A Philanthropic Awakening in Latin America

A Philanthropic Awakening in Latin America

Jerry Haar

For a long time standing now, “Latin American philanthropy” has been considered an oxymoron. Traditionally, wealthy Latins and corporations have had deep pockets but short hands, believing it the role of the public sector to fund charitable and philanthropic endeavors while keeping their own wealth in the family, shipping it offshore or giving it to the Church.

 

The times they-are-a- changing, however; for without much fanfare we are witnessing a growing awareness among the wealthy and corporations–principally through corporate foundations in the region–that philanthropic giving and social engagement are critically important and highly beneficial for their nations, to society, their companies and themselves. (It should be noted that most countries in Latin America use the term “private social investment” rather than philanthropy.)

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Beyond Commodities: Argentina’s dynamic biotech industry

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Source: feelgrafix

By Jerry Haar and Krystal Rodriguez

The dictionary definition of crucible is “an extremely difficult experience or situation; a severe test or trial”. This is precisely where most of Latin America finds itself with its excessive dependence on commodities as the linchpin of its economy. In good times governments spend commodity windfalls on projects or programs to garner support for the political party in power. In bad times, politicians engage in handwringing and scapegoating, and the governing party borrows excessively to make up the shortfall in revenue from commodity sales.

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Creating an Ecosystem of Innovation in Latin America

 

The last few years have not been kind to Latin America, economically speaking. And that is an understatement. The region has experienced two consecutive years of negative growth (-0.1% and -0.5%). 2017 will bring a slight improvement only.

Recognizably, the main culprits in the projected contraction are Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and Venezuela–accounting for 50% of the region’s GDP. As for foreign direct investment (FDI), inflows reached $171.84 billion in 2015, down almost 12 percent from the $195 billion in 2014. This contrasts with a 36% increase in FDI around the world. Add to the mix a continuing depression in commodity prices (slowdown in China), corruption scandals, high interest rates, and urban crime and violence, and the forecast is gloomy overall.

However, among the storm clouds that will continue to hover over the economies of the region, there are indeed a number of pockets of sunshine—the brightest being the rapid proliferation of start-ups, both tech- and non-tech based, and the pace of innovation throughout the Hemisphere. Last year, start-ups in Latin American ballooned to 1,333 and accelerators to 62, with investment approaching $32 million. Chile leads the way, with 3 times the investment of Brazil. In terms of numbers of start-ups, Chile had 442, Mexico, and Brazil 297.

While start-ups pop up serendipitously, it takes the formation of an “ecosystem” to fuel the growth, interaction, and dynamism necessary to foster and expand innovation. Ecosystems of innovation, as referred to here, are communities of interacting parties–business, government, academe and non-profit organizations. They can be national and subnational (Chile, Uruguay, Costa Rica) or can be found in clusters (aerospace in Querétero, Mexico; IT in Campinas, Brazil; sugar cane, Valle de Cauca, Colombia). As Ricardo Ernst and I point out in our new book Innovation in Emerging Markets, an ecosystem’s drivers are innovation are national policies, facilitating institutions (such as Colombia’s Colciencias), and firm-level innovation. We find also that facilitating institutions, themselves, can have far greater impact than government or individual firms. Examples include Techstars, 500 Startups, Endeavor, Wayra, and NXTP Labs.

Just what are the key ingredients that comprise a successful ecosystem of innovation? Any research-based assessment and extensive conversations with entrepreneurs, other business professionals, and government officials would most likely agree that the list encompasses:

  1. Large pool of skilled talent
  2. Installed and diffuse technological base (e.g., broadband networks)
  3. Dedicated infrastructure of research universities, labs and entrepreneurship instruction
  4. Ample funding (angel investment, venture capital, convertible debt, microfinance, crowdfunding)
  5. Networks and collaboration among financiers, entrepreneurs, scientists, technologists, and designers
  6. An environment that nurtures, supports and sustains creativity
  7. Mechanisms for the fast transfer of knowledge
  8. Strong intellectual property laws and surety of enforcement
  9. Pro-market economic, tax and regulatory policies
  10. Well-functioning administrative, legal and judicial systems
  11. Federal, state and local industrial policies—especially those targeted at “clusters”

Although Latin American ranks low on the 2015 Global Innovation Index–Chile is #1 in Latin American but #42 overall–it is the second most entrepreneurial region in the world, according to the World Bank. Its Internet and mobile density is higher than the world average.

