In May 2020, Latin America and the Caribbean became the epicenter of the global COVID-19 pandemic, and the number of positive cases and deaths related to the SARS-CoV-2 virus continues to grow at a fast pace. The severity of the health crisis is exacerbated by the structural problems that characterize the region in areas such as health, social and economic inequality, political strife, violence and insecurity, as well as environmental degradation. The outbreak of COVID-19 threatens to reverse economic and social progress achieved in the region over the last decade; moreover, it compromises prospects of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.
In this context, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and the Latin American Network for the study of Learning Systems, Innovation and Skills Construction (LALICS) together organized a webinar titled: “Technological revolutions, changes in lifestyles and sustainable industrial development in Latin America and the Caribbean in a post-COVID-19 world”. The webinar served as platform where more than a hundred researchers, policymakers and practitioners discussed pressing challenges and opportunities, taking into account both the current health and economic crises, and the aforementioned structural problems faced by the region.
In his opening remarks, Diego Masera, Chief and Deputy Director Regional Coordination Division – Latin America and the Caribbean, highlighted the severity of the pandemic. According to the Economic Commission of Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), in 2020, the region’s GDP will fall by 9.1% in annual terms, with a drastic decline in manufacturing production. Masera emphasized the pertinence of identifying alternative development models that would reduce the risk of falling into an even greater crisis due to climate change. He endorsed the UN General Secretary, Antonio Guterres who, in his recent report on the impact of COVID-19 in Latin America and the Caribbean (July 2020), asserts that the crisis calls for a reassessment of the roles of the State, the market and of civil society, in order to improve equality, transparency and democracy in the region.
In the search of long-term solutions, Masera stressed that the promotion of sustainable and inclusive industrial policies, the integration of informal workers into formal and decent work, as well as investment in research and development are crucial factors to consider. SDG9, which promotes inclusive and sustainable industrial development, innovation and resilient infrastructure, should be a central element in the development agenda of countries in the region. He stated that UNIDO, in accordance with its mandate to promote sustainable and inclusive industrial development, is ready to assist member states in the region to achieve a fast recovery from this crisis, and to prepare and build the strengths needed to give local populations a better future.
Prof. Gabriela Dutrénit, Professor at the Department of Economics and the Postgraduate Programe in Economics and Management of Innovation Policies at the Autonomous Metropolitan University Xochimilco in Mexico City, and President of the Scientific Board of LALICS, described the current events as an historical moment marked by changes in various areas that highlight the challenges of building innovation capacities in order to reduce dependencies on external technologies and knowledge, while also opening new development opportunities. Latin America, in particular, faces new possibilities for closing gaps and contributing to an inclusive and sustainable development. She appealed to the LALICS network to rethink and propose new courses of action driven by innovation policy and productive transformation while, at the same time, building the necessary resilience to confront future crises.
The main speaker for the webinar was Prof. Carlota Pérez, British-Venezuelan researcher, lecturer and international consultant specializing in technology and socio-economic development. Addressing the question of what influence the COVID-19 pandemic could have on the growth prospects of Latin America and the Caribbean, Pérez noted that, based on historic experience, such influence would depend on how much the pandemic can affect the pace and direction of the ongoing technological revolution in industrialized countries. In her opinion, the present situation is comparable to the post-war era, and we are moving to a situation requiring an active and omnipresent state. The challenge however, is not to replicate the past but to take a leap forward. In a scenario where Asia dominates the manufacturing of products, the opportunity for Latin America is to focus on processing industries and in the valorization of natural resources, targeting increasingly specialized, high-value markets. However, because processing industries tend to be labour-saving, she proposed a dual but integrated strategy, one that realizes potential productivity in every part of the territory, tapping into hyper-segmented markets and capitalizing on new forms of communication, transport and logistics.
According to Pérez, demand for natural resources-driven innovation will continue to grow, as production methods and lifestyles increasingly orientate towards environmental sustainability. She asserted that success in implementing this dual strategy depends on the ability to build private-public consensus framed by appropriate supporting institutions at the two ends of the strategy.
Lastly, during her intervention, Professor Helena Lastres, Associated Professor at the Institute of Economics, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, noted that the pandemic is worsening the already complex political, economic and social situation experienced in Brazil and other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. In her opinion, the situation is best described in the words of the late Brazilian economist Celso Furtado: “In no other moment in our history is the distance between where we are, and where we expected to be, as great as it is today.”
According to Lastres, addressing the crisis and fostering development in a post-pandemic future for Latin America and the Caribbean requires a strengthening of the role of the State, and a recovery of its development-promoting functions in the region. At the same time, she noted the growing importance of digitalization and the rapid adoption of information and communication technologies (ICT), together with the relevance of building national consensus around the pressing development needs affecting the future of Latin America. Lastres said the pandemic is reinforcing the need to prioritize the development of manufacturing systems oriented towards the provision of goods and services that are essential for the life, well-being and security of people in the region, with a special emphasis on ICTs for health and education.