Marta Lopez sells homemade baked goods. Higinia Reyes owns a corn mill. Remigia Dominguez is the head of a weaving cooperative. How are these women different from other self-sufficient business owners? They all live in the rural villages of the Lenca Corridor in the western highlands of Honduras, home to some of the poorest indigenous people in the country.

With business training, a support network, and a loan as little as $50 each, the Lenca women can start sustainable businesses that transform their lives and create lasting impact in their communities. Their experiences not only demonstrates the power of social and economic inclusion, but also the urgent need to implement new educational models if we are to promote economic empowerment and sustainable development in Latin America.

To drive inclusive growth, Latin America must provide all its citizens with the opportunity to master the 21st-century skills they need to succeed in the rapidly evolving global digital economy.

Workers need more than foundational literacy and numeracy skills – although these are important. They need competencies such as collaboration, creativity, and problem solving, as well as character qualities like persistence, curiosity, and initiative – some of the skills developed through social and emotional learning (SEL) and applied forms of education. A 2015 report by the World Economic Forum, however, revealed that too many students are not getting the education they need to prosper and countries are facing critical shortfalls in skilled workers to compete in innovation-driven economies.

Image: OECD

Education leaders around the world are increasingly recognizing the need to embed global competence in schools and learning. The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is considering adding a new measurement of global skills in its next round of tests. Developing countries should maintain alternative paths to economic development, including microfinance schemes, projects targeting youth unemployment, and entrepreneurship education. As suggested by others who have done extensive work on the state of education in developing countries, what students in impoverished regions need are “life skills that enable them to improve their financial prospects and well-being”.

Rotary’s collaboration with the Adelante Foundation to empower the Lenca enterprising women to achieve economic self-sufficiency offers one robust model for implementing this approach. Rather than just lending to individuals, this microcredit scheme offers the Honduran women non-collateralized group loans, business training, and a tightknit community of support. With Rotary’s help, Adelante has provided business training and over 600 loans to its clients, and the partnership continues to grow in the departments of Intibucá and La Paz. This project demonstrates that microcredit initiatives must combine sustainable social networks, business strategies, mentorship, and culturally sensitive partnerships if they are to help communities escape poverty for good.

Other successful Rotary initiatives that advance inclusive growth by fostering global competence include a microcredit project in the Esmeraldas Province of Ecuador, a vocational training programme lifting indigenous youth out of poverty in rural Guatemala, and an entrepreneurship camp in Haiti.

In developed countries such as the UK and the US, the recognition is growing that years of de-emphasizing vocational education have led to “a significant mismatch in the labour market” and that there is a need to “break down the barriers between career and technical education, on the one hand, and academic education, on the other”.

Developing and middle-income nations face their individual problems, but the lessons of the decline of vocational training are still relevant to them, particularly in the context of sluggish economic growth time. In the Americas, for example, income inequality has been declining, but so has economic growth, and a sizable portion of the population has not benefited from the last decade’s expansion of social programmes.

Granted, good education with marketable skills is vital to the region’s social and economic development. Last year, I looked at various interventions to overcome barriers to inclusive and equitable quality education in Latin America.

Yet education reforms are merely one component in the systemic change necessary for reigniting Latin America’s inclusive growth in a culturally diverse and digitally-connected world. Mentorship, new models of vocational training, and entrepreneurship initiatives are just as crucial to equipping young people with global competence necessary for stimulating economic activity. After all, some of the world’s leading entrepreneurs, such as Richard Branson and Mark Zuckerberg, never completed their secondary or tertiary education.

Lack of formal traditional education should never prevent someone from succeeding in the global marketplace. Latin America has the opportunity to make multiple investments in programmes promoting global marketable skills. This will be critical to help the country meet the challenge of lifting millions of people such as Marta, Higinia and Remigia out of poverty, despite the trying economic times.

The World Economic Forum on Latin America is taking place in Medellin, Colombia from 16 to 17 June.