Latin America must get ahead of the curve


This month will mark the 20th anniversary of the first Summit of the Americas held in Miami, a meeting to which President Bill Clinton invited all the democratically elected leaders of the Western Hemisphere.

The principal goal of the summit was to help create a free trade area from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. While that grand design has yet to come to fruition, the meeting in Miami captured the spirit of a Latin America determined to overcome its underdevelopment and assert itself in the world.

Latin America and the Caribbean have changed radically since 1994. Our democracies have matured. Poverty has diminished. Our economies are much stronger. And our societies have become less polarized: the birthplace of machismo has now elected more female presidents than any other region of the world.

The pace of change over the next 20 years is likely to be much faster, and the demographic, technological and environmental challenges even more daunting. Will we be ready? Not if we continue to have our sights firmly locked on the short term.

In Latin America today we care more about the daily fluctuations of commodity prices than about how we can reduce our reliance on raw material exports or adapt to climate change. But to ensure that we can succeed in the next two decades, we should be systematically studying the trends that will radically impact Latin America over the long term — and forging plans to get ahead of the curve.

Let me illustrate this point with the problem of citizen security. Had we taken a more strategic approach to law enforcement and violence prevention 20 years ago, Latin America might not be facing its current epidemic of homicides and organized crime. Today, the Inter-American Development Bank is working intensely with governments in the region that have a long-term commitment to fostering safer communities.

Fortunately, there are many problems where we still have a chance to make a difference.

Consider education. Over the past couple of decades our countries succeeded in getting virtually every child in school. The problem is that half of them drop out before graduating from high school. And the other half learn so little that our countries are usually at the bottom of international education rankings.

In contrast, East Asian countries such as South Korea set themselves ambitious education targets spanning decades. As a result, nearly all their young people go on to higher education.

To compete in tomorrow’s knowledge economy, Latin America needs a radical plan to train more teachers capable of engaging our most disadvantaged students.

Such a plan will also help us to close the looming talent gap. Today a third of companies in Latin America say inadequate skills and training for workers is the biggest obstacle to their operations and a major hurdle to innovation. We urgently need to rethink vocational and professional training to produce the millions of software programmers, molecular biologists and engineers that companies will need in coming years.

There is one trend we share with our wealthier North American neighbors: rising obesity, with all the complications and higher costs that chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart conditions entail. Nearly one-quarter of our children are either overweight or obese. And we’re quickly catching up with our North American neighbors, where one-third of kids have weight problems.

Promoting healthy lifestyles in the cities where 80 percent of Latin Americans live will require a revolution in the way we eat, drink, commute and spend our leisure hours — not to mention better ways to expand medical insurance.

To defuse these time bombs, we must get down to work as soon as possible. At the IDB we’re working with the Clinton Foundation to prepare a major conference that takes place this month in Miami, bringing together leaders from governments, the private sector and civil society to craft new approaches to our future challenges.

I hope these kinds of meetings, focused on finding practical and concrete solutions to our looming perils, will become a habit in Latin America, where besides worrying about what’s urgent, we’ll also address what’s important.

Luis Moreno is president of the Inter American Development Bank.