Although covered only minimally in the North American and European media, every nation in Latin America–and the Caribbeaan–is home to start-up activities. To illustrate, Dev.F (Mexico) brings software development techniques to that nation; Platzi (Colombia) provides an online learning platform for IT and programming courses; HubUnitec (Honduras), Impact Hub (Guatemala), and Atom House (Colombia) provide co-working and meeting spaces for young techies; and initiatives like Laboratoria (Peru), Epic Queen, and WomenWhoCode assist female start-up entrepreneurs to achieve success.

As for financing start-ups, here, too a myriad of resources such as Venture Club (Panama), Kaszek Ventures, Guadalajara Angel Investors, and Ideame, a crowdsourcing financing platform.

Successful ecosystems of innovation result from the synergy created by universities, R&D centers, talented human capital, investors (venture capitalists and angel investors), professional associations, and the private sector and government working to achieve sustainable competitiveness.

While 2017 will usher in another lackluster year for the region in terms of economic performance, with only a few countries achieving notable success, the rapidly emerging ecosystem of innovation will continue unabated and provide limitless opportunities for both technology- and non-technology entrepreneurs across the region.

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Jerry Haar is a business professor at Florida International University and a global fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He also holds non-resident appointments at Georgetown and Harvard. His latest book is Innovation in Emerging Markets.

 

To devalue or not to devalue?

To devalue or not to devalue? That is the question. During the last decade, Latin American central banks have effectively steered the rudder of monetary policy, avoiding major devaluations of their currencies–with the exceptions of Argentina and Venezuela.

Recognizably, there have been incremental devaluations in the region as a country may devalue its currency to combat trade imbalances. Chile and Peru are examples. Resultingly, a nation’s exports become less expensive and, therefore, more competitive in global markets; imports become more expensive, making domestic consumers less likely to purchase them. 

While currency devaluation may appear to be a wise economic policy choice, it can surely have negative consequences. The result of imports becoming more expensive has the effect of protecting inefficient domestic producers. Higher exports relative to imports can also increase consumer demand and fuel inflation. In the case of industrial buyers from emerging markets that need imported machinery and other capital goods to produce for either the domestic or export market, currency devaluations imports more drive up the prices for their customers, squeeze their profit margins and, in the aggregate, contribute to inflation.

The “perfect storm” of a drop in oil prices, a slowdown in the Chinese economy, and sluggish consumer and industrial demand in industrialized nations is whipsawing Latin American economies, especially large commodity producers such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru. Not surprisingly, Latin American GDP is expected to grow less than 1% in 2016 with Brazil and Venezuela continuing to post negative growth rates. There is nothing on the horizon to seriously challenge this doom-and-gloom scenario.

Rather than address the real causes of economic conditions that trigger currency devaluations and respond with viable remedies, political leaders often turn to scapegoating–usually casting the blame on other nations. For example, in September 2010, Brazil’s Finance Minister, Guido Mantega, used the term “currency war” with reference to monetary policies implemented mainly by China, Japan, Thailand, South Korea, Colombia and other countries to generate an artificial devaluation of their currency in order to achieve a cheaper, more competitive domestic economy that may be attractive to foreign investors, as well as to be able to withstand the 2008 economic crisis.

More recently the term “currency manipulation” has been bandied about, most prominently among a number of U.S. presidential candidates. These contenders assert that China, specifically, undervalues its currency to gain an unfair advantage in global trade. However, devaluation and revaluation are the prerogative of sovereign monetary authorities. The U.S., in fact, manipulates its own currency through interest rate manipulation. As economist Matthew J. Slaughter points out, in today’s globally networked economy trade competitiveness tends to vary little with the movement of any one currency.

Admittedly, however, the decline in China’s yuan is fueling turbulence in financial markets across the world and could well unleash a cycle of competitive devaluations of currencies. How would a series of currency devaluations impact Latin America’s private sector? Large corporations such as JBS, Cemex, Argos, Techint, and Cencosud have the wherewithal to weather economic recession and financial volatility, while small companies, especially microenterprises, that struggle for survival in even good times will find the business environment even more challenging. But what about new businesses? Given the explosive growth of new business formation (NBF) in emerging markets, particularly Latin America, and the emergence on technology-based entrepreneurial ecosystems in major metropolitan areas throughout the Hemisphere, this question is of special importance.

