The fight to eradicate poverty has made significant progress in the past two decades. Global poverty as a percentage of population was 35 percent in 1990 and dropped to 10.7 percent by 2013. Yet, millions of people around the world, especially in the global south, continue to live in poverty. One in ten people live under the international poverty line of $1.90 a day—33.6 million of whom are in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC). Over the past decade, NGOs, policy makers, and academics have focused their attention on how Science, Technology, and Innovation (STI) and Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) can advance existing global poverty reduction efforts. And they are right to focus their efforts on this; technology and innovation offer an unconventional poverty reduction strategy that empowers individuals—particularly women—to engage in entrepreneurial initiatives and take ownership of their situations.
Technology offers alternative ways to tackle poverty and challenge “business as usual”: from allowing people to diagnose their level of poverty and spread innovation in the financial services industry, to promoting clean energy and gender equality. But innovation cannot flourish without public and private sector investment in research and development (R&D), appropriate infrastructure, and quality education. The total estimated share of global R&D spending in Latin America in 2015 was just 2.6 percent, compared to 28.5 percent in the United States and 41.1 percent in Asia. And the already low average of less than 0.5 percent of GDP spending in R&D in Latin America is likely to fall further due to economic slowdown in the region. The Development Bank of Latin America has called on governments to spend three times more than what they currently spend in R&D to better promote innovation in clean energy. Experts are also now calling for inclusive, gender conscious investment, or “gender lens investing.” STI can further widen the gender gap if gender is not taken into account when formulating policies and investing in infrastructure and education.
Several factors affect a woman’s economic future and wellbeing, but access to and control of STI can help women improve their standards of living as well as that of their families and, more broadly, their societies. The role of STI, and particularly ICT, needs to be at the center of the quest for gender equality; STI has the unmatched potential to positively impact women’s lives, from promoting entrepreneurship, access to information, and women’s political participation to challenging violence against women. ICT creates opportunities and spaces for women to thrive, especially for those who are part of minority groups such as the LGBT community, victims of violence, refugees, or people with a disability. From Apps and online platforms to knowledge, resources, and startups, ICT is a breeding ground of opportunities to disrupt poverty.
International organizations have taken note. In the past five years, large-scale initiatives have focused on identifying and cultivating innovative approaches to increasing women’s participation in technology. For example, in 2016 the Inter-American Development Bank hosted an event designed to share innovative solutions to development challenges, showcasing 12 startups. One of the 12, Nativo Digital, teaches youth to code and brings “21st century skills to the hundreds of millions of children in emerging markets.” Similarly, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) and the International Telecommunication Union organized the annual GEM-TECH Awards to “provide a platform for advancing women’s meaningful engagement with ICTs and their role as decision-makers and producers in the technology sector.” Venezuelan group Aliadas En Cadena A.C., one of the three winners, empowers women through computer training courses, employment skills, personal development, money management skills, and support for business startups.
International organizations are also developing their own initiatives to support women’s meaningful involvement in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and ICT. One of the most important is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s STEM and Gender Advancement (SAGA) project. SAGA gathers reliable data on women in STEM, including analyzing the impact of policies on gender balance, developing better indicators, providing capacity building support in data collection, and more. This is crucial given that policymaking, funding, and programs are based on data, and statistics about women, income, and property have been questioned. Additionally, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the United Nations Development Programme, and UN Women created IKnow Politics, an online platform to promote women as political leaders and elected officials. On this platform, women connect and share knowledge and experience on how to run for office.
These are the kinds of initiatives that the world needs more of. Such initiatives bring the talents and knowledge of women from LAC and the rest of the global south to the forefront and provide innovative solutions to their biggest obstacles. Thus, government officials, the private sector, and civil society must promote the necessary environments through grants, training programs, scholarships, access to financial resources, innovation subsidies, and inclusive policies geared towards women and girls. Investing in these areas for the benefit of women should not be up for debate.
Jeanette Bonifaz earned her BA in International Relations, Latin American Studies, and International Development from American University in 2013. Her work has been published online in Common Dreams, openDemocracy, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, and CEPR’s The America’s Blog: Analysis Beyond the Echo Chamber. Jeanette is a Latin America Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP).