Living On

Armen is heavily missed. His absence left a hole in independent observation of the political and economic risk situation in Latin America. Beyond the merely analytical though his work was wide-ranging from Armenian philanthropy and social observation of Latin and European lifestyles through to being a "fly on the wall" at the Cannes Film Festival every year and reporting back on the more exotic foibles of the international jet-set.

We miss his wit, his sense of history and his bon mots (in French, Armenian and, even, Turkish). Armen was very much a product of the Levant but then, like so many other Levantines, converted to an international stage where they offer insight into all around them. This record tries to humbly accumulate his collected writings for public consumption so they can be preserved and appreciated for the urgency of the moment in which they were written to the timelessness of the observations.

How best to categorise the uncategorisable? Maybe Armen could be described as an Armenian/Anglo/Franco Samuel Pepys for our times.....

It is ironic that ultimately it was the very mediocrity and self-satisfaction of the Chilean "system", which he documented so thoroughly, that brought about his tragic end.

Friday, July 25, 2003


Last week, the World Bank & CEPAL organised a major conference in Santiago
about the development and financing of information technology as a vehicle
for growth in Latin America. Most of the speakers were keen to point out
how important advanced computing and telecommunications are important to
growth. This has now to stand together with Education as the Great Gap that
needs to be bridge on the road to development. If it was only that easy.
Let us look at Chile in this context.


Few countries in Chile are as eager as to jump on the latest fashionable
product and run away with it as the solution to all problems. The lax
supervision of regulatory authorities does not help (and the impunity with
which culprits perform, just look at the retail sector's "indignation" at
the news this week that nearly all of them charge illegal usury rates on
credit sales. In Chile you are not allowed to shout when you get raped,
because the family of the rapists issue communiqués against your "infamy".
I know what I am talking about).

In the mid-90's, if you went to society dinners, all the lady of the house
would talk about was this wonderful (Swiss ') cheese called Raclette which
could only be found at Jumbo (and not always), and it was absolutely
essential for their cooking. A couple of years ago, the drug Melatonine,
about which there were many a doubt and controversy in the developed world,
became all the craze (nicely disguised under other brand names). We know
have Botox, the also controversial " miracle drug" which gets rid of


What has any of the above to do with education and growth? Only to the
extent that this sort of management-by-fashion-and-buzzword has become the
norm in Chile. President Lagos was in Ireland recently, a country which for
a while enjoyed a very high growth rate. The Chilean explanation: the
quality of Irish education. If only Chileans were as educated as the Irish,
furthermore having O'Higgins as a Founding Father, then all would be well.
The Irish had their moment of glory thanks to their entry into the EU,
which allowed their undoubted talents to be used globally. I do not know
how good or bad Ireland's education system is, but a survey in Britain last
year about people's attitude to business people singled out the Irish as
the best salesman. Not because they all had PhD's (though they have
produced some fine intellectuals), but because they are warm-hearted,
good-humoured, sociable, adaptable and quick-witted. They also all speak
English. Do any of those characteristics apply to Chileans, furthermore
based in a country which becomes an isolated island each time it rains or
snows a bit?

As for information technology, the chief regulator of the telecom sector in
Honduras at the seminar in question was the only realistic fellow. As his
colleagues from Colombia and Peru were boasting as to how many broad-band
internet call centres they were planning in each Amazonic settlement, the
gentleman from Tegucigalpa pointed out that health and road infrastructure
were more of a priority. In Viña del Mar, the Lebanese community (in which
I include myself by birth if not by passport) sponsors a school in the
poorest part of town. We were asked to help finance a computer room as part
of a programme set up by the Education Ministry and Telefonica. As a result
the school has a very nice computer room, but there is not a lot of money
to train teachers in their use. A small detail: the school's toilets do not
have running water. Is broad band more important than basic hygiene?


A lot. Here is a non-exhaustive catalogue of aspects without the
solution of which no real progress can be expected. The list is not
necessarily by order of importance.

-Reform ideas, irrespective of their efficiency or relevance, imposed upon
and administrative and academic corps which is set in its ways and has no
incentive to change.

-The lack of debate (in and outside the classroom) which prevents the
formation of inquisitive minds

-In relation with the above, the proliferation of schools, from
kindergartens to universities, under the aegis of religious or political
institutions in order to stifle universal thought and perpetuate rigidity

-The proliferation of "drive-in" universities with no permanent academic
corps, but a number of "visiting professors" (never was the expression so
well used as for Chilean money-making universities) who jump from
establishment to establishment without allegiance to any, little contact
with the students outside the class room and no "esprit de corps".

-The purely commercial racket of "subsidised municipal schools" where the
bulk of the nation's pupils study in an operation whose only purpose is to
take-in money from an authority which hardly supervises the quality.

-The bad quality of language teaching even in private schools. The
ministerial ambition of a "bilingual" country (which by the way means being
equally proficient in both languages) should not be confused with the
modest aim of having enough people with just a working knowledge of
English, itself already be quite an achievement. With over half Chilean
pupils not understanding the texts they read in Spanish, and the only
country with a non-English speaking Foreign Minister, it will be an arduous

-The low social standing of teachers, who are considered by many parents as
of the same level as their domestic employees, not to mention the poor
levels of pay which even in the private sector give them an inferiority
complex vis-à-vis their pupils.

-The virtual impossibility of a gap year between school and university,
that excellent British custom to allow an educative breather in-between, as
you have to sit your entrance exam again if you do not enter university
three months after sitting your high school exams (the reform of which
having itself been a disastrous confusion).

-The cretinising level of local TV programming

Oh yes, how to grow ? As latest statistics show (fully vindicating my
constant warnings that official expectations were exaggerated since the
turn of the year), GDP will be lucky to reach 3 % this year (and probably
in coming years). The reason has not changed : since the early 1990's,
there are no more growth vectors carrying the Chilean economy on a faster

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