Imagine you are 15 years old again. You live in a small country in one of those many towns that are not exactly up-and-coming. To get to school (which you do not care much about anyway) you take the bus, and to get to the sports club (soccer – not your first choice, but better than nothing) your parents have to take you by car. Beyond the sports club, there is not much entertainment to be had except for smartphones and the internet, which offer some diversion and allow you to keep in touch with the „outside world“ from what feels like the middle of nowhere to you. As to what you want to do with your life once you leave school, you don’t know. Maybe you might become a medical doctor, or a mechanical engineer. Or you might want to work with a bank. Definitely you want to live “your” life, to go somewhere where there is something “going on”.

Or perhaps you’ve considered becoming a politician or taking up a job with a big responsibility for your country’s economy? What do you answer when they ask you: Are you actually aware that you are part of the future of your country?

Tough questions, especially when you live in a small state: In Luxembourg you are a bigger part of this future than in Germany, France or the USA. In Luxembourg you are one of only 190,000 under 30 years of age[1]. From this group, someone will become prime minister, somebody else foreign minister, others will be working in managing positions in important companies, or become volunteer board members. If you take into consideration factors such as a more limited age group, necessary qualifications and motivation, that leaves an even smaller set of candidates to occupy these important positions over the next few years. For comparison: in Germany there are approximately 25 million under-30-year-olds[2]. So there is a huge set of young people to choose from for each position in a big country, but – despite foreign specialists – a much smaller number to select from in a small state like Luxemburg.

To put it in a nutshell: The smaller a unit, the more important the role of each member of this unit.

Think of your typical teenager and the responsibilities that have to be shouldered in a country. You might hope that your country at least has enough people to choose from to man itself for the future. But actually, the fact that the individuals’ importance in a small state like Luxembourg is bigger also provides a great opportunity that must be seized.

Puberty as a chance

During puberty, our brain undergoes tremendous changes, in particular, the areas of the hippocampus and frontal cortex. These are the areas where the ability to store information into your long-term memory is located, as well as the ability to plan the distant future, pursue long-term goals or defer short-term rewards.[3]

During puberty, the hippocampus forms an increased number of receptor cells which react to inhibiting neurotransmitters. This means that known stimuli do not trigger the cells in this area in a way that makes learning easy. However, give an adolescent brain new, unknown stimuli and they will create what is known as positive stress. This raises the level of the stress hormone THP and causes maximal activation of the hippocampus.[4]

In other words, long-term learning and especially the acquisition of such complex things as cultural excellence may be extremely difficult at puberty, if you do not get the “right” kind of input. This is also the reason why most young people do not feel like school and its rules and routines. Ask teenagers, their parents, their teachers what teenagers are into  – the answer will most likely not be school. And yet, there are things that teenagers can lose themselves in, spend astonishing amounts of time and effort on – things that teenagers consider “interesting”.

Considering all this, it makes sense to offer young people a temporary alternative from school.

The idea: Investing in small countries’ future through exceptional education

One way to gain positive economic and political effects in the medium and long term could be a teenager exchange programme between small countries (not a traditional school exchange). This project allows teenagers aged 15 to 17 to not go to school for three months. Instead they choose whether they want to do an internship in a company or work for an NGO or social project in one of the other countries participating in the programme. As not all students want to or are able to go abroad for three months, the other option is to become active in the same way in their own country. Based on their respective legal situation, the participating states can include this three-months period in their school system with the goal of allowing all of their students to join the program.

Participant countries

Among other criteria, the World Bank defines small states as states with a maximum of 1,5 million inhabitants, their geographic location and their access to world markets. This results in a group of 41 states, amongst them many insular states. [5] For the programme suggested here, however, it is more suitable to define a small state as a state with less than 5 million inhabitants. The programme would be heavily based on the participating countries’ heterogeneity and the interaction between different cultures. This extended set of countries would comprise about 90 states all over the world.[6]

Of course, these countries differ largely both in size as well as in age structures and economic capacities. However, these differences also hold the potential of this project.

