3 topics to watch at World Economic Forum Latin America

Photo by: Jakob Polacsek / World Economic Forum / CC BY-NC-SA

Latin America is experiencing historic political transformations, is billed for a period of sustained economic growth and is ready for the rest of the world to take notice — an opportune time to gather government and private sector players to talk about what’s next.

This week, Buenos Aires is doing just that, welcoming more than 1,000 business leaders, government officials and civil society members to Latin America’s annual World Economic Forum.

But despite this forward momentum, Latin America remains the world’s most unequal region, with ongoing humanitarian and political crises, skills gaps and long recessions plaguing once strong economies — all issues Devex will be on the ground to cover in Buenos Aires.

Global development in Latin America faces a test

Can Latin America break a development cycle of advancement followed by retreat? WEF Latin America meets this week to examine its prospects — and look at possible solutions — as the region faces another key turning point in its history. Devex will be there covering everything from the latest disruptive models in education to the looming humanitarian crises to increasing internet connectivity.

Here are three things expected to be both top of the agenda and creating buzz in side conversations at the forum.

1. The US and China

With economic ties with the U.S. more uncertain than ever, trade with both nations is expected to be big talk in the corridors of the WEF on Latin America in Buenos Aires this week.

China is already the region’s second-largest commercial partner, and has pledged to increase trade with Latin America by $500 billion and foreign investment to $250 billion by 2025. Its two development banks — the China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China — now provide more development finance to Latin America than the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and the Andean Development Corporation combined each year.

A disengaged Washington, D.C., could create an even bigger push for more regional integration and partnership — including for development — with China, as Devex President and Editor-in-Chief Raj Kumar notes in his WEF preview piece.

But there is still room to discuss how China’s investments can better aid sustainable development, according to EARTH University President Arturo Condo — discussions he bets will take place in the halls of Buenos Aires’ Hilton Hotel this week.

“As a region we should take a careful look at the experience of Africa to make sure these investments will be those that contribute to our sustainable growth,” Condo said.

2. A gaping skills gap — and how to close it

Latin America is the region with the widest gap between the skills societies and economies require, and those that schools and universities offer.

Currently, 59 percent of employers in Argentina say they face difficulty in finding skilled labor for open positions, which places the country as the worst in Latin America, according to a survey by human resources consulting firm ManPowerGroup that carries out an annual Global Talent Shortage survey.

It’s a challenge that appears in various forms throughout the WEF’s program agenda, along with what the current technological revolution — billed by WEF as the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” — means for today’s Latin American workforce.

To date, education improvement in the region has not always been coupled with stronger links to the labor market, and that creates a disconnect experts and economists say must be addressed in order to help close the gap.

Devex expects to hear from stakeholders with innovative ideas on how to do just that, considering several countries, such as Mexico and the Bahamas, are already experimenting with apprenticeships and dual education models. Active employment policies that promote training and upskilling and stimulate entrepreneurship are also showing positive results, according to David Herranz Acebuche, CEO of the Adecco Group Latin America.

3. Lifting the poorest

In 2014, the richest 10 percent of people in Latin America had amassed 71 percent of the region’s wealth. If this trend continues, in six years’ time the richest 1 percent in the region will have accumulated more wealth than the remaining 99 percent, according to Oxfam’s calculations.

Latin America’s inequality is seen by many as its profound development challenge. It will be addressed to some extent in sessions such as “Improving Financial Inclusion,” and even one panel on “Practical Solutions to Eliminating Poverty,” though it’s perhaps surprising that poorly designed tax systems and tax evasion, a derisive topic at Davos, didn’t warrant its own panel.

There are already several standout examples of bridging gaps in access to services. They include Caixa Econômica Federal’s two floating banks equipped with satellite technology to serve isolated communities along the Amazon, and the Caixa lottery’s mobile broadband-equipped “lucky trucks” that allow rural populations to buy national lottery tickets and conduct basic banking services.

Provided with a 26-page list of government and private sector and WEF attendees, and barely a page full of civil society representatives, Devex will be seeking out those voices in this important conversation as well.

For everything you need to know about the World Economic Forum on Latin America, follow our coverage this week and join the conversation on Latin America's future. Follow @devex, @kellierin, @amylieberman and @raj_devex and tag #la17 and #wef.

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About the author

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.