Answering the call: Microsoft’s support for VP Harris’ initiative to promote economic opportunity in Central America

Children in Santa Rosa on computers

Editor’s Note: On December 13, 2021, Microsoft provided an update on progress on its initial commitments, as well as announced new commitments, as part of the Administration’s Call to Action. Microsoft has catalyzed the development of digital access training centers, clean off-grid energy and broadband access covering a population of 1.1 million people. The company has also engaged more than 100,000 individuals in soft technical and digital skills training. Additional details are available in the White House Fact Sheet.

Microsoft’s roots in Central America are not only deep but broad. We opened our first office in Guatemala in 1995 and soon followed in El Salvador and Honduras. A decade later, we became acquainted with many talented youths from these countries as we provided pro bono legal representation in U.S. immigration proceedings for children separated from their families. This led us, in 2008, to cofound Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), a leading national organization that works to ensure that no refugee or immigrant child faces immigration court alone.

Through our presence and work in this region, we’ve developed a deeper understanding and perspective on the root causes of the waves of migrants coming from Central America’s Northern Triangle. The countries that comprise this region each have their own unique economies and cultures but share some common challenges that have contributed to this migration.

As a company and through our work to enhance protection for these children, we have long advocated for a serious and sustained investment in the region to address the needs of families and children that live in the Northern Triangle. Strengthening the rule of law, advancing citizen empowerment and participation, and expanding economic opportunities are all essential. We believe that strategic multisector partnerships among governments, the private sector, philanthropic organizations and civil society will help promote stability and the economy for those who call Central America home.

Strong U.S. leadership is critical. That’s why we have wholeheartedly answered the Call to Action by Vice President Kamala Harris and the White House to build on our presence and commitment to this region by joining 12 global companies and organizations to promote economic opportunity.

What one company can do is always limited, but together we put ourselves on a path to make real progress and improve the lives of the residents of the Northern Triangle. At Microsoft, we will contribute in three ways: by increasing access to broadband, providing digital skilling and supporting regional efforts to fight corruption with data and technology.

Broadband is the foundation for 21st-century economic development

First, broadband can play a powerful role in invigorating the economy and building a brighter future for the residents of the Northern Triangle. You can’t participate in the 21st-century economy unless you have access to 21st-century infrastructure, and that means having access to a broadband connection – it’s essential for the digital transformation of local businesses, government processes and the creation of 21st-century jobs. But the Northern Triangle countries fall short of the regional benchmark for broadband. Broadband penetration in El Salvador is 57%, Guatemala is 41% and Honduras is 37%. As with other regions of the world, the broadband gap disproportionately impacts rural areas where fiber and mobile wireless networks are less prevalent due to smaller populations and lower density. This lack of broadband access in rural areas exacerbates the challenges inherent in fostering local economic empowerment, 21st-century skilling and inclusive access to online information, services and solutions.

This gap was further laid bare during the pandemic when 137 million students missed out on an average of 174 days of learning when schools closed, many of which have not reopened.

We have two specific commitments in the space. Through Microsoft’s Airband Initiative, we aim to close the digital divide and bring high-speed internet connectivity to unconnected communities around the world. In these countries, we are partnering with Albavision to expand broadband access to up to 3 million rural inhabitants in this region.

We will also expand our work with partner New Sun Road to establish solar-powered community centers to provide broadband, digital skills, devices, educational experiences and mentorship to women and youths in rural and high-migration areas. We have already started work on 10 community hubs in rural Guatemala and, by next July, we are committed to doubling that number.

Digital skilling and jobs capacity can be an economic accelerant

These three countries also face significant economic challenges, with only half of the regional population able to engage in economic production for pay or profit, according to USAID. We have made headway in the region with our global skilling initiative, which has reached more than 53,000 people in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras with digital skills for the Covid-19-affected economy, with top learning paths in customer service and IT support.

Building on this work, Microsoft will partner with the public, private and nonprofit sector to train individuals, especially youths, in key skills to help unlock opportunities in education, entrepreneurship and employment. Our efforts will connect people to skills and certifications, ultimately seeking to link learners to job and livelihood opportunities so they can earn a living and thrive in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Addressing integrity risks and creating accountability by Increasing government transparency

Microsoft is investing in technology to increase government transparency and accountability and identify risks, while exploring data science capacity to guide more effective interventions and address community needs. Further to our partnership with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the flagship project is the digital platform MapaInversiones, created by the IDB with support from Microsoft in 2014 to increase government transparency, accountability and cast a light on integrity risks. More than 10 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean are using MapaInversiones to track public expenses and enable citizens to monitor government spending in real time.

Additionally, through IDB’s innovation laboratory we are exploring the use of data science capacity and machine learning-based tools to guide more effective and equitable social and economic interventions in the Northern Triangle in partnership with civil society and ensure a responsible use of technology.

We see technology as a resource and a platform to promote inclusive opportunity, protect fundamental rights and support a sustainable future. Through this new partnership, we hope to promote economic development and financial inclusion in this region. These types of solutions have the potential to literally safeguard the lives and well-being of Central American children and families who would otherwise face a dangerous journey in search of brighter opportunities and stability.

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