Roberta Jacobson at the Social Inclusion Index launch. (Image: Astrid Rieckenas)


Summary – Launch and Public Panel: Social Inclusion in the Americas

By Ivana Mellers

Speakers highlighted the benefits of and difficulties with collecting ethnicity and race data.


  • Roberta Jacobson, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, U.S. Department of State
  • Judith Morrison, Senior Advisor for the Gender and Diversity Division, Inter-American Development Bank (IDB)
  • Carlos Quesada, Executive Director, International Institute on Race, Equality, and Human Rights
  • Susan Segal, President and CEO, Americas Society/Council of the Americas
  • Alana Tummino, Senior Editor, Americas Quarterly and Director of Policy, Americas Society/Council of the Americas
  • Mauricio Vivero, CEO, Seattle International Foundation
  • Elizabeth Zechmeister, Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), Vanderbilt University


Americas Society/Council of the Americas and the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs held a September 10 launch event for America Quarterly’s Social Inclusion Index 2015 in Washington, DC. The State Department’s Roberta Jacobson made opening remarks regarding the value of the Social Inclusion Index and Washington’s initiatives to promote dialogue with traditionally marginalized groups. A panel of experts followed, discussing the Index as well as the observance of the beginning of the International Decade of People of African Descent. Speakers highlighted the difficulties of collecting ethnicity and race data in the region, cited areas for improvement, and emphasized the importance of using census data in governance and policymaking.

The Social Inclusion Index allows for comparisons to be made over time and across the region. It can help drive policy decisions by documenting how people across the Americas feel represented by their governments. The addition of a new ethno-racial indicator provides policymakers with a wider knowledge of populations in the Americas, allowing for more comprehensive decision-making.

Data Collection and the Incorporation of Historically Marginalized Groups

Jacobson opened the panel by affirming that, when it comes to Washington’s policy initiatives in the Western Hemisphere, “none of our efforts towards growth will be sustainable unless they are socially and economically inclusive.” In order to create inclusive policies, accurate data collection is crucial.
While hurdles exist to collecting census data throughout the region, particularly among historically marginalized groups such as indigenous peoples and African descendant populations, panelists pointed out organizations and governments that are successfully gathering census data. The IDB’s Judith Morrison praised such institutions that have engaged in dialogue with constituents, stating that they are advancing the cause for social inclusion, even in violent regions where access is limited. From her own experience, Vanderbilt University’s Elizabeth Zechmeister outlined how the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) is reaching these marginalized populations through nationally representative studies. LAPOP surveyed households in urban and rural areas across socioeconomic, racial and ethnic boundaries. Carlos Quesada of International Institute on Race, Equality, and Human Rights insisted that local populations must be involved in the census process at the design phase, where both the question and how it is asked need to be taken into consideration. Quesada used his home country of Costa Rica as an example, where the Afro-Costa Rican population registered on census data rose from 1.9 percent to 7 percent after Afro-Costa Ricans were consulted in the survey design process.

Gaps in Inclusion

As AS/COA’s Susan Segal pointed out: “it is not only growth that is important, but it is socially inclusive growth, which drives the lives of citizens.” In line with that sentiment, AS/COA’s Alana Tummino said that Americas Quarterly has seen improvements in the region across the four years of the Index tracking social inclusion, such as “gains in access to adequate housing, poverty reduction and financial inclusion.”
However, Tummino and her fellow panelists noted areas where “women, indigenous, and Afro-descendant populations still lag in many…indicators when compared to the general population.” Zechmeister maintained that women feel less empowered than men, stating that “work needs to be done to make bridges to female populations to promote their inclusion in politics.” Generally, there were not many gender gaps in perceptions of government responsiveness. However, across every country in the region, women felt less empowered than men. According to Quesada, Latin America struggles with discrimination against LGBTQ populations in the labor market. These gaps expose room for growth in policymaking in the region, because, as Morrison stated, “development is really about understanding gaps.” 

The Importance of Data in Decision-Making

Census data is powerful instrument to influence policy decisions. “The discussion of social inclusion is not a new topic, but what is new is the number of leaders targeting social inclusion as a critical part of their platform,” said Segal. Seattle Foundation’s Mauricio Vivero discussed the value of the Social Inclusion Index from a philanthropic standpoint, saying: “Good research can be a fantastic driver for social change.” Quesada added that the primary purpose of a census is to accurately collect data to give governments the tools to help populations in need and allocate resources. “When we are discussing a census, we are talking about politics because they have an impact,” he said. Data collection can then be used to inform the allocation of resources. Quesada pointed out that constituents will be more motivated to participate if they see results from census data.