Latin America and the Caribbean are regions characterised by social and regional disparities, with large imbalances in access to education, health, basic services and sanitation between urban and rural areas, for example. Striking inequality and poverty are experienced by many, and solutions are needed that are efficient, inclusive and which pay attention to the needs of the people and communities affected. Social innovation initiatives are an important part of solving the many social challenges faced by these regions, while at the same time contributing to (sustainable) economic development. Are you actually familiar with where social innovation in Latin America and the Caribbean stand?
Social innovation in Latin America and the Caribbean is sparked by conflicts or problems at a local level and is mostly small-scale. The initiatives address local problems but with a clear potential to scale up and replicate solutions beyond the local sphere. Although NGOs make up the driving force, a very important part of each initiative and project is carried out by groups and individuals from the local communities themselves.
A report from ECLAC highlights that important initiatives in the field of social entrepreneurship and social innovation in Latin America and the Caribbean can be found in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Dominican Republic and Uruguay.
With such a vast territory and so many countries, and with wide-ranging (sometimes severe) social challenges and issues and a history of inequality, social innovation is key to providing an answer to these regions’ needs. Over the years many initiatives have been set up, from very local and micro-scale activities to large cross-border projects, and it is impossible to list them all.
In this article, we highlight just some of the projects, aiming to include ideas and examples from different areas and backgrounds. The 8 examples selected here are just the tip of the iceberg, and many more could have been included.
For instance, the EU co-funded project Latin American Social Innovation Network is a network of universities across the world aiming to make a real contribution to their communities; fostering cooperation to incubate and influence social change and innovation. It has published several interesting social innovation case studies (as well as articles on social innovation in the different countries).
ECLAC–W. K. Kellogg Foundation contest
During the period 2004–2009, ECLAC and the W. K. Kellogg Foundation organised a contest, which produced 72 finalists from over 4,800 applications during its five-year cycle. Although the last contest took place in 2009, many of the initiatives are still going strong, and some of them have actually been taken up by public policy.
A good example of the latter is the Hermes Project for Conflict Management in Schools, which started in 2001 with the aim of fostering change in the attitudes and responses to interpersonal conflict of youngsters between the ages of 11 and 18 in low-income/marginalised areas. The project provided participating schools with teaching tools and materials (e.g. teacher training). It was launched by the Bogota Chamber of Commerce (Columbia) with support from the Inter-American Development Bank. In 2006, an agreement with the Bogota Education Department extended the project into the district’s education policy.
Another example of how a focused, more local initiative can expand to a national level is Abuelas y Abuelos Leecuentos (‘Storytelling grandparents’) from Argentina. It was launched in 1999 by Argentine author Mempo Giardinelli to address low levels of reading for pleasure, notably among the low-income and marginalised sectors, with the idea that reading to children increases their access to books and can spark their interest in reading. Volunteer senior citizens read aloud to children in schools, children’s homes, hospitals, etc. The initiative was extended to other provinces in 2006 and since 2008 has been embedded in Argentina’s National Plan for Reading. It has been nominated four consecutive times in the Swedish Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award.
The Lét Agogo (‘Milk in Abundance’) programme was launched in Haiti in a bid to improve the living conditions of dairy farmers and their families and make the activity profitable. A local NGO launched a programme aimed at increasing production and boosting personal incomes. The result was a cooperative production model that now employs a network of milk micro producers working to increase production and thus their income levels. Since 2007 they have been supplying a number of schools in rural areas.
Since the publication of the ECLAC report, many new and extremely relevant initiatives have sprung up. Without claiming to be exhaustive, a sample can be found below, aimed at providing an overview of a variety of social initiatives from different countries within the regions.
Chana Triqui is an initiative started by four fashion students and 10 indigenous women from Mexico City, who aimed to jointly develop innovative fashion accessories and products that bring together their abilities and knowledge of tradition. Their aim is to change the perception of artisanal products and not to devalue the activity through a ‘no to bargaining’ approach. Different from many other collaborations within the fashion world, in Chana Triqui the credit for the designs is given to the indigenous women that participate in the creation of each of the pieces.
MGov is a Brazilian social enterprise that develops products and services in the field of communication, alongside education and citizens’ participation. Through SMS and interactive voice services, it offers the most vulnerable groups of the population specific products in the field of education, financial inclusion and agriculture. In 2014, the MIT Technology Review recognised it as Brazil’s most innovative social initiative. It is currently active across 4 continents.