Currently, North America is the number one when it comes to school exchanges. Last year, Germany alone sent about 10,000 young people over.[7] Small countries such as Montenegro, Botswana or Barbados are usually much less popular destinations. However, many young people from these small countries want to go abroad but do not have the financial or organisational opportunities to do so.

Organisational framework

To set up the suggested programme, financial funding as well as an organisational structure are required.  

  • Finance

Because the economy gets included and may profit from this programme, it might be possible to develop a financial model similar to the funding programmes of American universities, especially Yale University, or the Norwegian Pension Fund (60:40 Modell).[8] To develop such a fund, the existing expertise of certain small states (e.g. Liechtenstein, Luxemburg) and their companies can be used. Furthermore, other states, companies and organisations can provide their know-how and take responsibility or pay their share.

One advantage of such a multi-national educational fund lies in the fact that setting up such a fund would trigger a learning process for the participating countries and allow for the creation of necessary jobs.

Challenge: Who is to contribute what and how much is certainly one of the key issues to be figured out. The same applies for the distribution of the fund’s money.

  • Platform

Organisation-wise, one could imagine an online platform similar to the ones used in online dating, where students and companies/NGOs/projects present themselves and get in touch with each other. One possibility might be for the student to choose a country. The platform then checks for availabilities and makes suggestions for host families, companies/NGOs/projects. Or the student chooses a field they would like to do their internship in, and the platform makes suggestions. If the choices are not available, the platform could suggest interesting alternatives.  

Challenge:  The development of an appropriate matching system: How do the different parties of the project get together? How can the distribution of the students to the different countries be managed?

Potential benefits

  • Business level

The companies, NGOs and projects could actively foster their human resource marketing by presenting themselves as interesting future employers/trade partners and motivating students for the jobs needed in their field. Furthermore, they can benefit from the advertisement that they will get through the students talking about their experience during and after their internship.

  • Economic level

Innovative potential as a means of ensuring access to new markets is of special importance for small states as access to global capital markets is one way to compensate for adverse shocks and income volatility. But private markets tend to see small states as more risky than larger countries, so spreads are higher and market access is more difficult.[5]

Studies on economical aspects of education have shown time and again that investing in young people’s education pays off. [9] [10] Public expenses for education are not just expenses – they are an investment in the future. 30% of the people who did not finish school successfully do not get a job. In comparison to this figure, the unemployment rate amongst academics is only 5%[11] This contrast is most likely going to increase as the technological development will make certain jobs redundant that require little qualification. 95% of all students who participated in an exchange for several months successfully graduated from school. [7] The quality of education plays a bigger role than the time spent on formal education. [12]

The better a country’s achievement in tests like PISA, the higher the GDP growth rate. One point on the PISA scale is proportional to 0,012% GDP growth.[13] Education, therefore, directly is reflected in economy.

Luxembourg is a good example to illustrate the potential of the educational sector. For example, in 2015 a reform concerning E-Commerce will be implemented, resulting in the VAT going to the buyer’s country instead of remaining in the company’s country. The IMF is predicting a permanent loss of income of approx. 1% GDP.  

Luxembourg’s results (490 points on the PISA scale) in the three subjects tested – Reading, Mathematics and Science – are below the OECD states’ average (496) and lower than most of the other European states’ results (Germany 516, Switzerland 518, Finnland 548).[14] An improvement of 10-20 points seems realistic in the middle term – which would result in a GDP increase of 0,12-0,24%. So there is a chance for small states to foster their economy without being dependent on a single big partner – and this does not only apply to Luxemburg, but also to other small states like Panama (<400), Montenegro (400) or Albania (400).[15]

Now one might wonder why the programme suggested here is more interesting for small states than for big states: Most small countries have a nation-wide uniform school system, so the integration of the project is easier to achieve than in decentralized, vast school systems (e.g. Germany).

