The drive to digitize Latin America well
Note to readers: EL PAÍS offers openly all the content of the Future Planet section for its daily and global information contribution on the 2030 Agenda, the eradication of poverty and inequality, and the progress of developing countries. If you want to support our journalism, subscribe here.
Latin America is still a young region, eminently urban and passionate about technology. This augurs a favorable outlook on the potential of digitization in the region to face the known challenges of low productivity, high inequality and vulnerability, accompanied by weak trust in institutions. These 12 months of fighting the pandemic have also confirmed that the telecommunications infrastructure in Latin America has worked ―supporting increases in Internet traffic of up to 40%, sustained since the beginning of the confinement―, and that the offer of digital platforms It allowed those connected to work, study, communicate and carry out financial operations, among many other activities.
In general, governments and regulators in the region accompanied this process by implementing a wide variety of innovations in digital policy in collaboration with the private sector. This allowed certain advances or, at least, the maintenance of connectivity, especially for lower-middle-income populations. The region, however, has also seen in digitization another dimension of inequality and exclusion. Latin America has in digitization an engine of growth and inclusion, but this requires that it be activated properly.
Latin America has faced the pandemic with a series of pre-existing conditions, whose resolution is urgent. High inequality, growing polarization, fiscal weakness, and low trust in institutions are some of the systemic challenges that, when interacting with COVID-19, have resulted in profound impacts in the region. The existing inequalities have made the impact of the crisis very heterogeneous, with marginalized and vulnerable groups being the most severely affected.
The gaps in digital connection are one of the inequalities that were already manifested in the pre-pandemic region, but which have become more important as a consequence of it. Internet users in the region are unevenly distributed in socio-economic, cultural and geographical terms. As the last one shows Latin American Economic OutlookIn Latin America, three out of every 10 people do not have access to the internet. While 81% of the richest households are connected, only 38% of the poorest have connectivity. In urban areas, 67% of households are connected, but in rural areas this number drops to 23%. One in four schools in the region lacks access to the Internet and those students from the poorest households are six times less likely to have the Internet at home.
While 81% of the richest households are connected, only 38% of the poorest have connectivity
While connectivity offers opportunities to face the crisis, as they are forced to stay at home as a result of containment policies implemented by the governments of the region, inequalities in digital connection become a mechanism to exacerbate existing inequalities. In Latin America and the Caribbean the average proportion of jobs that can be done from home is 20%, lower than that of other economies with similar income. This varies between 14% in Honduras and 27% in Uruguay. This proportion is 41% in the United States. Most countries with a per capita GDP greater than $ 30,000 have a telecommuting share of greater than 30%.
Faced with the closure of schools, most of the countries in the region have implemented, in collaboration with the private sector, connectivity and distance education strategies. Their implementation depends strongly on the access that children, as well as adolescents, have to some electronic device and connectivity in their homes. Today, 42% of those under 15 in our region do not have access to the Internet.
Inclusive digitization is a necessary precondition for reducing inequalities in Latin America. Digitization without inclusion and without effective regulation will lead to greater inequality and greater exploitation of market power by supplier companies. Despite the advances in digitization in Latin America, this has not been for everyone or at the necessary pace. The 2019 Human Development Report finds that in countries with very high human development, subscriptions to fixed broadband services are growing at a rate 15 times faster than in countries with low human development. Connection speeds in Latin America are a third or a quarter of those in higher income countries.
There has been a general consensus for years on the agenda, more investment and better regulation (see for the World Development Report 2016). It is necessary to significantly increase investment and close the gaps not only in technology, but also in education, and accompany this shock with progress towards an intelligent regulation of the digital economy. According to him Center for Telecommunications Studies of Latin America, the region must invest 161 billion dollars between 2019 and 2025 to achieve the connectivity levels of high-income economies. This is $ 61 billion above current spending trends. In addition, it is imperative to rethink the skills and training necessary to prepare people for the jobs of the future. According to a ManpowerGroup survey, more than four out of 10 companies in the region say they have difficulty finding workers with the necessary skills.
This inclusive digitization agenda in Latin America is urgent and ambitious, and only public-private collaboration will make it feasible
A successful digital transformation also requires rethinking existing regulations and institutions. It is necessary to promote competition by eliminating barriers to entry and investment. In addition, it is important to take the necessary steps so that digital platforms are more responsible and transparent in the decisions they control. We aspire to a region where all digital companies can succeed, not just a few.
This inclusive digitization agenda for Latin America is urgent and ambitious, and only public-private collaboration will make it feasible. Beyond the uncertainty about how and when the post-covid era will come, economies and societies will undoubtedly be more digital. The mobilization of investments that is required appears unapproachable only by using the resources that companies or governments in the region have at their disposal at this time of just beginning of the economic recovery.
But beyond financial collaboration, public-private cooperation is necessary to share good practices in regulation, build and scale programs to improve skills and abilities, and ensure that digitization has a positive impact on everyone’s lives. , not just that of some. It is in this spirit that that AT&T joined the United Nations Global Compact, and with which it collaborates in all the regions where it has a presence, with special mention to Latin America. UNDP, for its part, is prioritizing support for inclusive digitization in the countries of the region, working closely with governments and the private sector. If we don’t do it today, it will be too late.
Luis F. López-Calva He is assistant administrator and regional director of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) for Latin America and the Caribbean. Melngel Melguizo He is Vice President of External and Regulatory Affairs for AT & T / DIRECT TV Latin America.