Letter from Santiago

Even richer emerging markets must continue to harness talent.

Harnessing latent talent is a central part of any country’s economic development story. I was reminded of this multiple times traveling through Chile this past week. Chile has been Latin America’s success story, having graduated to a per capita income that puts it within the OECD range (albeit with many political schisms surrounding the tumultuous legacy of General Pinochet), but it too faces the constant challenge of including its talent in the mainstream. Here are two illustrations, one of high-end talent, and one of talent at lesser-skill levels.

Chile is any astronomer’s paradise. It is the place in the world where you can see the night skies most clearly, certainly of any location in the southern hemisphere, perhaps also of the entire world. Accordingly, scientists have beaten the proverbial part to this astronomical door. In northern Chile, there are dozens of telescopes of increasing levels of technological sophistication. (For example, the Cerro Paranal Observatory is but one example.)

Some years ago there was a debate about how much telescope-usage time should be reserved for Chilean scientists. I did not witness the debate in real time but I can surmise that there was probably a version of a familiar conundrum playing out for any country wanting to upgrade its local technological capability. (China in last decade has been expert at more or less compelling partnerships with local companies and scientists to facilitate technology transfer.) Chileans wanted more time to be given to local scientists, even if they were not then at the cutting edge of technology; the rest of the world probably favored using as much of the time as possible for the world’s most advanced scientists without regard to their national origin. A compromise was struck that involved the ‘inclusion’ into the research mainstream of Chilean scientists.

A contemporary version of this is playing out today in the Atacama desert region, near the towns of Calama, close to copper and lithium mines that are among the world’s most productive, and San Pedro de Atacama, where tourists come to view the marvels of the Atacama salt flats (as spectacular in their own way as the larger Bolivian flats). The indigenous people, traditionally workers in the mines, have realized – aided no doubt by the mining fiasco in Chile a few years ago – that it’s better for their children to cultivate an alternative occupation, tourism. Over the last decade, the indigenous community has gradually begun to exercise local governance and stewardship over nature’s bounties. The several luxury resorts in the Atacama region have committed to engage more than half their workforce from the indigenous communities, so that there is a stake for local talent in the rapidly developing tourism ventures. Gradually, the government in Santiago, traditionally remote and distant for the indigenous people, has re-discovered these populations, investing in schools and hospitals locally.

Both these, one at science’s cutting edge and one helping harvest nature’s bounty, are interesting examples of bringing talent into their respective mainstreams.



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