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Explosion of Social Innovations in Latin America and the Caribbean

1 September 2014|Op-ed

Op-ed by María Elisa Bernal, Social Affairs Officer at ECLAC, published in ECLAC Notes Nº 81 (September 2014).

ECLAC, through its Social Development Division, has been working for the last decade in the field of social innovation thanks to a contest, implemented with the Kellogg Foundation, which gives visibility to creative experiences originating in Latin America and the Caribbean. To date, we have gotten to know about 4,800 initiatives that promote participation by communities, which contribute to strengthening citizenship and democracy and can be replicated both in their countries of origin and elsewhere in the region. These are creative models, with significant and cost-efficient impacts.

Thanks to this work we can affirm that the region is experiencing an explosion of social innovations. Surely because we have never had real welfare states, civil society and community organizations have been forced to seek creative solutions to confront their difficulties. In general, they come into being as a response to situations of crisis or extreme poverty in any form. They especially tend to emerge from civil society organizations and from communities themselves, or from a virtuous combination of the two. Frequently, the community identifies the problem and has ideas for a solution but does not have the necessary technical knowledge to develop it, and therefore ask these organizations for support.

There are only a few cases of innovations emerging from governments. And this is not due to "ineptitude." Innovation implies a trial-and-error approach, which is not always successful, and this is a risk that is not easy to take within a government. Besides, its development and consolidation generally implies a time frame that exceeds government mandates.

Another important characteristic of social innovations in Latin America and the Caribbean is their capacity to develop and facilitate synergies between modern, technical knowledge and traditional and even ancestral ways. Associative models are often created in productive projects and serve as the basis for productive and commercial success. Also, they frequently have external financial support, which is key to developing the innovation as long as the funder understands its different stages and does not expect short-term results.

Despite the enormous amount of creativity deployed, the region rarely replicates these models. In general, they practically remain as pilot projects that affect only a reduced number of people. It is essential that these initiatives be expanded to improve the living conditions of large groups of the population.

The creative replica can be achieved in several ways. On the one hand, governments can turn them into government programs and public policies, after analyzing and evaluating them in depth. Although this is not common, there are examples that show it is possible. In the Brazilian Amazon, a health care model for people scattered along the riverbanks-developed by a non-governmental organization-gradually received support from local governments to the point where Brazil's Health Ministry established it as the strategy for tending to the population throughout the country's Amazon region. The "golden dream" would be for the same project to be adopted by all the countries in the Amazon basin. Civil society organizations can also participate actively in this creative initiative because, undoubtedly, they contribute to the region's social development.

The creativity that the region is demonstrating must be transformed into a path for improving the living conditions of all our citizens.