Buen Vivir and Indigenous Principles to Education in Bolivia and Ecuador


Since the end of the 2000s, Ecuador and Bolivia have been implementing an education reform that aims to promote social changes towards more equal, harmonic and sustainable societies. The “Buen Vivir – Vivir Bien” comes from the indigenous concepts Sumak Kawsay (in Quechua) and Suma Qamaña (in Aymara), which mean a full life, in harmony and equilibrium with nature and the community. It is a way of living, a philosophy of life, a relational cosmovision that connects relationships with others, nature and oneself.

 Ecuador and Bolivia have adopted the principles of Buen Vivir in their constitutions, in 2008 and 2009 respectively. Following that, both countries implemented education reforms that were informed by such ideas. Both countries positioned education as a strategic axis for national change and strengthened the role of the state as the main actor responsible for it. This has meant a shift in relation to previous policies and approaches, which were mainly informed by international financial organisations, such as the World Bank or the IADB. 

Whilst Bolivia has included the “decolonisation of thinking” as a way to promote cultural change together with the building of a new educational system that promotes improvements in access and completion rates, Ecuador has prioritised policies aimed at guaranteeing the right to education, improving access, and has emphasised management reform to strengthen the governance of the educational system. These new approaches have also constitutionally emphasised the budgetary priority of education, establishing it as the first financial responsibility of the State (art. 77 Constitution of Bolivia) and as a priority area for state investment (art. 26 Constitution of Ecuador). In turn, both constitutions include specific mandates regarding the incorporation (Bolivia) or promotion (Ecuador) of gender equity in education (art. 79 and art. 27 respectively). 

This case briefly describes how the principles of Buen Vivir aim to find alternatives to development by drawing from local and indigenous worldviews. It then explores how Buen Vivir has informed education reforms in Ecuador and Bolivia, and lessons that can be drawn from these experiences.


In the past years, the concept of “sustainable development” has gained prominence in the international fora. International commitments have been set, such as the SDGs, that set 17 international goals that should be reached between 2015 and 2030. Education is amongst these goals and is directly addressed in “Goal 4: ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. Education is framed both as a right in itself and also as a tool to promote development and to achieve the other SDGs. 

At the same time, neoliberalism is still one of the dominant political and economic approaches to development. Development, therefore, is often framed within economic parameters and according to western frameworks and references (Acosta, 2013). To reach the desired “development” level, policies rely on market-based strategies and approaches, including in education. A “new orthodoxy” has thus emerged since the 1980s (Sahlberg, 2016), with a set of strategies and policy instruments – such as marketisation, test-based accountability, school-based management, etc. – that has been internationally adopted. It is assumed that measurable learning outcomes must be the focus and, thus, there is a need for a standardised curriculum with measurable skills and large-scale tests. Competition and privatisation are seen as fruitful tools to improve outcomes. Therefore, there has been a fast proliferation of strategies that rely on high-stakes testing, vouchers, low-fee private schools, and the reliance on private actors to drive change (Verger et al., 2016). 

However, other alternatives to and perspectives on “development” are possible and are being practised, and emerge especially in low- and middle-income countries. One of them, which has recently gained attention, is the concept of “Buen Vivir” (or “Good Life”). Buen Vivir opposes itself to other contemporary concepts, especially linear notions of “development” and “modernisation”. Whilst the latter are mostly connected to the idea of economic development (having social development as a related product of it) that is achieved through the exploitation of natural resources and intensification of consumerism, Buen Vivir aims to foster values from indigenous peoples and is seen as an alternative to capitalist and socialist models. In its more radical definitions, Buen Vivir puts greater focus on nature than on humans, seeing “Mother Earth” as something we are part of, not the owners of (Acosta, 2016). 

These concepts have transcended the context of the indigenous peoples and have started to inform policies and national legislations in Bolivia and Ecuador. The Ecuadorian Constitution of 2008 states that the people “hereby decide to build a new form of public coexistence, in diversity and in harmony with nature, to achieve the good way of living”. This “good way of living” (or buen vivir in Spanish) is rooted in the worldview of the Quechua peoples of the Andes, of sumac kawsay, a Kichwa term that denotes the fullness of life, grounded in community and harmony with other people and nature. The Bolivian Constitution of 2009 recognises Buen Vivir as a principle to guide state action. That same year, Bolivia led the UN General Assembly to proclaim April 22nd as ‘International Mother Earth Day’, and Bolivia’s 2011 Law of Mother Nature was the first national-level legislation in the world to bestow rights to the natural world (Rapid Transition Alliance, 2018). These reforms signal a move towards a developmental approach that prioritises ecological balance and harmony over relentless growth.


In Buen Vivir, education is seen as a right and is centred in the holistic development of people, who live in a complex and multicultural reality that demands continuous education, integrated with nature and ecological consciousness. Education is framed as a tool to transform economic and social structures, as well as a means for cultural affirmation. Thus, it has a strategic role in creating alternative models of society and development, which draw from local values and knowledge, and a decolonial perspective and social project. It is part of the creation of a “society of Buen Vivir” (Ecuador) and the Plurinational State and Vivir Bien (Bolivia). 

