Countries in Latin America & the Caribbean, like many around the world, are dealing with severe crises of socioeconomic inequality. Across the region this manifests in dire consequences for livability, including epidemics of crime and violence, social and political conflict, and stigmatization of marginalized groups. Further compounded by the impacts of rapid urbanization and climate change, inequality is a critical impediment to the development of the region as a whole.
Within this context, isolated regions and small or mid-sized cities distant from centers of political administration, concentrated economic wealth, and centers of authoritative knowledge production face a distinct set of challenges. Across the hemisphere, dynamics affecting groups on the sub-national level often include development policies that do not adequately respond to regional needs; low mobility and connectivity due to inadequate physical and technological infrastructure; environmental and socio-economic consequences of resource extractivism; and racial or ethnic discrimination. In light of these patterns, groups acting on the regional level in different national contexts may have more in common with each other than with groups acting at different scales within the same country.
Decentralization across Latin America & the Caribbean has meant that responsibility for dealing with the consequences of inequality increasingly falls to local and regional institutions. However, in isolated regions, government leaders, planners, and activists often find this knowledge and capacity inaccessible, leaving them without key resources and technical expertise to effectively respond to planning and development challenges. Furthermore, groups situated at the socio-economic margins — particularly Afro and indigenous groups, women, and youth — bear a disproportionate burden of the consequences of uneven development.
Despite these challenges, the geographic and socio-economic margins also represent spaces of unique potential. In many of the regions where IRD has worked, distance from political and economic centers has contributed to the development of strong informal leadership networks, collective regional identities, and alternative conceptions and models of the economy – all of which become crucial assets to leverage in the pursuit of equitable development.
In response to the challenges and opportunities existing in regions at the sub-national level, IRD works with communities, practitioners, and engaged academics to co-create knowledge, initiatives, and frameworks for alternative and sustainable development. WIth a focus on generating shared wealth and democratizing the economy, IRD’s work has involved building capacity for collective and value-based entrepreneurship, supporting collective leadership development, facilitating participatory action research initiatives, and strategic planning that leverages local and regional assets to address regional disparities.
Information about IRD’s current projects and collaborations can be found below.
‘Pacific Power’ Community Innovation School
The Colombian Pacific Region is one of the most ecologically diverse areas in the world, with extraordinary natural, human and cultural resources. Yet, with respect to human development, indicators in the Pacific are some of the worst in the country, and crises of violence and displacement have recently moved the region into the national spotlight.
Beginning in 2014, a team from CoLab, in collaboration with Manos Visibles Corporation, convened a group of 60 Afro and Indigenous leaders focused on generating sustainable change in the region for workshops in the cities of Quibdó and Cali. These leaders constitute the first cohort of the ‘Pacific Power’ Community Innovation School, a new program supported by the Ford Foundation that uses leadership development and innovation methodologies to support networks of leaders exploring critical questions of economic development, political mobilization, and multi-sector collaboration on the subnational scale. The second phase of the EIC, now underway, will involve working with a consolidated group of leaders to continue to build their capacity to influence regional development agendas and to strengthen prototypes and models for shared wealth and economic democracy they have been developing over these past two years. These leaders are supported by a team of academics and practitioners, including MIT faculty and community leaders from the Northwest Bronx Coalition and the Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative.
Assessing Community Innovation Capacity in the Amazon Piedmont Region
The Amazon Piedmont is one of Colombia’s most challenging yet promising regions. Situated at the strategic intersection of the country’s Andean and Amazonian regions and home to communities with significant local knowledge around biodiversity conservation and territorial planning, the Amazon Piedmont has also been deeply affected by decades of armed conflict, displacement, and systematic criminalization of informal economic production. In light of Colombia’s ongoing peace negotiations with armed groups, regions like this are moving into the national and international spotlight as sites for investment and development aid.
In 2016 CoLab began a new initiative with a Colombian non-profit, Patrimonio Natural, focused on strengthening the capacity of community organizations in Colombia’s Amazon Piedmont Region to engage in effective deliberation and create spaces to build collective and innovative development proposals. Through this partnership, CoLab is working with Patrimonio Natural to develop a plan to assess a series of Community Innovation workshops Patrimonio Natural is implementing in the area. These workshops, focused on innovation methodologies, environment, and territorial development, are based on the Community Innovation School model and methods CoLab introduced in the Pacific Region. Through this work, both organizations seek to deepen their understanding of the conditions in which innovation occurs at the community scale and the impact it can have on territorial planning initiatives.
Using Entrepreneurship to Create Collective Value in Southern Chile
Although externally the Chilean economy is seen as a success story in Latin America, internally it suffers from many contradictions of economic and social inequality. Despite its impressive cultural and natural resources, Southern Chile has the lowest income levels of any other part of the country, and a lack of industrial diversity and high youth employment means that many young residents become interested in creating businesses to sustain themselves and their families.
In the Los Ríos Region, our partners at the Southern University of Chile (UACh) have been working with youth since 1999, combining education and entrepreneurship training to support the development of self-employment strategies. In 2012, CoLab began supporting UACh in its efforts to incorporate young parents and students from indigenous communities more intentionally into their programming. Our current joint effort, supported by the Ford Foundation, the Talloires Network, and MISTI Chile, is focused on developing a set of tools to assess and expand the program’s direct and indirect impacts among youth, organized indigenous communities, and women’s associations, both within UACh and across the Los Ríos region. Using student-to-student collaboration and technical exchange to develop these tools, CoLab and UACh aim to create a network of future professionals who have the skills, knowledge, and relationships to create businesses, policies and programs to build a more productive, equitable, and resilient economy in southern Chile.
Research from the Periphery: Building Community Capacity at Instituto Banco Palmas
The Northeast of Brazil is a region with rich and diverse assets, yet also one long affected by persistent poverty, extreme drought, and social stigma. In recent years, rising inequality has resulted in new challenges and crises including severe urban crime and violence in cities throughout the region, with the most acute impacts felt in low-income neighborhoods at the urban periphery.
In 2015 CoLab expanded its collaboration with Instituto Banco Palmas, a community organization in Fortaleza, Brazil that uses values of the solidarity economy to promote territorial development through the creation of local networks of production and consumption, micro-lending services, and circulation of a local complementary currency. During summer of 2015 CoLab and Palmas began a collaborative research project to build Palmas’ capacity to assess and intervene in the social and economic dynamics of the neighborhoods where it works – and to allow both organizations to better understand and document the implementation of economic democracy theories on the ground. As part of this work, CoLab is working with a group of young people to design a methodology for exploring how local residents experience, access and work with the material and immaterial “wealths” and “poverties” within their neighborhood. CoLab and Instituto Palmas are now exploring additional ways that neighborhood residents can use Participatory Action Research to deepen their own understanding of the economy’s workings and the structures that impact their efforts to democratize the economy.