilization of technological tools and platforms.

How is the Inter-American Development Bank contributing to support the development of children and youth from Latin America and Caribbean communities to make them future-ready?

At the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) we believe that we have an opportunity to accelerate development by changing our lens for viewing the region, from looking beyond the daunting problems we face, to repositioning the region as a potential solution to shared global challenges. This is why we are actively working to support the development of children and youth in Latin America and the Caribbean to make them future-ready.

To achieve that vision, we are increasing our investments in education to support governments through: financial resources (this year we will triple our lending in the sector); technical assistance by producing cutting edge knowledge to help countries to implement evidence based policies and programs; and with strong partnerships with donors and private sector that will allow us this year to mobilize a record number of grant resources that we pair with our loans. This strategy allows us to multiply the effect of every dollar borrowing countries use from the IDB capital.

Now, in terms of priorities, we know that it is not enough to recover students’ trajectories and learning from the pandemic: countries need to solve structural issues. We also know that to improve access to higher education we need to start downstream and transform education systems from the early years. This is why we support education systems and students from the beginning by improving the quality and access through the life cycle: from early childhood, primary and secondary education, to TVET and higher education.

We are also promoting innovation and digital transformation. This is why we are supporting countries in the region to incorporate the use of technology and artificial intelligence to enhance educational processes and learning. Here are some examples:

Early Warning Systems: We are using machine learning to develop early warning systems that help reduce educational exclusion. These systems detect at the beginning of the school year which students are at risk of disengagement, allowing timely interventions by the education system.

Accelerated and Personalized Learning Platforms: We have developed platforms that utilize gamification and adaptive technology to support teachers and enable students to learn at their own pace. This technology addresses the specific educational needs of students, such as those with dyslexia, and promotes the learning of indigenous languages like Quechua through conversational bots.

Learning Assessment: We have implemented solutions that use artificial intelligence to assess reading fluency and accuracy. Traditional assessments can be costly due to the need for dedicated evaluators. By leveraging AI to process students’ reading, we can eliminate that application cost.

Centralized Teacher and Student Assignment: We have introduced centralized systems to optimize school selection and student placement. These systems provide personalized information on risks and alternative school options. By utilizing machine learning simulations, we can predict which schools will face high demand and identify candidates at risk of not securing a spot. We send alerts to candidates at risk, offering recommendations for schools where they have a better chance of obtaining a vacancy, allowing them to modify their application accordingly.

Addressing inequality is at the center of our work. We support initiatives that target the most vulnerable and hard to reach communities, including indigenous populations, rural areas, and low-income households. We truly believe that to improve opportunities and social mobility for all children and youth in the region, countries need to reduce educational disparities.

Mercedes, please brief us about your background: education and career.

Education has always held a special place in my life. I come from a small city in Spain. As a child, I had a deep intrinsic motivation to study: I truly believed that with education I will have the power to do anything. In that journey, the European Union (EU) was my passport to the future as it provided me with countless opportunities. I benefited from an array of scholarships and study programs, such as Erasmus, Training and Mobility of Researchers, Jean Monet Fellowship, Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellowship, and more. I often refer to myself as a “European product”: I had the privilege to receive education in Belgium, Sweden, Italy, the UK, France, Germany, the Netherlands, as well as my home country, Spain. Also, through the EU I could undertake part of my training in the United States.

I initially embarked on my career in academia with a genuine love for research. At that time, I thought I would remain in that field. Education became my obsession through my work on equality. While nobody can choose their place of birth, societies have a responsibility to ensure that everyone has equal opportunities to succeed by providing access to quality education for all. It is unacceptable today that when a disadvantaged child thinks of her future, all she sees is the story of her mother reproduced, with limited chances to move up the social ladder. This needs to change.

My life took an unexpected turn almost 20 years ago, when I joined the IDB. Working for a development organization was a mind-blowing experience that ignited my true passion. It has been transformative. Every day, I have the opportunity to learn something new, which is incredibly enriching. But what makes this work truly special is the ability to combine knowledge with action, which is a rare and remarkable combination. It’s a balance that keeps me motivated and connected to the real-world challenges we strive to address.

Tell us about your roles and responsibilities as the Chief of Education at Inter-American Development Bank.

As the Chief of Education at the Inter-American Development Bank, my role is far from being an individual effort. It’s all about teamwork and collaboration. I work closely with a talented team of over 60 people who are dedicated to supporting education policies and initiatives in the region. Our team manages a robust portfolio of over $2 billion dollars in investments across the different countries. This substantial financial commitment underscores the Bank’s dedication and commitment to advancing education outcomes and opportunities in the region.  Our aim is to ensure that every dollar invested has a tangible impact on education, empowering individuals and creating positive change.

