Node i+i brought together experts, government officials, and figures from civil society to share “social elevator pitches”: fundamental contributions towards narrowing the inequality gap in the Americas.


The great challenge the region is facing is how to promote all aspects of social inclusion. These were the watchwords that brought together government officials, experts, and figures from civil society at the event entitled Inspiring Ideas to Narrow the Inequality Gap in the Americas, which took place at Columbia University, New York, on September 25 and 26, 2015. The topics covered in this article center on social policies, civil society initiatives, innovations in health and education, the role of new technologies, and the place for regional integration, which were the subjects of the second, third, and fourth panels on Saturday, September 26. In another article we discuss Panel 1, which dealt with the creation of quality jobs.

All the presentations were concerned with successful experiences taking place in different parts of the Americas to reduce inequality. This article provides a summary of the main ideas presented by each speaker, which you can expand on by consulting the visual record of each presentation and the Node i+i website.


Social Policies and Civil Society

What general assessment can be made of the different experiences of conditional cash transfer programs in the region, in terms of their impact on income inequality? What other institutional tools from civil society can be applied to increase the scope of social policies? These were the questions put to the speakers of the second panel at the event. The different conditional cash transfer programs that have been implemented in nearly every country in the region played a central role in this debate: such programs have reached more than 130 million beneficiaries in recent years (in Spanish).

Helmut Schwarzer, National Secretary for Citizen Income at Brazil’s Ministry of Social Development, referred to the implementation of the Bolsa Familia [Family Allowance] program, one of the pioneering cash transfer programs and one that reaches the greatest number of people. He explained that there were three core parts to the program: income transfer for immediate poverty reduction, conditional transfers in the areas of health and education, and articulation with complementary programs. He said that the program currently serves 13.9 million Brazilians and that 0.5 % of the GDP is invested in it. With regard to its immediate impact, Schwarzer reported that Bolsa Familia is responsible for 12% of the reduction in income inequality that Brazil witnessed between 2000 and 2012, and that 36 million people have been lifted out of poverty as a result of it.


Next came James Riccio, Director of the Low-Wage Workers and Communities Policy Area at MDRC, who spoke about New York City’s Opportunity and Family Rewards program, a conditional cash transfer policy that aims to reduce immediate poverty and create human capital. The program is unusual in including 22 different financial incentives linked to education, preventive health care, and the employment of parents. Riccio had been asked to evaluate the initiative. In this regard, he stated that the families involved in the program had increased their monthly income by 22%, which implied a 41% reduction in the number of families living below the poverty line.

The case of Mexico was discussed by Paula Hernández Olmos, coordinator of the Prospera [Prosper] program, who stated that, in spite of the constant budget increases it had received, Mexico’s Oportunidades [Opportunities] program had not brought about significant results in poverty reduction. Unlike the country’s previous program in this area, Prospera includes university scholarships for people with special needs, incorporates 27 interventions from the catalog of universal health services, promotes family planning, and strengthens nutrition policies. It also maintains the three core areas of the previous version of the program (health, education, and nutrition).



The next speaker was Suzanne Duryea, Chief Economist at the IDB’s Social Sector, who gave a presentation on the evaluation of the Social Program of Youth and Children’s Orchestras of Venezuela. Then came the turn of Lawrence Aber, Professor at New York University, who focused on child development. The following presentation was given by Francisca Werth, Head of Coordination and Research at the Office of the Criminal Public Defender of Chile’s Ministry of Justice, who gave her thoughts on the experience of creating Neighborhood Justice Units. The main objective of the program was to improve the access of people and communities to justice by promoting the management and resolution of local or community conflicts. To this end, a “multi-door” program was created that allowed everyday problems between residents to be negotiated and managed.

Rosilene Rocha, Deputy Secretary for Work and Social Development for the State of Mina Gerais, Brazil, emphasized the importance of the provinces and municipalities in reducing regional inequalities. Likewise, Enrique Betancourt, Director of the Violence and Crime Prevention Initiative at the NGO Chemonics International, underlined the need to address the role of violence as a barrier to development.

Representatives from civil society contributed their perspectives and experiences in this area. Juan Carr, director of the Argentine NGO Red Solidaria [Solidarity Network], gave a presentation on how to organize the online community to create a culture of solidarity. This could be key to finding solutions for everyday problems that are of vital importance, such as: increasing blood donor numbers, increasing the number of volunteers who are trained in first aid, decreasing the number of traffic-related deaths, and/or minimizing hypothermia-related deaths among the homeless.


