Latin America Panel Reviews Regional Inclusion, Connectivity and COVID-19

This Tuesday, Portulans Institute, in cooperation with UNESCO and CETIC.Br|NIC.br, and with support from our 2020 Knowledge Partner, STL Group, hosted the third regional spotlight  event in our “Digital Transformation: Building Forward Better” series. The panel honed in on digital transformation and network readiness in Latin America, a region that has witnessed remarkable digital change in recent years. COVID-19 brings a host of new challenges to the table; the crisis has exposed both the gaps in the region’s digital progress and areas of digital excellence in healthcare, education and political leadership alike. At this panel, Dr. Soumitra Dutta took the opportunity to present and analyze the region’s performance in the 2020 Network Readiness Index (read our summary here), to contribute data-based insights to a thought-provoking discussion.

Portulans CEO Carolina Rossini moderated the panel, which featured some of the region’s most well-respected leaders and changemakers from academia, the nonprofit, public and private sectors:

  • Dr. Alexandre Barbosa: Head, Regional Center for Studies on the Development of the Information Society.
  • Lidia Brito: Director, UNESCO Regional Office for Science in Latin America and the Caribbean; UNESCO Representative in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay.
  • Prof. Lourdes Casanova: Senior Lecturer and Director, Emerging Markets Institute, School of Management, Cornell University.
  • Prof. Soumitra Dutta: President and Co-Founder, Portulans; Professor of Management, SC. Johnson School of Business, Cornell University; Co-Editor, NRI.
  • Diego Molano: Senior Advisor, IDB, OECD and McKinsey; former Minister for ICT, Colombia.
  • Dr. Sebastian Rovira: Economic Affairs Officer, Officer in Charge of the Innovation and New Technologies Unit, Production, Productivity and Management, UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

To address inequalities and inform effective policy, good data is critical

Dr. Alexandre Barbosa shared his experiences spearheading CETIC.br’s efforts to collect accurate and unbiased data about Brazil’s emergent challenges in digital exclusion during the COVID-19 pandemic, drawing panelists’ attention to the fact that “without data, issues related to inequality and exclusion become invisible. And without visibility, policy-makers won’t include these issues on their political agenda.” As such, “data is the key ingredient to support policies that will create meaningful and inclusive digital transformation in the region.” Learn more about CETIC.br’s activities and research (Painel TIC COVID-19 apresenta dados inéditos sobre acesso a serviços públicos on-line e desafios a privacidade durante a pandemia).

Panelists cast a spotlight on the education sector and building digital skills

In his opening remarks, Diego Molano underlined the gravity of digital skills gaps in education, exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. “We have to align all elements in the value chain – good Internet access, digital infrastructure connected to the home, and institutional change: but then, is the student ready? Is the teacher ready? If not, the gap grows and grows.” Lidia Brito agreed, and emphasized the importance of digital readiness: “it’s not enough to train teachers if schools are not ready for e-learning.” More generally, “it’s not just about training in digital skills, but providing knowledge that empowers individuals to co-create solutions in the digital world.” Dr. Barbosa followed these comments with the observation that the “digital skills gap is complex – and it is inseparable from access to quality education.”

Conversations about tech are inseparable from conversations about inequalities

Mr. Molano likened the current crisis to “walking towards a cliff. The social contract is not working. People perceive that they are not being included in society.” This exclusion is exacerbated by the digital transformation of already inequitable economies. “Political leaders don’t understand this urgency.” Representing UNESCO, Lidia Brito emphasized that digital policies and development policies are inextricable. “We’re living in a region where inequality is a major challenge. COVID-19 has put this challenge right in front of us. We need to think – and act – to include those that are left behind.” Drawing on personal experiences, Professor Casanova drew attention to community networks, and the disruption of their service due to pandemic prevention measures, such as social distancing.

Latin America may have many crisis “silver linings” for digital transformation

Professor Lourdes Casanova stated that “we must take digital opportunities as they come, and use them as a platform to jump ahead and solve the region’s social problems.” Dr. Sebastian Rovira honed in on opportunities in the region’s digital economy; noting that access and connectivity is fragmented by socio-economic status, Dr. Rovira argued that economies should take advantage of the “necessity for digitalization” and rethink how we trade, invest and promote commerce across borders using digital tools. On a related note, Mr. Molano – as Colombia’s former Minister for ICTs – noted that policy initiatives to take advantage of the digital momentum must cover a diverse range of considerations across a “spectrum of issues”, from digital infrastructure on the one hand to human rights on the other hand.

Regional stakeholders must co-create their own digital futures

Closing the panel, Lidia Brito told panelists that “we must ensure our digital future is co-created, and enable everyone to participate in that co-creation. It’s our future, and it’s our responsibility.” Across cultures and borders, “stakeholders must collaborate to ensure an inclusive digital transformation, where the voices of smaller or vulnerable counties can be heard. For the voiceless, we must make sure they are not only visible, but also active shapers of change.”

There’s room for improvement in Latin America’s regional performance

Reflecting on the panelist contributions, Professor Soumitra Dutta observed that “even though we’re talking about technology, most of our discussion has been about people, leadership, regulation and other similar issues.. The keys issues around technology adoption are not necessarily about technology alone.” Professor Dutta presented Latin America’s results and rankings in the 2020 NRI, and exposed the region’s diversity of performances in digital readiness. The region’s top-ranked economy, Uruguay, ranks at 47th, with high performance in network-ready Individuals (31st) and Government (35th), trailed by Costa Rica (54th globally), Brazil (59th globally) and Argentina (60th globally). Latin America’s lowest-ranked economy, Venezuela, ranks globally at 108th. As a region, Latin American economies perform marginally better on Governance and Impact, compared to the People and Technology pillars.

Thank you to our 2020 Knowledge Partner, STL Group, for their support.