Here’s how to move the needle on standards of living in the Americas

As political, civic, and business leaders gather this week in Los Angeles for the Summit of the Americas, we’ll hear a great deal about job creation. These efforts to boost employment are essential — but by themselves, are not sufficient. 

Jobs alone won’t solve the overlapping crises of migration, inflation and vast societal inequities that exist in many pockets of the Americas, much less the continued challenges of climate change and pandemic response. 

To lift the health of the Americas, we must raise the standard of living for broad swaths of the population through an intentional and determined focus on creating inclusive growth

What does inclusive growth require? Above all, it requires discarding the notion that the absolute number of jobs is the only, or most important, metric to track in a program of economic growth. It requires breaking through silos and bringing together multiple sectors to build a web of interrelated programs, from extending internet access and telehealth in remote communities to offering high-quality childcare to support women entering the workforce. Inclusive growth is a surround-sound approach to nurturing a better quality of life — the difference between a lone musician banging on a bass drum and a well-orchestrated symphony. 

Inclusive growth is not a novel concept. Regional development banks have been promoting the approach for years. But many countries in the Americas have struggled to put the idea into practice because their civic institutions are weak and their social fabric is frayed. Citizens don’t trust their leaders to govern fairly or transparently; they don’t expect public works or social services to benefit them; they don’t see a point in starting a business or developing a new idea because they know corruption and crime will undermine their venture.  

This all adds up to a loss of hope — and, too often, spurs citizens’ determination to flee their home country at any cost. To address these failures, U.S. civic and business leaders have convened the largest public-private-academic partnership ever assembled for international development. The Partnership for Central America (PCA), which will be participating in this week’s summit, aims to catalyze inclusive growth with packages of strategic investments tailored to the specific needs of communities across Northern Central America. While the PCA is just getting underway, we believe it can make a significant difference by following a strategy of inclusive growth. 

As leaders in public health, analytics, and data science, we have recently teamed up to support this initiative by developing an Impact Metrics Dashboard for Northern Central America. This dashboard allows — for the first time ever — analysis of the social fabric down to the neighborhood level. In each individual community, dashboard users can see how many adults intend to migrate, how many trust the government and how many retain hope for the future. They can then correlate these data with dozens of other localized metrics, such as employment status, educational attainment, exposure to violence — even access to high-quality childcare, internet, banks and health clinics.  

The dashboard offers an unmatched window into living conditions and attitudes at the neighborhood level. And we believe it can become a game-changer for inclusive growth. 

As an example, let’s compare two hotspots of migration from Guatemala: Joyabaj and San Marcos. Both send a disproportionate share of adults across the U.S. border. But the underlying reasons differ. The Impact Metrics Dashboard lets policymakers and investors zoom in on the key concerns in each community. 

In Joyabaj, a small mountain community with a heavily indigenous population, the malnutrition rate is one of the world’s highest; more than half of all children have stunted growth. It takes, on average, nearly four hours to walk to the nearest primary health facility. Concern about the high cost of goods dominates. And nearly 70 percent of adults believe the country’s economy has gotten worse in the past year.  

In San Marcos, an important commercial corridor on Guatemala’s western border, the cost of goods still dominates as the issue of top concern. But adults rank frustration with the education system as just as important to them as unemployment — a marked difference from the ratings in Joyabaj. That may be because an estimated 22 percent of adults in the region have no formal education, compared to just 12 percent in Joyabaj. 

These insights will help the partnership shape and target investment strategies to more effectively tackle local needs at a scale never before possible.  

It’s clear that both areas need jobs, but an inclusive growth strategy for Joyabaj might also focus on improving access to affordable food and other staples, while in San Marcos, the emphasis might be on skills training that opens authentic paths to economic self-sufficiency. Robust packages of interventions, customized to address local needs, could help ease the feeling of hopelessness that grips both communities — which, in turn, could help curb illegal migration. 

Just as important, the dashboard can track the impact of these interventions over time, using both quantitative metrics such as unemployment numbers and more qualitative metrics such as hope and trust. With those impact evaluations in hand, the Partnership for Central America can then fine-tune its intervention strategies in near real-time. 

We hope this precision approach to driving inclusive growth takes root across the Americas. It goes beyond crucial efforts to create jobs and is essential to building a healthier, happier, and more equitable world. And that can’t wait. 

Michelle A. Williams is the dean of Faculty at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Patricia Geli is executive director of the Reform for Resilience Commission’s Americas Hub. Jim Clifton is the chairman and CEO of Gallup. Ben Leo is a co-founder and the CEO of Fraym.