In a recent study, colleagues at Colombia’s EAFIT University and I examined 30 emerging markets, including a number from Latin America, during a seven-year period to determine the impact of devaluation on NBF. We found that while devaluation clearly boosts NBF, the effect is not lasting over time and loses significance after two years–even sooner if a country’s competitiveness is not strong to begin with.

Luis Videgaray, Mexico’s finance minister opined about competitive devaluations in a recent speech at the Foreign Ministry in Mexico City: “It’s frankly a perverse process, because at the end of the day if all countries engage in a competitive devaluation, no one becomes more competitive, and you generate financial dislocations.”

Should the next twelve months witness a resurgence of growth in China, a reversal in commodity prices, and faster economic growth in Europe and the U.S., currency devaluation as a monetary prescription will be relegated to the back burner of economic policy.

That will surely make 2016 a happy new year for Latin America.

Jerry Haar is a business professor at Florida International University and a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. He is also a research affiliate of the David Rockefeller Center of Latin American Studies at Harvard University.

Radical Islam’s Latin American Connection

By Jerry Haar

In the aftermath of the barbarity inflicted by Islamic terrorists in France, five Syrians heading to the United States with fake Greek passports were arrested in Honduras. When queried, one of them stated they were “students.” At that point, it became alarmingly clear that Latin America could well serve as a launch pad for Islamic terrorists to attack the United States.

In his March testimony before Congress, General John Kelly, head of the U.S. Southern Command, warned lawmakers that Islamic extremists are radicalizing converts and other Muslims in Latin America, and that the Islamic State could exploit trafficking organizations in the region to infiltrate the United States.

Additionally, it has been increasingly common for Muslims from Mexico to change their Islamic surnames to Hispanic-sounding names to facilitate moving across the border.

Islamic terrorism is not new to Latin America. In 1992 Islamic Jihad bombed the Israeli Embassy in Argentina, killing 29 and injuring 250. In 1994, Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, were responsible for bombing AMIA, a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, killing 87 and injuring over 100 people.

Beginning in 1999 with the rise to power of Hugo Chávez, the locus of terrorist-supported activity gravitated northward from Argentina to Venezuela. The Venezuelan leader and Iran’s then president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, quickly forged a close relationship between their two countries and ramped up their adversarial campaign against the United States.

Venezuela became a de facto subsidiary for Iranian terrorism in the Western Hemisphere through Hezbollah’s Rabbani and Nasseredine networks and has established more than 80 “cultural centers” to promote their brand of Islam in the region.

While Iran’s Shi’a Islamists have had “first mover” advantage over Sunnis in penetrating Latin America, both are actively spreading their reach in the region, which is home to 4 million Muslims, more than half residing in Brazil and Argentina and the rest primarily in Central America, Ecuador, Chile, Mexico and Trinidad and Tobago.

Radical Islamists are especially active in the Tri-Border area (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay), a notorious locale known for smuggling, piracy, money laundering and drug dealing. Strategic alliances abound between radical Islamists and criminal networks such as Colombia’s FARC and Mexico’s Zetas.

Unfortunately, Latin America’s horrendous prison system is a breeding ground for jihadists, via conversion to Islam among prisoners; and far too often governments take a stance of neutrality toward Islamic terrorism, thereby making the region a safe haven for them. While counterterrorism and surveillance efforts, including bilateral and multilateral cooperation, have improved in recent years, the lack of sufficient financial resources and highly trained personnel remains a critical issue.

For Islamic terrorists to target the United States, the best foreign region from which to operate is Latin America. Intelligence agencies report that there are sleeper cells in the Tri-Border area; and it is conceivable that they could link up with their counterparts in U.S. cities such as Dearborn, Michigan, and Paterson, New Jersey.

In the wake of the Paris bombings and shootings, I queried several U.S. intelligence experts about the chance of an ISIS attack on the U.S. homeland, emanating from Latin America. Their uniform response? “Highly likely.”

With porous borders, transnational criminal organizations, sophisticated smuggling networks and the dubious ability of Latin American governments to detect and intercept terrorists, it is imperative that the U.S. government double or even triple its efforts in aiding our neighbors to the south to prevent radical Islamists from conducting heinous activities in the Western Hemisphere. “Not in our backyard” should be the watchwords of the day.

This article is originally published in the Miami Herald.

Jerry Haar is a business professor at Florida International University and a Global Fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He is also a research affiliate at Harvard University’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies.