02/25/2015 07:15 pm ET Updated Apr 27, 2015

Let's Talk About Saving Central America

It's all over the news right now, this idea that Central America needs some sort of saving. Its children are fleeing to our borders by the hundreds of thousands. Our vice president is submitting budgets to Congress in a better-late-than-never attempt to stave off the flow of immigrants. Former police officials are finally being arrested. According to mainstream media, Central America is -- quite literally -- erupting for all the world to see.

But that is only half of the story.

It just so happens that while news of the newly conceived Plan Central America was exploding across our headlines, people on the ground in Guatemala were witnessing a much slower and more sustainable intervention take effect. This transformation wasn't the product of a billion dollars -- however inadequate that might be on a national level -- but rather the result of a very meager investment. For less than $5 per day, a team of passionate and resourceful Americans was helping a group of courageous indigenous teenagers do the unthinkable -- finish their high school educations.

This may seem like a rather small feat, but it's not. In rural Guatemalan communities, less than 10 percent of students finish high school. This isn't the product of laziness or apathy. It's not a reflection of Guatemalan values or the people's lack of potential. These desperate statistics are nothing more than the result of a fundamentally broken and exclusionary education system.

The Guatemalan government, rife with corruption and racism, spends less than three percent of its GDP on education. Precious little of that figure ever reaches the indigenous Mayans who comprise more than 50 percent of the country's population. In rural, indigenous communities classrooms have no books, poorly paid teachers only sometimes show up, and rote memorization takes the place of actual learning. As a result, more than half of the population is illiterate and families struggle to survive on as little as $4 per day. Parents go into debt to buy their children the textbooks and uniforms they need for school, and when they can't pay it off they face merciless collectors who threaten, extort, and kidnap family members to get what they want.

The cycle of poverty presses on, and another generation is caught in its trap.

This doesn't have to be the case, but a "financial rescue mission" is not the answer.

The research is clear: education is far and away the most effective means by which to interrupt the cycle of poverty in low-income communities. Acting through diverse mechanisms, education improves maternal health, household income, and child mortality. Educated girls will marry later, delay having children, and will space pregnancies to improve health outcomes. A child born to a literate mother is also 50 percent more likely to survive past the age of five. Educated mothers engage in healthy behavior; they boil their water, receive prenatal care during pregnancies, and seek treatment for their kids when they are sick. In this way, education of one generation benefits the health of the next. Education also teaches students to assimilate information from experts, a skill that is imperative to navigating social systems, such as health care, later in life. Furthermore, every year of education increases an individual's earning potential by as much as 10 percent, leaving researchers to estimate that if every student left school with basic literacy skills more than 170 million people could be lifted out of poverty.

It doesn't take long to witness the transformative effect of education.

Linda Smith is the Founder and Executive Director of Reading Village -- a Colorado-based nonprofit organization which leverages scholarship, leadership, and literacy to interrupt poverty in rural Guatemala.

In the eight years that we've been working in Guatemala, we've seen our scholars finish high school despite the inconceivable barriers they face. But, perhaps more importantly, we've also seen their confidence soar. They are achieving something that 90 percent of their peers don't have the opportunity to achieve, and the combination of education and leadership development ignites in them the passion and gives them the skills to continue to achieve more and to do better by their communities.

The change is contagious, just like the research shows. Teens in school become role models for younger children. And as more of their scholars are finishing high school and competing for professional employment, the families that Reading Village works with are seeing the benefits of greater incomes. Books are floating around the community for the first time ever. Younger siblings are taking an interest in reading, and parents -- finally witnessing the benefits of education -- are prioritizing their income to keep their younger children in school.

For those who are familiar with the desperate circumstances of rural Guatemalan communities, this cycle of change is humbling. And it is evidence that a strategic investment of small sums of money are still among the most sustainable ways to propagate prosperity around the world. "The country was never ours to save," says Smith.

The future of Guatemala doesn't hang in the balance of a foreign aid policy. The future of Guatemala lies in the potential of its youth. If you can harness the energy of those intrepid young adults who are willing to fight against all odds for their right to an education, you can you can change the trajectory of entire communities. That potential is potent and it is the country's very best resource.