People protesting in Buenos Aires, Argentina in January 2017. Photo by: Zhu / CC BY-NC

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — What will welcome thousands of delegates from around the globe to the World Economic Forum's Latin America summit this week in Buenos Aires, Argentina? A major labor union strike aiming to largely shut down the city on Thursday, the forum's first day of meetings. Flights are cancelled, shops plan to close, and taxis won't be running.

It's a fitting backdrop for the WEF's gathering, billed euphemistically as a meeting on "Responsive and Responsible Leadership" for the region. "Responsive" is how to address things like thousands of frustrated workers shutting down one of the region's largest metropolitan areas tomorrow. "Responsible" is about not allowing immediate political demands to distract from climate change that threatens our planet, educating a new generation of workers for an automated economy, building democratic institutions that can withstand volatile periods such as this one, and abject poverty affecting tens of millions of people right here in the Americas.

Of course it’s a generalization for a region of some 525 million people, but Latin America's story, country by country, has long been about advancement and retrenchment. Economic flows followed by ebbs that expose massive inequality and fragile middle classes; successful political leaders followed by more popular but ultimately failed ones.

3 topics to watch at WEF Latin America

Despite 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 covering in Buenos Aires. Here are three things we expect to be both top of the agenda and the buzz of many side conversations at the World Economic Forum on Latin America.

Will global development efforts in the region suffer the same fate?

It's the question underlying much of what global development leaders here from around the world will be discussing at a time when we’re seeing an unprecedented backsliding: in 2015 and 2016, for the first time in decades, there was an increase in the number of people living in poverty in the region. And some 2 in 5 people here live precariously just above the poverty line and risk slipping into poverty, according to the U.N. Development Programme.  Tremendous progress in health, education and living standards are at risk.

Using insurance models to address pandemic risks such as Zika; innovative financing for badly needed sanitation and transportation infrastructure; and connectivity and mobile banking solutions to bring more people into the financial system and formal economy — all of these hold real promise to generate a new era of progress when it’s badly needed (and when cash transfer programs and industrial policy may have run out of steam). Can these innovations outrun or even counteract populist movements here and nationalist narratives in the United States and Europe, proving that pulling back from global engagement now would be abandoning the climb with the summit in view?

This week the Inter-American Development Bank revealed the Trump administration would not be participating in the Multilateral Investment Fund — yet another indication of the American administration's retreat from the region. Mexican officials are using this meeting to talk with Argentine and Brazilian counterparts about turning south for their massive corn and grain imports, according to the Wall Street Journal. A disengaged Washington, D.C., might create a push for more regional integration and partnership, including for development, with China.

At the same time insecurity and fragility plague much of the region, from Central America to Haiti to Venezuela and beyond. Electric cars, 3D printing, robotics — it’s all part of the regional story. But there are immediate humanitarian needs here too.

Devex is in Buenos Aires to try to shed light on these and other key questions for our community. Devex journalists Kelli Rogers and Amy Lieberman will join me at the WEF event to cover everything from the latest disruptive models in education to the looming humanitarian crisis in Venezuela to increasing internet connectivity for those left behind. We'll continue our ongoing reporting on development under Colombia's peace deal, pandemic response, financial inclusion and innovation, and smart cities with mayors from around the region in attendance, including Medellín and Buenos Aires.

You can follow all our reporting, plus get a round-up of other relevant media clips, by staying tuned for our coverage and joining our email list for the event. You'll get newsletters on Thursday and Friday — and other updates that will make you feel like you're here — and follow-up analysis on Monday. And if you are here at the summit, check out our social media feed for on-the-ground photos.

On Friday morning 9:00 am Buenos Aires time, join the livestream for a discussion I'm moderating on implementing the SDGs in Latin America with Alicia Bárcena Ibarra, executive secretary for the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean; Simón Gaviria Muñoz, minister of national planning for Colombia; and Javier Pastorino, CEO and president of Siemens in Argentina. And tune in Friday afternoon at 12:30 pm Buenos Aires time for my discussion on how to advance inclusive growth with Richard Samans, who heads the Centre for the Global Agenda at the WEF and is part of the forum's managing board.

If you're feeling mired in the present and eager to know what's ahead, there's nothing like a WEF event to change your perspective. Whether you're here in person or just want to feel like you are, I hope you'll follow our coverage this week and join a timely and important conversation on what’s next for Latin America's development.

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.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Raj Kumar

    Raj Kumar is the Founding President and Editor-in-Chief at Devex, the media platform for the global development community. He is a media leader and former humanitarian council chair for the World Economic Forum and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. His work has led him to more than 50 countries, where he has had the honor to meet many of the aid workers and development professionals who make up the Devex community. He is the author of the book "The Business of Changing the World," a go-to primer on the ideas, people, and technology disrupting the aid industry.