As a result, the meanings and goals of education are shifted towards principles of equality, equity, interculturality, “pluri-linguism”, national sovereignty, regional integration and strategic insertion in the international arena with equal conditions (not a subaltern position), in contrast to the neoliberal worldview (Crespo, 2012). In practice, there is a strengthening of the public and of relationships between the state and social movements, social organisations and indigenous peoples. All of this is opposed to a view of education as a means for productivity that is subordinated to economic growth and “development”, internationally implemented since the 1980s. 

Thus, some of the central principles of the education for Buen Vivir are: it is a political/pedagogical project, with no intent of being “neutral”; it must offer education for all, recognising people’s rights and working for inclusion; it is a contextualised education, connected to the territory and historical knowledge; learners are active agents in the learning process; and it recovers a positive identity, collective/historical consciousness and values (Croce, 2018).


The reforms of education in Ecuador and Bolivia, drawing from the principles of Buen Vivir, illustrate southern alternatives to education. In these cases, education is an indispensable condition for advancing Buen Vivir and the creation of a new way of living together, of citizenship, in diversity and harmony (Preámbulo de la Constitución del Ecuador, 2008). Education is thought of as a means for learning how to live in society and to create the political, social and economic pillars for the society envisaged by the Constitutions. It is a way to create a new form of relating to nature and society, and interculturality is a central aspect of education. 

Both countries had previously implemented policies supported by international and multilateral organisations, especially the World Bank and The Inter-American Development Bank, focused on efficient and outcomesbased management, and thus went through a policy direction shift. Education became recognised as a lifelong right of the people, with the aim of eliminating inequality; public education makes the commitment of universal offer and free of charge at all levels (including higher education).


The central policies that steered the education reform in Ecuador were the Plan Decenal de Educación 2006- 2015, the Constitución de 2008 and the Ley Orgánica de Educación Intercultural (LOEI). In these documents, education is set as an “intersectoral policy”. The key goals set for education were to reach: 

  • Universal education from 0 to 5 years of age, as well as basic education (from first to tenth grade);
  • Universal literacy and improve adult education;
  • Increase enrolment in higher education, reaching 75% of the population;
  • Improve physical infrastructure of educational institutions;
  • Improve the quality of education and implement the Sistema Nacional de Evaluación;
  • Yearly financing increase by 0.5% of education as a percentage of the GDP, until reaching 6% (Burgos, 2017)

To reach these goals, the Decenal Plan had four axes of action: 1) curriculum, 2) human talent (new structures of teacher training, professional development and career, and training administrative personnel), 3) funding and management, 4) accountability.

To improve access, a central measure was the elimination of access barriers (such as entry exams and fees). The government banned payment by families to schools, which were estimated at 40 million USD in 2011, and the school meal programme was enlarged and grew from the provision of meals for 80 school days to 200 school days (Van Damme et al., 2015). Other policies were implemented, such as the free distribution of books, uniforms and school meals, and schools that are close to homes.

Teachers were placed as fundamental and active agents for education quality. The government created the National University of Education (UNAE) to improve teacher training and the teaching career was reformulated with policies that aimed to guarantee appropriate salaries and career plans (Van Damme et al., 2015). The reform also provided opportunities for professional development for teachers and other education professionals. Between 2010 and 2011, more than 170,000 teachers took at least one training course made available at the time (Van Damme et al., 2015). The education for “interculturality” is central in the reformed education of Ecuador. It is understood that inequality in Ecuador is connected to the exclusion of ethnic groups and cultures in the country, which are reinforced by education. Thus, new approaches are needed to learn about, understand and value the local types and sources of knowledge (Villagómez and Campos, 2014).


In Bolivia, education is connected to the “Search for Buen Vivir” and is described as an “education revolution with a teacher revolution”. The first role of education is to promote the “decolonisation of thinking”. This is a historical attitude of “rebelling” against the hegemonic western knowledge and establishing an equilibrium with local knowledge. This means transforming education to make it “liberating, revolutionary, antiimperialist, de-patriarchalising”, and able to “transform economic and social structures.” It must consolidate the plurinational state and a society based on Vivir Bien with social justice, to reinforce multiculturality, and strengthen the identity and culture of each indigenous nation and people.

In practice, this was translated into new policies regarding access, curriculum and teacher training. First, to ensure access, the country adopted a conditional cash transfer programme (“Bono Juancito Pinto”) that focuses on students enrolled in public schools. This programme also made public schools more attractive and, together with a growing investment in education and regulation of the private sector, resulted in a greater demand for public schooling and containment of privatisation (Verger et al., 2017). Second, a new curriculum and new training for teachers were established as the central axis of change; both revolving around the de-colonisation of thinking. The curriculum rescues the roots of indigenous knowledge as an exercise in cultural affirmation and epistemic pluralism, and it aims to address historic inequalities and exclusions. Thus, it draws from a critical analysis of the Bolivian context, addressing four elements: 1) The colonial and postcolonial condition of education, with external and imposed approaches and contents, 2) No articulation between education policy and the goal of changing economic dependence, 3) Abandonment of indigenous knowledge, 4) Education solely focused on cognitive development, not connected to national change.