In this role, strategic leadership is crucial. I have a responsibility to provide guidance and direction for the Bank’s education initiatives and programs. It’s about developing a comprehensive education strategy that serves the people and countries in the region and aligns with the Bank’s overall goals and objectives to make every dollar count. But I want to emphasize that this is a collective effort. It’s not just about individuals but the result of collaborative discussions and input from our team of experts.

Policy development is another essential aspect of our responsibilities. We play a pivotal role in contributing to shape the agenda and improve education policies and programs in the region. This requires extensive research, analysis, and evaluation to identify critical challenges and opportunities in education. Our aim is to develop evidence-based policies and recommendations that can truly drive positive change.

Development effectiveness is central to our work. To make sure projects achieve their results and transform people’s lives, we need to focus on design, execution, and evaluation. We need a combination between strong knowledge sharing, capacity building and project management skills to oversee the design, implementation, and monitoring of projects supported by the Bank.

Partnerships and collaboration are also at the core of what we do. We actively foster relationships with governments, other international organizations, civil society, private sector, and different stakeholders. By leveraging these partnerships, we can pool resources, share knowledge, and promote effective education practices throughout the region and beyond. Building strong relationships with donors, identifying funding opportunities, and advocating for increased investments in education are all part of the collaborative effort to make a lasting impact.

You lead a large team of highly talented professionals working together to rethink education and strengthen the learning ecosystems of the Latin American and Caribbean region. How would you describe your leadership style? And what do you do to motivate and inspire them?

At the center of any human relation is trust. You need to trust your team and be trusted by them. This is why I am quite horizontal. Leading a team of highly talented professionals requires a big dose of humility and a deep appreciation for their contributions. I tend to focus on the big picture to create a shared narrative that brings cohesion to the work that we do as a team. Then people have a high level of autonomy. I believe that listening is fundamental to effective leadership. I highly value the expertise of each member of my team and want their insights. I actively listen to their advice and perspectives, integrating their knowledge and ideas into our decision-making process. I believe that the best solutions emerge through collaboration and harnessing the diverse expertise and experience within the team.

For people to trust you, they need to perceive that decisions are fair. This is why fairness is also one of my guiding principles. When making decisions, I strive to ensure that everyone understands the rationale behind them. While not everyone may agree with the outcomes or resource allocations, it is important that they perceive a sense of fairness in the decision-making process. Transparency and clear communication play a key role in achieving this.

I would say courage is also part of my leadership style. I believe that taking risks and making difficult decisions are essential for individual and collective growth. I embrace challenges and encourage my team to approach them with determination, understanding that progress often requires stepping out of our comfort zones.

It is also extremely important to nurture the growth of every individual in the team. I believe in creating a psychologically safe space where individuals can grow and feel comfortable sharing their weaknesses and challenges. This openness allows us to support each other and foster a collaborative environment where everyone’s input is valued.

Taking care of the well-being of the people I work with is also a top priority. I strive to create an environment where they can thrive and grow both personally and professionally. I am not always good at it, by I believe it is important to demonstrate the importance of work-life balance in your own life as leader, to inspire and support other people in finding their own equilibrium.

Who is your role model in life and why?

When I think about role models, I gravitate towards individuals who embody a certain balance between their personal and public lives. People who combine exceptional professional abilities, while upholding strong values, unwavering commitment, and a clear sense of purpose. And when you take all of that into account, you realize that finding those examples is extremely challenging.

So, let me give you four names of people who exhibit remarkable qualities that are really appealing to me. Joan of Arc immediately comes to my mind for her intelligence, tactical prowess, and bravery in breaking stereotypes. She displayed incredible courage, leading armies and challenging societal norms. Her story serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of pushing boundaries and defying limitations.

Nelson Mandela is another leader who exemplifies resilience and the ability to forgive. Despite enduring years of imprisonment and facing tremendous adversity, he managed to reconcile a divided nation and build peace from a foundation of hatred. Mandela’s capacity for forgiveness and his unwavering commitment to unity are truly inspiring.

I also like very much Winston Churchill’s gift with words and his ability to inspire and mobilize people through his speeches. His eloquence and fearlessness during times of crisis is admirable as well as its capacity to ignite unwavering determination.

I want to end the list with Angela Merkel. She has shown during her years in power incredible crisis management abilities. She has demonstrated exceptional skills in navigating complex challenges with determination. She has also done great contributions to strengthening the European Union. Merkel’s steadfast dedication to a unified Europe and her commitment to cooperation and stability resonate deeply with me.