The panel was brought to a close by Paula Moreno Zapata, Director of the NGO Manos Visibles [Visible Hands] and former Minister of Culture of Colombia, who also approached the issues from a territorial perspective. Her presentation highlighted the need to map not only the weak points of our territories but also their strengths, particularly in relation to the quality of community leadership, by adopting a much-needed (and often absent) gender perspective.

The presentations revealed different facets of these types of initiatives, their achievements, the constraints they face, and recent innovations, in particular with regard to conditional cash transfer programs. In his concluding remarks, Gabriel Kessler, Professor at the National University of La Plata, underlined a series of points that make up an agenda for future discussions. First, he raised the question of what can and cannot be asked of these programs. At the end of the day, the high stakes that governments in the region have placed on these programs to alleviate exclusion may have led to too much optimism being generated around them as a vector for future change. Redefining their limitations is important if we are to avoid creating false hopes that this type of program would not be able to live up to. Secondly, he wondered if it was time to be more flexible when establishing potential benefits or conditions for the programs, by encouraging the beneficiaries themselves to put forward projects and ideas for these, along the lines of European measures such as the paradigmatic French model known as RMI (revenu minimum d’insertion, minimum income support). This implies a more symmetrical relationship between the state and citizens, who sign a sort of “integration contract” where the type of benefit is negotiated in terms of different integration-related projects.


Health, Education, and Technological Innovation

The third panel focused on the impact of health, education, and technological innovation policies on the reduction of inequality. In particular, several speakers described experiences in which new technologies helped to bridge gaps in health and education. Another question was whether there was a virtuous circle between reductions in inequalities in education and those in other areas, such as health, and finally about the role of investment in R&D in the region.

The debate was opened by Wolfgang Munar, Associate Director of the Global Health Center and Senior Scholar at the Social System Design Lab at Washington University in St. Louis, who introduced the Mesoamerica Health Program. He said that the initiative focuses on public-private articulation to narrow gaps in health equality and includes transformational solutions by extending the reach, quality, and use of basic reproductive, maternal, neonatal, and child health care services; maternal and child nutrition; and vaccination. The program had seen significant results in terms of medical care for children, pre- and postpartum care for mothers, family planning, and access to safe drinking water and sewers. Attention then turned to the impact that the program had had in Panama.


The second speaker was Miguel Santana, City Administrative Officer for the City of Los Angeles, who talked about the universalization of internet access in the city through the installation of a free broadband network. The panelist noted that the service will be provided by internet companies, while the city will be responsible for ensuring access to streets and traffic lights in order for the necessary components to be installed.

The next person to take the floor was Gustavo Rivera, New York State Senator, who spoke about the importance of knowing what the key variables are that we must act on in the field of health in order to make a significant and lasting impact. He presented a set of 13 variables related to the physical environment, socio-economic aspects, clinical care, and health-related behaviors. On this basis, he provided some examples of initiatives that were passed by the New York State Legislature in connection with the smoking ban in public schools, both inside and outside establishments, and applying the same rate of taxation to various tobacco products.

Then came the turn of Ramón Tejada Holguín, from the Office of Information Analysis and Strategic Programming of the Presidency of the Dominican Republic, who discussed the impact of extending the length of the school day in that country. The speaker argued that this measure has been successful in improving child nutrition. The following speaker was Elena Arias Ortiz, Education Senior Associate for the IDB’s Social Sector, who focused on guided usage models for technology in the classroom as tools to enhance students’ learning and performances.

Next came Marcela Escobari, Executive Director of Harvard’s Center for International Development, who discussed the use of information technologies to understand the functioning of various networks (virtual, social, infrastructure, etc.) in economic and social development. She also claimed that the poor are not connected to networks that are taken for granted by institutions and that have a huge impact on people’s daily lives, such as water, electricity, communications, transportation, virtual, and social networks.


Science and technology are fundamental tools for reducing inequality. Diego Molano Vega, Former Minister of Information and Communication Technologies of Colombia, explained Plan Colombia Vive Digital [Colombia Lives Online], a plan that was implemented with the aim of opening up internet access to all and developing a national digital ecosystem. He reported that the program aims to get 100% of the country’s municipalities connected to high-speed internet, increase internet access in rural communities, deliver tablets and computers to schools, and incorporate 4G technologies. Meanwhile, Luis Ubiñas, President of the Board of Trustees of the OAS’s Pan American Development Foundation, spoke about the role of technological innovation in the reduction of inequality.