  • Diplomacy level

Learning a new language or strengthening a language you already know helps with intercultural communication. For a stable foreign policy you cannot wish for anything better than a younger generation who get to know and respect different cultures at an early stage. Communication problems and cultural misunderstandings often are the trigger for conflicts in our multicultural world. These novel linkages and, later, renewable connections to multiple countries could help small states to remain more independent from big countries.

For now, only countries should participate who can meet the (yet to be clarified) requirements the programme has concerning security, medical standards, protection of youth, health and safety etc. It could be an incentive for countries to qualify for such a program. Alternatively, a country could be considered for a limited access to the programme if labour regulations in the country are not met – maybe social projects or NGOs could be granted the required status, or the country could run the out-of-school part of the program on a domestic level for a start.

Empowerment for small countries

As Katzenstein [16] says: Small countries are more vulnerable to foreign trade than big countries and, therefore, they are forced to flexibly adapt to developments of the world’s economies. This only works if they can realise these adaptation processes on the domestic front. One important condition for this to happen is social partnership –  a system of internal political compensations for potential losers of the world market opening.

So a joint project should help small countries to adapt to the world market in the long term, based on the increase of its own human capital. This means that the generations taking the leading role in the future must be enabled to take this responsibility, to make decisions innovatively, creatively and with lasting effect. However, this is not possible by simply ordering them to do so, but only by providing suitable support and education.

Imagine you are 15 again and they ask you…

Essay on the topic “proudly small” for the 46th. St.Gallen Symposium.


1.) Kinder, Jugendliche und junge Erwachsene in Luxemburg (2013) STATEC. from

2.) Bevölkerung nach Altersgruppen und Geschlecht (2012) Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung.

3.) Shen H. et al (2010) A critical role for alpha4beta-delta GABA-a receptors in shaping learning deficits at puberty in mice. Science 327:1515-1518

 4.) McCarthy MM. (2007) GABA-Receptors make teens resistant to input. Nature Neuroscience 10:397-399

 5.) „Small States“ (2014) The World Bank.

6.) “Bevölkerungszahlen im DSW Report 2012.” Stiftung Weltbevölkerung  . Retrieved January 17, 2015 from

7.) „Schüleraustausch Statistik 2013” (2014) Travelworks.

 8.) „Wer ist der bessere Vermögensveralter“ (2012) Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

 9.) Anger C., Plünnecke A., Tröger M. (2007) Renditen der Bildung – Investitionen in den frühkindlichen Bereich. Institut der deutschen Wirtschaft – Köln

 10.) Wößmann I., Piopiunik M. (2009) Was unzureichende Bildung kostet. Eine Berechnung der Folgekosten durch entgangenes Wirtschaftswachtsum. Ifo-Institut für Wirtschaftsforschung, im Auftrag der Bertelsmann-Stiftung, Gürtersloh

 11.) OECD (2009) Eduacation at a glance 2009

12.) Wößmann L. (2009) Bildungssystem, PISA-Leistungen und volkwirtschaftliches Wachstum. Ifo Schnelldienst 10/2009 62:23-29

13.) Hanushek E.A., Wößmann I. (2008) The role of cognitive skills in economic development. Journal of Economic Literature 46:607-668

14.) OECD (2014) PISA 2013: Ergebnisse: Exzellenz durch Chancengleichheit (Band II) Allen Schülerinnen und Schülern die Voraussetzungen zum Erfolg sichern, PISA, W.Bertelsmann Verlag, Germany

15.) “Katerstimmung im Großherzugtum – Die fetten Jahre in Luxemburg sind vorbei.” (2012) Focus online.

 16.) Katzenstein, Peter J. (1985): Small States in World Markets. Industrial Policy in Europe. Ithaca u.a.: Cornell University Press.

Investing in small countries’ future through exceptional education – A teenager exchange program
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