Dr Wendy Jarvie, a visiting professor at UNSW@Canberra, is an independent member of the Australian Awards selection panel for Latin America.This post draws from interviews with Latin American applicants for scholarships carried out in July 2012. Part 1 of this post here.

5. Australia can make a difference.

  • Latin Americans in government, education and business understand that Australia has similar challenges, particularly around climate change, indigenous development, natural resource and mining management, and managing two-speed economies. They accept that we know what we are talking about.
  • We are seen as practical and focused on solving problems. We are not ideologically driven, unlike the US and many European countries.
  • We are happy to admit we don't have all the answers. This always goes down well.
  • With a small program of aid and other activities, there is a limit to how much influence Australia can have, but arguably we will have more influence per dollar in Latin America than in Pacific, where we have our own historical baggage.

6. Australia's education system can help in two key areas: vocational education and masters programs. These are areas where most Latin American countries are weak and Australia is strong. Our competency-based vocational training is still a world leader. The masters degrees most valued by Latin Americans are focused on problems, rather than on disciplines (eg. water management, public administration and governance).

7. Australia's student market benefits; Australian postgraduate education and research benefits. Latin American recipients of AusAID's Australia Awards, overwhelmingly in natural resource management, community participation and governance, are welcome additions to postgraduate programs across Australia. Universities enjoy the extroverted contributions from students whose country challenges are so similar and yet so different to Australia's.

The money – around $12 million a year in student fees – though welcome, is not a big driver of university interest in Latin America. Australian government scholarships help demonstrate that Australians are serious about creating people-to-people links and deepening mutual understanding, and that international education has much bigger objectives than making money from students.

8. Australia can help efficiently. AusAID's program in Latin America isn't perfect, but:

  • It doesn't cost a lot. Apart from some Central American countries, Latin American countries for the most part do not need money – they need new ways of solving problems and higher skill levels. Australia is putting $48 million a year into Latin America and the Caribbean out of a total aid budget of $5.2 billion. This is less than 1% of Australian aid.
  • AusAID is working creatively in Latin America. For example, it is partnering with Austrade in managing its Australia Awards. This uses Austrade's education and business links to increase awareness and reach. It is focusing most of its aid in the most fragile states in Central America.

9. Aid will support broader strategic interests beyond the short term aim of UN Security Council membership. Our current strategic focus is China and the US, but as argued by Martine Letts in 2008, our trading and economic interests are increasingly aligned with those of Latin America, as has already been seen in the G20 and in world trade negotiations. Other countries, such as China, are recognising the importance of Latin America and are rapidly increasing their engagement. Brazil is a significant world power and is seeking trilateral aid cooperation with countries, like Australia, which don't have historical baggage.

Global food security challenges are expected to emerge in coming years. Latin America has deep agricultural expertise, so Australia should engage with the region now to devise solutions.

10. In another 10-20 years we will be really glad we did this. The Colombo plan in the 1950s built our relationship with Asian countries at a time when Australian trade and strategic relations were focused on Europe and the US. We have the same opportunity with Latin America now.