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Personal Wealth in a Country Known for Social Policies

Uruguayan children in tradition dress, global business

Notes from the Field: Leaving a lasting legacy for his children was the topic of conversation with a Uruguayan multi-business owner / entrepreneur. His concern centered on the accumulation of personal wealth and opportunities for his children. Chatting over tea, pastries, and later doughy pizza, he struggled to define a future for industry in Uruguay. ‘Between two giants [Argentina and Brazil] its difficult to compete globally… I foresee changes in our major industry [agriculture]… we need an educated workforce, pro-business policies, and a focus on efficiency’.

Then I found myself in the hot seat as he asked how the education policy I work with would help create a better future for his children. The well-trained academic in me threw brackets around what I do and what I don’t do. The policy I work with is intended to increase English language education capacity, with a focus on rural locations, to provide students with the linguistic means to compete in a global marketplace. He rebutted by highlighting statistics like –only 35% of students in Uruguay complete upper secondary school, 24% of students attend higher education (UNESCO, 2015) and its all free; while access for rural students is important the vast majority of our students are in Montevideo.

The business owner in me responded-- being between two giants [Argentina and Brazil] can be a weakness or a strength. Why compete with them? Leverage what makes Uruguay unique and offer boutique products and services, i.e. don’t try to be ‘Walmart’ be ‘Target’. I keep hearing about Uruguay’s efficient and progressive healthcare system, be global experts on reproductive health. Amazon.com quietly entered Brazil in 2012, but are ramping up direct sales of merchandise in 2019 after delays. Consider how a company like Amazon.com or technologies could transform the landscape. I mentioned the two new high-tech college campuses built in the interior of the country, the nationwide one laptop per child program, and a 2016 OECD Report that provided a detailed education assessment with recommendations (pg. 17-37).

We went on to discuss how policies in the United States provide opportunity for the accumulation of personal wealth and class mobility, but create a large class divide. While Uruguay has less of a divide, but seemingly no mobility. This tension between individualistic versus group benefited policies has been debated in numerous countries. I frequently have this conversation with my Canadian colleagues. I think we're all trying to find balance, but in an election year with proposed bills to heavily tax inherited personal property, he is worried about his children's inheritance. Like most parents, he wants to give his children the greatest chances for success.

I absolutely enjoy conversations like these and hope to have many more. As an educator and business owner my job is not to have all the answers, but to pose questions and empower people to find their own solutions.