• Connectivity: as the internet becomes ever more integrated into our daily lives, those who are unconnected fall further behind just by standing where they are.
  • Skills: over 60% of companies in Latin America now have remote-working structures, and collectively they rank low digital skills among workers as the number one obstacle.
  • The challenge of meeting the needs of post-COVID Latin America is systemic, so the solutions must be holistic and future-proof. Civil society organizations can help drive this effort.

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the rate at which society is embracing digital technologies. While those who have been furloughed or lost their jobs are using the internet to communicate with loved ones and get information on supportive services, those still employed are bringing the office into their homes through Zoom, Slack, and other collaborative workplace technologies. We’re seeing whole companies shift to remote work, schools move to remote learning, and ecommerce potentially leading the way for retail sales.

The immense human toll and projected economic contraction across Latin America expose the consequences of how ill-prepared so many countries are for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and how inequitably its benefits are experienced. As the internet becomes ever more integrated into our daily lives, those who are unconnected fall further behind just by standing where they are.

In the Ecuadorian Amazon, rural internet usage is only 3% due to low-connectivity. During this global crisis, access to information and means of communication is key to keeping isolated communities safe, so civil society organizations like Rhizomatica have stepped up. Now, remote communities across the Amazon are protecting themselves from outbreaks of COVID-19 by staying connected via satellite and innovative radio technologies that can carry digital data.

Since the 1990s organizations like Colnodo, Rhizomatica, and Redes AC have connected people across Latin America to the internet through alternative telecommunications infrastructure. They build technological capacity in rural communities by training community members, co-designing innovative technology to meet real needs, and educating policy-makers to ensure a regulatory environment conducive to serving the interests of the people, not just profit. They work outside of the box to bring real solutions to those ignored by others.

In the urban centres, recent industry research shows that in our pre-COVID world only 24% of companies in the region supported telecommuting on a regular basis, and ranked corporate taxes as the number 1 obstacle (out of 7) to growth and profit. Today, over 60% of companies in Latin America have remote-working structures, and collectively they rank low digital skills among workers as the number one obstacle – corporate taxes having now fallen to number seven. This indicates not only a shift in urgency for employees to be digitally savvy, but also a reprioritization and a reinvestment in employees as the number one resource for any business.

Civil society has long been a champion of the underserved, and organizations like Laboratoria, ComunidadIT, and the International Youth Foundation transform how people work, and ensure women and young people have access to digital skills training and jobs. More than 70% of their graduates land technical jobs. We need these types of programmes to reach more people to bring this talent into the mainstream, and to help shape the future of digital-first workplaces.

Despite largescale COVID-19 response efforts, too many people face great economic insecurity. Imagine what would happen if we had a rapid investment in civil society: more homes would be connected where students could continue their schooling, companies could support their employees through retraining programmes, and the newly unemployed would have the opportunity to be reskilled for new careers.

If more of today’s technologies had been co-designed with these communities, we‘d also have more technologies that serve different realities.

The future of work in post-COVID Latin America should be designed now so the economy can start growing again from within the home.

Image: Statista

The challenge of meeting the needs of post-COVID Latin America is systemic, so the solutions must be holistic and future-proof. We need to invest in people through capacity building efforts; we need a legislative environment that promotes innovative tactics and doesn’t depend on traditional infrastructure or thinking; and we need new business models that drive profit without exploiting people. Key considerations include:

  • Civil society must have a seat at the table when designing national action plans.
  • Invest in civil society programmes to scale-up local capacity building efforts that are focused on the benefits for the community and designed for long-term sustainability.
  • Allow for non-profit telecommunications operators to conduct business and give them access to shared (or free) wireless spectrum usage.
  • Co-design future technologies with different communities so that they might serve and uplift humankind.

We’ve heard many times about how trust in institutions is at an all-time low. If true, there’s never been a better time to invest in civil society. These organizations have strong relationships of trust with the people they serve built over decades of collaboration, and they are nimble. With the resources and breadth of access that industry and government have, together they can work to scale-up the successful programmes and build back better. And with a well-resourced civil society that is more integrated with industry and government plans, the dream of the Fourth Industrial Revolution serving everyone equally becomes one step closer to reality.

The Forum’s Technology and Social Justice Initiative is a multi-stakeholder platform for driving stakeholder responsibility for social justice — in partnering with civil society in the design, deployment and use of technology; evidence of where technologies impact inequality; and investment needed for long-term change.