As a result, instead of articulating the curriculum in disciplines, it follows other axes: education for interculturality and “multi-linguism” (philosophy, psychology, values, religions…), education in sociocommunity values and education for production (languages, computing, social sciences, arts, physical education), and education with nature and social health (natural sciences, biology, geography, chemistry, mathematics, technical education…). These are guidelines that are adapted in different contexts. Each of the 36 nations have a territory, a language and a cosmovision, which must be addressed in a localised curriculum.

Teachers are seen as central in the process of change, unlike previous approaches. There was considerable investment in teacher training, 196 million pesos bolivianos in 27 escuelas superiores and 20 escuelas académicas. The format was increased from 3 to 5 years – from technical training at secondary level into a bachelor’s degree at higher education. Regarding in-service training, a programme was implemented for public sector teacher in-service training (named PROFOCOM). Teacher training at all levels, including initial, inservice and graduate level is done exclusively by the state. Teachers’ careers were also improved. There was a development of a career plan and a reduction of temporary teachers, from 18% in 2006 to 5% in 2015. With participatory processes, decisions about education are taken locally, with communities. Schools are also organised into groups to facilitate decision making and learning amongst teachers and communities (Burgos, 2017).

Bolivia has made remarkable advancements: formerly excluded indigenous groups were included in schools; the country was declared “free of illiteracy” in 2008 (illiteracy was as low as 3% in 2015, reduced from 20% in 1992); financing grew in relation to GDP from 7.09% in 2005 to 8.19% in 2018; school dropout rates decreased from 7.5% in 1985 to 2.5% in 2018 (UDAPE, 2020); 128,226 teachers received computers as part of the professional development policies; 72,688 teachers were trained with a bachelor’s degree, and 141,050 teachers were included in the Programme of Complementary Training (Burgos, 2017). Furthermore, there was a reduction of privatisation. The programmes and financing that strengthened and improved public education encouraged a decline in private enrolment. The changes in policy and discourse led to a weakening of incentives for private education, in both supply and demand. The regulation of the private sector also supported this, with the creation of a fee cap that would have de-incentivised the creation of for-profit institutions. Catholic schools were included in the public system, making them more accountable (Fontdevila and Verger, 2016).


Although the neoliberal approach has become globalised and adopted by the most influential international organisations – making it the hegemonic approach – there are alternatives. The cases of Ecuador and Bolivia point to different possibilities that emerge from similar principles. Bolivia has chosen a path with stronger political goals and Ecuador has translated Buen Vivir principles into a more technical and public management agenda (at least at policymaking and discursive levels), as argued by Burgos (2017).

The Ecuadorian and Bolivian cases are a reminder of the intimate relationship between education and society, in two different directions. One the one hand, education is seen as a tool to enact a societal project, whilst on the other, it is also a product of this specific social context. Thus, the values, social structures and culture are all reflected, included and valued in the education system and, at the same time, education is planned to work in favour of a desired society. All of this is opposed to current approaches that frame education as a technical matter that can be easily detached from its contexts and local purposes.

In both cases, teachers are central to the reforms. They are seen as active and creative subjects that can enact the desired educational changes. This is done through pre-service training and professional support in schools, improving working conditions and enabling them to improve education quality with the support of peers and local communities. This contrasts with the neoliberal solutions that harm the professionalism of teaching through approaches that reduce teachers to the delivery of standardised curricula, pressuring them with highstakes testing and competition, and offers them poor working conditions in both private and public schools. The curriculum aims at developing a new way of living, one that is truly sustainable and committed to social justice, in harmony with nature and society. The curriculum aims to value the knowledge of local populations, opposed to a western-centric curriculum or an understanding that there is a “universal” knowledge that everyone should learn, and that should be measurable. Sustainability is intrinsically connected to new ways of living, based on respect and harmony between people and nature, instead of concepts of “sustainable consumption”.

These cases also exemplify that education change requires a commitment to adequate financing. In both countries, this has been done through formal commitments in policy and the subsequent growth of investment in the sector.

Finally, the case of Bolivia illustrates how the improvement of public education is able to reverse privatisation (at least to a point), by attracting the families that had opted for private schools. This reversal did not depend on the regulation of private schools, but rather improving and strengthening public education, including through adequate financing (Verger, 2016).

However, translating alternative educational and social principles into systems and policies is challenging. Both countries have gone through internal struggles and external pressures. The reform processes did not unfold without resistance from national interest groups (including some teachers unions), which had different wishes for education (Burgos, 2017). Furthermore, some ideals might lose their transformative potential when translated into formalised systems that must fit into other structures. Implementing a decolonial education within the current scenario creates a series of tensions and contradictions. In Ecuador, for instance, the resulting system kept several characteristics from former structures and is more adept to international trends, such as the use of performance evaluations, which did not break with former policies of competition and socalled “quality assurance”. Such policies did not involve participatory processes. Once standardised measures were adopted, they became equalised with a very narrow understanding of quality (Burgos, 2017, Torres, 2019). Nonetheless, these experiences illustrate how local knowledge and solutions can emerge and offer alternatives to current hegemonic practices