For many years, Latin America has been seen as a collection of some very forward-thinking and mature countries and others that still have a long way to go, when measured against OECD average metrics. As a consequence, the region has been unfairly dubbed “emerging” and “under-developed”.

Even though the two biggest economies in the region account for a substantial amount of its economic growth and evolution, increasingly it is the smaller countries that are taking major leaps into modernizing their economies and the way they relate to their citizens.

Let’s take Central America, for example, an area formed by seven countries that have historically been afflicted by political disruption, economic stress and the large-scale emigration of people looking for better and more stable conditions. Being so tightly integrated, the region has understandably been treated as a single economic entity. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Countries such as Guatemala, Costa Rica and Panama have taken major steps in transforming their economies and institutions; their strong economic growth in recent years  providing proof of their progress.

And what has helped these countries accelerate their evolution? For one thing, they understand that there is a broad base of young people driving economic dynamism and putting new demands on the state, bringing about a dramatic shift in society. These countries understand that the fastest way to transform institutions, anticipate change and prevent their governments from falling behind the curve is to take full advantage of new technology.

This requires the sort of technology infrastructure that can provide the foundation for a diverse and well-deployed telecoms industry, a local IT industry, a government IT policy and top-tier data-centre infrastructure. The telecoms sector needs to be competitive if it is to give people the tools to fully participate in society through, for example, increasing the use of mobile and broadband.

Wider uptake of mobile connectivity not only serves the basic purpose of improving communication, but also provides an opportunity to collect data from a population that is becoming more eager to participate. Collection of better-quality data in countries where, in the past, statistics have been unreliable or non-existent is a huge step. It allows governments to design public policies around the demands of citizens and target the use of scarce budgetary resources into solving the most important issues, with data being the driver of those decisions.

Seeing how technological change has benefited other economies, some of the smaller, less developed countries are waking up. They realize that embracing new technologies means improving the sustainability of their economic growth and the well-being of their population. Meanwhile, their delay has enabled them to bypass a whole generation of older technology that they may not have had the chance to implement.

Today, technology is literally in the hands of the many, and sometimes we don’t appreciate the power that a single device in our pocket can give us. This fact, combined with the power of Cloud technologies, data analytics, mobile apps and a younger, more tech-aware population, allows citizens and governments to actively engage with one another. Citizens benefit from easier access to state services and support, while governments benefit from the ability to better direct their spending to those parts of society that provide the greatest welfare gains from state investment, such as education.

There has been no better time for governments of small and large countries, developed or under-developed, to reform old institutions and embrace change, helped along by the unprecedented support that IT can provide.

It is important that those who understand technology and those who are responsible for designing technology policy sit at the same table. The decision of many Latin American countries to hire a chief information officer proves that some degree of importance is being placed on how IT is shaping public policies. Hopefully, the technology gap is now at the top of the agenda for regulators and politicians looking to accelerate development and improve the well-being of their populations.

Author: Sergio Rosengaus is co-founder and chief executive officer of KIO Networks

Image: A local surfs the Web in the street in the northern Salamanca town December 15, 2006. Salamanca, 200 miles (316 km) north of the capital Santiago, became Chile’s first WiFi town in September. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado