When the United States committed in 2018 to hosting the IX Summit of the Americas, economies in Latin America and the Caribbean were already struggling with security and migration crises, inadequate infrastructure, burdensome regulatory processes and market fragmentation and high inequality. Now, the parallel economic and health crises that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic have given the region a wave of new challenges: negative economic growth, higher debt burdens and unemployment and severe drops in trade, to name a few.
But the pandemic also made clear where the future lies. The accelerated trend toward a truly digital economy has demonstrated the power and ability of technology to drive the recovery and future progress of the region. Growth in the 21st century will depend on the ability of countries to leverage this ongoing digital transformation.
Latin America remains unprepared to take advantage of this 21st century economy, with infrastructure and policies lagging those of much of the developing world. Fewer than half of the region’s residents have access to broadband technology, according to the World Bank, and the Bank for International Settlements reports that Latin America is behind every other region for digital payments. The region is looking to the world’s digital leaders as it seeks to integrate into the global digital economy. Will it be China that lays the groundwork for Latin America’s digital future? Or will the United States live up to its promises of being an equal partner in the region and work with its allies to promote democracy, development and transformative growth?
The United States will soon announce the focus of the IX Summit of the Americas. President Joe Biden has the opportunity to seize this opportunity to cast a vision for the region, together with his counterparts, that goes beyond recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. That vision should focus on making real the digital future for the Americas, which will be the engine driving inclusive growth for generations to come.
Focusing on the digital future can spur joint action on a range of top-level priorities:
- Better Education and Jobs: The region’s workforce needs STEM and vocational training relevant to the use of modern digital technologies so that workers can excel in the fast-paced global data economy, and so that entrepreneurs and small- and medium-sized enterprises can thrive. Leaders should use the summit to spur development of digital economy curricula and training programs and promote the use of digital technologies in education.
- Better Infrastructure and Connectivity: The infrastructure required to provide high-quality connectivity throughout the region extends across a range of industries, from energy and telecommunications to software development and artificial intelligence. Beyond connectivity, infrastructure for the digital economy must include upgrades to financial, transportation and natural resource industries that allow these sectors to benefit fully from digital technologies, provide digital services to their clients and ensure the security, stability and sustainability of economic gains. Leaders should commit at the summit to ensure every citizen of the Americas has access to broadband services and to work with the private sector to facilitate investment in sectors essential to creating a high-performing digital economy.
- Better Health Care:COVID-19 has devastated regional economies, making clear that our health is vital not only to protecting our people and communities, but also to our economic well-being. Strengthening the region’s health systems is critical to long-term economic growth and the ability to handle future threats, and leaders should embrace policies that harness digital health solutions.
- Better Environmental Sustainability: Digital technologies have opened new possibilities to both understand climate change and find solutions to the energy and resource challenges that impact all countries. From smarter cities and farms, greater energy efficiency and greener supply chains, to apps for teleworking and development of plant-based proteins, digital technologies are playing a pivotal role in enabling sustainable and new net-positive approaches to business and consumption. Leaders should commit at the summit to bringing digital technologies and related investments to their plans for sustainability and climate action.
- Better Trade: Regional governments have for too long depended on commodity trade. The digital economy demands more. Governments must commit to eliminating regulatory barriers to digital trade, and leaders should use the summit to develop common digital trade provisions that enable cross-border data flows, encourage risk-based cybersecurity approaches, strengthen privacy and security and encourage emerging technologies and internet services.
- Better Government: Digitalization of the public sector is one of the best ways that governments can increase efficiency and improve services, reduce opportunities for corruption, increase transparency and strengthen democratic institutions and governance. Use of digital systems can speed and safeguard government procurement and contracting of public works, ensuring transparency, oversight, and effective accountability. Leaders should use the summit to commit to improving government services through use of digital technologies.
In 1994, the last time the United States hosted the Summit of the Americas, the internet as we know it was just being created – in fact, that was the year of the first ever e-commerce transaction. There has never been greater relevance and urgency for leaders to focus on digital transformation. But a government-only effort won’t be enough. Private investment in the region was 24 times higher than official development assistance in 2019 and private sector-led investment will certainly be a critical factor in ensuring economic growth and jobs post-pandemic and in creating the data economy of the 21st century.
Biden and his fellow leaders at the IX Summit of the Americas have an opportunity to work closely with the private sector to turn the tragedy of the pandemic into a vision for a prosperous digital future in the Western Hemisphere. We look forward to supporting this important initiative.
Ashley Friedman has led on trade and tech issues in Latin America and the Caribbean throughout her career in the U.S. Department of Commerce and ITI, where she now serves as the vice president of policy and leads ITI’s work throughout the Americas.
Steve Liston has worked extensively throughout Latin America as a diplomat and business executive and served as deputy U.S. national coordinator for the Summits of the Americas from 2002 to 2005 and is now senior director at the Council of the Americas in Washington, D.C.
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