As you can see, courage is a common thread among all my role models. Whether it’s Joan of Arc’s defiance of societal norms, Nelson Mandela’s resilience in the face of adversity, Winston Churchill’s boldness during challenging times, or Angela Merkel’s unwavering vision, courage is a quality that I highly value in leaders.

What are some of your greatest achievements in your career till date? What makes them special?

I want to highlight two achievements that are not specific successes, but rather the underlying factors that enable great things to happen. The first achievement I’m proud of is building a global network of like-minded individuals who share the determination to bring about positive change. I measure success by the ability to transform the world around us, and that requires the collective efforts of many people.

The second significant achievement is recognizing the inseparability of personal life and professional career. It took me sometime. They are intertwined and have a profound influence on shaping our identities. As a mother, I have experienced firsthand how being a parent impacts my professional growth. It’s not just about how my career affects my role as a mother, but also how being a mother shapes my approach to work. Making it all work has been one of my most important challenge and accomplishment. Balancing the responsibilities of being a present mom while trying to excel in a demanding job hasn’t been easy. It has tested me in ways I never anticipated. It is a precarious equilibrium: when you think you have it all under control, it falls apart and you need to restart.

Let’s be honest, we still have a long way to go as a society to achieve true equality. The expectations and standards placed on men and women differ significantly. However, I firmly believe that everyone of us as individuals have a social responsibility to contribute to a more equal society for future generations. We need to challenge expectations and norms. People should not have to choose between being a committed parent and a dedicated professional. They should not have to sacrifice their dreams for the sake of their family or vice versa.

By defying these expectations and working towards a more balanced and inclusive society, we can create a world where individuals can thrive both personally and professionally, pursuing their dreams while nurturing their personal and family life.

What have you learned as a woman in leadership?

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is the importance of humility. When you’re leading a team of incredibly talented individuals, it’s crucial to stay grounded and recognize that you don’t have all the answers. It takes a big dose of humility to acknowledge that and value the expertise of each team member.

Another lesson that stands out for me is the power of human connection. It’s not enough to have a group of skilled individuals working together. They need to feel connected, like a real team, with a healthy social dynamic. As a leader, I’ve seen firsthand how fostering those connections can unlock the team’s full potential.

I’ve also come to understand the existence of double standards. It’s frustrating to see that certain behaviors or qualities that are celebrated in male leaders are sometimes criticized or seen differently when exhibited by women leaders. We still have work to do in achieving true equality and recognizing the value that diverse perspectives bring to the table.

Leading by example is something I strongly believe in. If I want my team to find a healthy balance between their personal and work lives, I have to demonstrate that I prioritize that balance too. It’s about practicing what I preach and creating an environment where everyone feels supported in maintaining their well-being.

Where do you see yourself in the next five years?

I’ve never been one to meticulously plan out my life. What I can say for certain is that I absolutely love my job and have a deep passion for education. It’s a field that truly drives me and gets me excited to jump out of bed in the morning. I can’t see myself straying too far from that field in the future. It’s where I feel I can make a tangible difference. There’s something incredibly fulfilling about knowing that the work we do has the potential to improve the lives of others and contribute to a more equitable world.

However, I’ve always had a bit of an entrepreneurial spirit, so who knows where life will lead me. The beauty of the education field is its constant evolution and the endless opportunities for creativity and innovation. I’m always ready to embrace new challenges, learn from others, and expand my own skills to hopefully have a meaningful impact on future generations.

What advice would you give to someone who is considering a career in education?

If you’re considering a career in education (this could actually apply to any other field), you need to have a genuine passion for it. Without that passion, it’s difficult to make a meaningful impact. Once you’ve chosen the path of education, never forget the reason why you’re there. Education is the most powerful tool to reduce inequality and improve social mobility. And this is what makes it different from other fields.

Back in 1999, Nancy Birdsall, founding President of the Center for Global Development (CGD), and former Executive Vice-President of the Inter-American Development Bank, a thought leader in the development community and someone I truly admire, compared education to an asset, like land and wealth, but with unique qualities: “It is a special asset in two respects. First, once acquired, it cannot be stolen or sold — it cannot be alienated from its owner. Second, as the amount of education increases, other assets such as land and physical capital decline as a proportion of total wealth in an economy; since the ownership of these latter assets is usually more concentrated than that of education, the overall concentration of all assets declines.” This paragraph perfectly captures the essence of education in terms of its potential to leveling the playing field for those who have no other assets. For many children and youth, access to high-quality education is their only chance at a better future. It places a great responsibility on us to fight for that access in every way we can.

Whether you’re an educator or work in the field of education, it’s important to never lose sight of the transformative power education holds. We have a responsibility to fight for equitable access to education, ensuring that every child and young person can thrive and succeed.

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