Economic Recovery and Rebuilding the Social Fabric in Latin America and the Caribbean

Photo featuring event speakers and people walking down a street Main Photo: quinntheislander / pixabay

On December 15, the Inter-American Dialogue hosted “Economic Recovery and Rebuilding the Social Fabric in Latin America and the Caribbean,” an online event organized in partnership with United Way.

José Ferrão, international president of United Way Worldwide, delivered opening remarks. The event featured a panel of speakers including Karim Lesina, executive vice president and chief external affairs officer for Millicom; Cecilia Vaca Jones, executive director of the Bernard van Leer Foundation and former minister of Social Development for Ecuador; and José Varela, vice president for Latin America corporate affairs and governance at 3M and managing director of 3M Mexico. Michael Shifter, president of the Dialogue, moderated the conversation.

In his remarks, Ferrão called attention to the devastating and disproportionate consequences of Covid-19 in Latin American and Caribbean in terms of the share of infections and deaths worldwide. He recognized that communities have rallied to address urgent health and economic needs resulting from the pandemic as well as recent natural disasters.

Ferrão also suggested that the region is now entering a period of transition, where leaders need to start looking to the future. He urged stakeholders to begin planning for a transformation that will achieve more sustainable development by reimagining how communities could be rebuilt. “Sustainable solutions cannot be developed by one organization, one individual, one company or one government – it is all about us coming together,” he said. He shared United Way’s belief that bringing all stakeholders to the table is the key to finding solutions that are scalable and sustainable and to creating the conditions for more equitable and resilient communities.

Lesina said that the foremost challenges the telecom industry faced at the outset of the the pandemic revolved around coordination with local authorities—how to “connect the unconnected,” connect people who couldn’t go to their offices or those who had other connectivity issues. He noted this rapid turn to digitalization demonstrates the “incredible resilience of technology,” enabled by years of investments in telecom systems and innovation. He recommended that the region’s governments avoid the “temptations of identifying new recovery taxes” next year and instead, focus on economic relaunch. He argued that in order “to take society back and help those communities who have been most effected, we will have to push a lot to relaunch the economy… so we don’t get into a vicious circle that creates brakes and blocks.”

"We don't have a lot of reliable data at a local level on what's happening with families, what's happening with babies."

- Cecilia Vaca Jones

Jones reiterated that the pandemic has provided a huge opportunity for public-private collaboration. Turning to social policies, she noted that “young children have been the most invisible human beings in this pandemic,” with a rising challenge being to maintain the social policies that ensure a good future for them amidst economic policy prioritization on the part of governments. She noted her foundation’s goal is to prevent regression precisely in this area, recommending cash transfers be linked to social benefits such as parenting and child care support. She argued that corporate policies must act along the same lines, crafting new ways to provide services to their employees as remote work creates new challenges for child care. She also noted that any holistic recovery plan must incorporate mental health measures as the region’s health systems are under immense stress. Lastly, she called attention to the lack of data in the area of education at a local level, adding to concerns over a broader absence of clear data on early childhood development in the context of Covid-19. “We don't have a lot of reliable data at a local level on what's happening with families, what's happening with babies," she said. The time has come to "make the invisible more visible." She called for having potentially “uncomfortable conversations” among different sectors to arrive at metrics and indicators that could be used to use to start closing gaps together.

"If we want economies to recover permanently, we need to promote science."

- José Varela

Varela reiterated the importance of the continuation of public-private-NGO collaborations throughout and following the pandemic, emphasizing the need to not only provide jobs, but also educating communities on safe health practices in the pandemic with the common goal of protecting them. This, he noted, connects to the mission of 3M in encouraging STEM knowledge. “If we want to recover economies permanently, we need to promote science,” he said. With this, he highlighted that inclusion as essential to recovery. In the context of his own company, he explained, efforts are underway in the region to hire employees who, for example, may not be fluent in English, or who may not come from elite universities, or who may have different socioeconomic backgrounds from candidates that traditionally get recruited by 3M.

The event concluded with a Q&A session. Shifter asked how one can build on the momentum arising from the immediate response to the pandemic, to which Lesina replied that the expansion of digitalization must continue through public-private collaboration with a renewed focus on the inclusion of rural areas. He noted that connectivity opens the door to a slew of new businesses, with more entrepreneurs having the ability to carry out their work virtually. This will pay dividends over time that would surpass revenues generated in taxes on technology because it was considered a luxury good, for example, or high costs that governments might command for their spectrum. Echoing this call for digitalization, Varela noted the answer to informality is technologies that, for example, can facilitate digital monetary transfers and banking services. Jones emphasized the need for a shift from “emergency mode to sustainable mode” in order to close gaps by improving rural education through new technologies. Varela asserted that along with spurring use of technology, the pandemic has enabled further efficiency with many workers no longer spending hours commuting to work.

In response to a question on fiscal imbalances and inflation concerns, Lesina reiterated that countries must proceed cautiously with a focus on attracting capital in order to unleash recovery potential.

When asked about education, Jones asserted that governments in each country must agree on “a minimum basis of a good social protection system,” considering how positive health and education outcomes are built upon it. 


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