John Burchett, Director of Public Policy for Latin America, Canada, and US States at Google, explained how helium balloons can be used to provide the entire population with internet access. The speaker confirmed that testing for the project has already begun in Latin America and that it has the huge advantage of not requiring major infrastructure works to extend broadband access to all. Frances Colon, Acting Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State at the US Department of State, discussed the importance of connecting talent through science and technology networks.

Next, Elaine Smith, Founder of the Social Progress Network in Brazil, presented the Social Progress Index, created in Washington in 2013 and which is beginning to be used in several municipalities in Brazil. The speaker mentioned that the index includes 50 indicators that are grouped into three areas: basic human needs, foundations of wellbeing, and opportunity. This third panel concluded with the presentation by Dominik Hartmann, Researcher at the MIT Media Lab, who postulated that there is a connection between a country’s productive matrix and its levels of income distribution and growth.

During the concluding remarks, Nelson Fraiman, Professor at Columbia University, said that there is a pool of ideas on experiences that articulate health, education, and technological innovation, many of which are relatively low cost, which could be used to narrow various inequality gaps in the region. The degree of innovation and creativity shown by this panel pays testimony to the fact that there are already a large number of ideas in the Americas that could be implemented throughout the length and breadth of the continent.


Regional Integration and Globalization

The questions in this panel focused on Latin America’s position in the face of the new challenges of globalization and integration in the region from the perspective of narrowing the inequality gap. Second, the issue of immigration was considered in terms of the priorities in this area, as well as Cuba’s new situation regarding its relationship with the United States.

The first speaker was John Mollenkopf, Professor at The City University of New York, who spoke about the importance of the participation of immigrants in the 2016 US elections. The speaker mentioned that 12.5% of the US population was born in another country and that another 12% are the children of immigrants. He stated that immigrants will be key players in the electoral process.

The second speaker was Josefina Vázquez Mota, Former Secretary of Social Development and Education of Mexico and Former Presidential Candidate for the PAN, who reported on the Together We Can initiative, which aims to promote the integration of Mexicans in the United States and, at the same time, help them avoid losing their ties with their country of origin. This initiative covers four areas—education, health, civic involvement, and documentation—in its efforts to promote the civic integration of immigrants and their children.


Marc Rosenblum, Deputy Director of the U.S Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute, then spoke on the impact of the immigration laws and deportation in the USA. He stated that deportations have increased substantially since 1997 and that 91% of the immigrants deported from the USA are Mexicans and Central Americans. Javier Valdés, Co-Executive Director of the NGO Make the Road New York, later discussed initiatives for the empowerment of the immigrant community in New York City.

From the public sector, Luis Henry Molina, Vice Minister of the Presidency of the Dominican Republic, explained regularization and documentation policies for migrants and the headway that has been made in terms of the right to identity. Frank Mora, Director of the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University and Former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, spoke about inter-state approaches to security.

Next came Kevin Casas Zamora, Senior Fellow of Inter-American Dialogue and Former Vice President and Minister of Planning of Costa Rica, who spoke about citizen insecurity and showed that there is a strong correlation between the human development index and the homicide rate.


The panel finished with a presentation by Ariel Bergamin, Uruguayan Ambassador to Cuba, who talked about politics as an ethical mandate and a tool for the democratic articulation of social development, emphasizing the fact that democracy requires a strengthening of citizenship and that there can be no citizens without guaranteeing the exercise of rights and promoting accountability. Julissa Reynoso, Professor at Columbia University and former US Ambassador to Uruguay, gave the panel’s closing remarks, highlighting the main ideas from the different presentations.



There is no question that during this two-day event, numerous valuable experiences and innovative initiatives were presented which are taking place throughout the length and breadth of the Americas. There is a wealth of information based on concrete experiences that can be adopted, spread, and tailored to specific national contexts, so as to contribute to regional integration and the reduction of inequalities.

Of course, much work remains to be done, but we need to recognize what is already happening and the goals that have already been achieved, so as to help explore the road ahead more effectively, learning from other countries’ experiences for the benefit of the most marginalized sectors of our populations.

In this sense, the event achieved its goal: to get to know more so as to act better in the future. The meeting kicked off what will undoubtedly be a much longer process, given that there are an enormous amount of other experiences that are helping to reduce inequalities in different areas. They make up knowledge capital that we need to be aware of if we are to take advantage of it: this awareness is one of the main objectives of Node I+I.