Global restaurant chain Astrid y Gastón, with its base in Peru, not only promotes indigenous agricultural products using locally sourced ingredients in its restaurants but also contributes to generating employment and career opportunities. In 2007 it created a culinary school, where it provides free training for disadvantaged Peruvian youth. At the same time, it trains street vendors to offer locally sourced, healthy food options.
Expanding across borders
A number of social innovations in these regions have a presence across several countries, thereby demonstrating the replicability of the proposed innovations across borders.
Laboratoria is a social enterprise which empowers young women from low-income backgrounds to pursue a career in the digital sector. Their activities include the training (e.g. through boot camps), selection and placing of young women to work as web developers. The initiative was set up in Lima by 3 entrepreneurs who had a need for digitally skilled web developers for their company. Having started in 2014, it now has projects running in different locations across Latin America and has 800 graduates (80% of which have a job placement).
Socialab has a network that spans southern Latin America. It provides support and funds sustainable and innovative solutions through technology to tackle challenges related to poverty and inequality. It has several co-working spaces across various countries and offers training, consulting, coaching and funding, as well as access to a worldwide support network of social innovators. Created in Chile in 2014, it has supported over 444 projects and over 150 start-ups.
But what do all these initiatives have in common, and what is the key to their success? It all boils down to the role played by the community. All of the initiatives that have proven to be successful and sustainable over time have a strong and motivated community supporting them, simultaneously making those at the receiving end an active asset in making the change occur. There is a sense of ownership and a feeling of belonging. This is important to bear in mind, especially for international organisations seeking to implement models that have worked in other locations around the world with a similar context. Each project therefore has to be designed, built and implemented together with the community (and not merely by obtaining their support or involving them – it needs to be a real ‘joint venture and effort’).
A second factor that contributes to their success is the capacity to generate alliances and keep them alive by working for the initiative. It’s not only alliances with members of the community but also with stakeholders such as other non-governmental organisations, private bodies and other interest groups that are active in the market. Many of the examples included in this article have found long-lasting partners who support them either financially or by other means (e.g. coaching, marketing, etc.).
Of course, as with all social innovation initiatives, wherever they exist in the world, external financing is important and has proven to be key in many cases. However, funders have to understand that consolidation in the region might take longer than in Europe, for example, and is estimated to require at least five years. Stepping into initiatives in the region means shifting away from more short-term results. The more volatile changes in governments add an additional risk which funders need to be aware of. Nonetheless, many initiatives have consolidated well and even expanded their activities beyond their initial sphere of influence.
To be able to generate a wider impact and contribute to solving social problems in the area, not only the social innovation initiatives mentioned, but all those with the potential to make a real change, should grow through support from public policy and embed the lessons learned into strategies such as those aimed at fighting poverty, school drop-out rates, social inclusion, etc.
It is the grass-roots initiatives from civil society and local communities that have been able to provide an answer to social problems and challenges in the area, with valuable lessons to be learned for public policy.
Social innovation can indeed bring about changes in the region’s societies, and the success stories are sparking others to launch their own projects. There will certainly be many more successful examples in the years to come from which social innovators from other continents can learn.
Learn more at Social Innovation Academy
Interested in learning from others? Want to interact with other social innovators from all over the world and learn from their experience? EOLAS and Limitless, together with 3 other partners, have recently started a project aiming to develop the first online Social Innovation Academy in Europe. The Social Innovation Academy is the first fully online management training programme focusing exclusively on social innovation.
Why Social Innovation Academy? Social innovation is increasingly being seen as the answer to the rising number of European societal challenges. While the European authorities, leading academics, policy experts, business people and activists agree that social innovation is the key to a better future for Europe and the world, it is extremely difficult for professionals to obtain high-quality training on what social innovation actually offers and, more importantly, how it can be done in practice.
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 Naser, A., & Ramírez, A. (2014). Open government plan. A roadmap for the governments of the region.
In ECLAC: United Nations, Santiago, Chile.
 From social innovation to public policy Success stories in Latin America and the Caribbean; Nohra Rey de Marulanda and Francisco B. Tancredi, Economic Commission for Latin América and the Caribbean (ECLAC), United Nations, November 2010.
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