Dr Wendy Jarvie is undertaking a research project on Australia's education links with Latin America, with support from the Council on Australia-Latin American Relations.

A significant weakness of the Independent Aid Effectiveness Review is its failure to see any value to Australia in aiding Latin American people and creating stronger links to that part of the world. The review saw the development challenge as less severe in Latin America, and the strategic connection with Australia as tenuous.

Yet the facts are otherwise. Latin America may not have the famines and conflicts of parts of Africa, but poverty is huge. According to World Bank data, 17% of the population, around 97 million people, were living on under $2 a day in 2005. There are vastly more poor people in Latin America than in the Pacific (under 20 million).

Australia's national interest are closely aligned with those of Latin America. Our resource base is similar and, although we are competitors, we share multilateral trade liberalisation goals and often line up in the G-20. Latin American students are studying in Australia in large numbers — more than 33,000 in 2010 — and are a significant source of export income.

Commentators are increasingly talking of 'Latin America's Decade', with economic growth expected to continue on the back of China's thirst for commodities and improved government in the region. The world is investing in Brazil, which is heading for great power status and is now an aid donor looking for partners to join in its aid activities. Colombia is a truly exciting country which seems to have also found a stable development track.

It is simply common sense for Australia to strengthen its links with Latin America, which not only shares many of our interests but is likely to become a major player in the emerging world order.

But none of this would matter if not for the most important point: Australia has the capacity to make a significant difference in Latin America.

Latin American people, governments and institutions are genuinely interested in Australia — how we live, how we face our development challenges and how we are dealing with the growth of China. Australia is not the US, nor is it seen to be part of the old civilization of Europe. Australia is 'new' and our challenges — whether they be climate change, education reform, or indigenous development — are seen as similar to those of Latin America.

In education alone, in recent years officials have studied and implemented changes based on our vocational education system, our qualifications framework and our higher education arrangements. Governments are sending students to study here. For instance, more than half of the Chilean Government's technical scholarships (through its Becas Chile program) are held by students studying in Australia. Next year the Chilean government will send more higher education scholarship holders to Australia than it will send to the US.

Recent interviews with prospective Australian Development Scholarship recipients confirmed this great interest — nearly every applicant drew on what they saw as the parallels between our countries, and the value of Australia's experiences for Latin America.

Influence doesn't have to cost a lot. AusAID scholarships are a good and important start. They could be expanded to include vocational and technical education to provide skills which are in short supply on the Latin American continent. Taking the opportunity to partner with Brazil in its aid activities in Africa, Haiti and East Timor would also be sensible and useful.

Sharing Australian government and public policy expertise through exchanges and quick visits is straightforward. Putting a couple more Australian officials on the ground in Latin America to support these links would be invaluable — especially in education, research and natural resource management.

In summary, the Aid Review is ignorant on Latin America. Australian aid can make a difference. It is in our national interest. It doesn't have to cost a lot.

Photo by Flickr user irre101.