Marta Pérez Cuso
Marta Pérez Cusó leads ESCAP’s programme on inclusive technology and innovation policies to promote technologies and innovations that leave no one behind. She also leads ESCAP’s work on promoting enabling policy environments for inclusive business in ASEAN.

She has over 18 years’ work experience with the United Nations providing policy advice on science, technology and innovation (STI) and information and communication technology policies to governments across Asia and Latin America.

Before joining ESCAP, Ms. Pérez Cusó worked with UNCTAD and Oxfam GB. She holds an MSc in Development Management, Open University UK and is fluent in Spanish, English, French and Catalan.

Promoting Inclusive Business and innovation in ASEAN

Interview with Marta Pérez Cusó, Economic Affairs Officer, United Nations ESCAP
East Asia and Pacific
24. Nov 2021

The Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) is the most inclusive intergovernmental platform in the Asia-Pacific region. The Commission promotes cooperation among its 53 member States and 9 associate members in pursuit of solutions to sustainable development challenges. ESCAP is one of the five regional commissions of the United Nations.

The Fourth ASEAN Inclusive Business Summit was held in September in Brunei Darussalam. In your opinion, what were the key accomplishments of the Summit?

The Summit was a consolidation of all of the efforts that have been taking place in the ASEAN region. The absolute number of participants grew exponentially. We have also seen interest from a wider audience. I really like that we are now starting to look more into the details of how we implement the Guidelines for Promoting Inclusive Business in ASEAN. There were lots of insights into how we coach businesses to develop inclusive business models, and how accreditation systems can encourage businesses that want to go beyond the bottom line. The Summit was also a magnificent opportunity to increase visibility for businesses that already have an inclusive business model. Several Cambodian companies have just been accredited.

Why is IB accreditation important for developing resilient, inclusive businesses? What doors does it open for companies?

The accreditation serves two purposes. One is to recognize those firms that have an inclusive business model. Recognition may lead to economic incentives if the government has established such incentives. Sometimes it can also open the doors for these firms, and enable them to have greater access to agencies who want to collaborate, to partnerships, or to enhanced facilitation, because they are recognised as companies that go beyond the bottom line.

The second value of accreditation is that the process of accreditation itself, as the business model is analyzed, is a learning process that helps discover opportunities for fine-tuning that business model in a way that can develop more depth of social impact.

ESCAP recently released the publication “Frontiers of inclusive innovation.” How can governments best promote inclusive innovation?

The ESCAP publication starts with a very simple premise. Governments have been promoting science, technology and innovation for many years, but often focusing only on promoting economic competitiveness and productivity growth. What if science, technology and innovation policies also look at the broader Sustainable Development Goals and how science and technology can also support achieving social goals and environmental sustainability? There are many dimensions of inclusivity: economic, social, geographic (e.g. urban versus rural areas). For example, how do you ensure that everyone has access to mobile phones? The report covers a number of perspectives of how governments can develop more inclusive innovation policies. Supporting grassroots innovation, that is recognizing innovations by low-income communities, is one of them. Other approaches include, for instance promoting inclusive digital economy strategies or promoting inclusive businesses.

Can you share some examples of how governments have supported inclusive innovation from your research and experience?

The report is based on the experience of ESCAP over the last four years in promoting more inclusive innovation policies. We are sharing lessons learned in the areas we have worked. The report illustrates how to bring in different perspectives when designing a national science and innovation policy to make it inclusive. Bringing in different stakeholders into the policy formulation process, helps identify the innovation and technology needs of various groups. For example, what is important for women? What barriers do academics face when doing research, and what barriers do small and large companies face when innovating? ESCAP supported the co-creation of a national science, technology and innovation policy with inclusivity in mind and an implicit intent to introduce an inclusive dimension in the process of its formulation and the analysis used to inform the discussions.

Another example provided in the report is the efforts of Digital Pathways at Oxford and ESCAP to develop inclusive digital economy strategies in Bangladesh and Mongolia using the Digital Economy Toolkit developed by Digital Pathways at Oxford. The Toolkit takes governments through a process of discussing and analyzing opportunities for developing a digital economy, and introduces an inclusive element in that process. That has brought more attention and support for using digital platforms to connect those in the informal sector, for ensuring that infrastructure is expanded so everyone can have access, and for addressing gender gaps.

What major technology advances do you foresee that will expand opportunities for all and help reach the SDGs?

Let me be a bit controversial on that. I think that there are already many technologies that can be used for helping us achieve the Sustainable Development Goals; it is a matter of how we make them affordable, relevant and expand their use. There is a point of view that technology is a silver bullet. It’s a tool, and we already have many tools. The question is how to make them affordable, how we ensure that people have the skills they need to use these technologies, or how do we design them so more people can use them.

Do you think that inclusive businesses should emphasize their ability to deliver on both environmental and social goals, since often the social impact is highlighted more than their environmental impact?

As per the G20 definition of Inclusive Business, the inclusive businesses focus on delivering goods, services and livelihood opportunities to low-income people, but if you look at the bigger picture, we cannot solve poverty if we don’t address climate change and support environmental sustainability.

What kind of trends in Inclusive Business do you foresee for the coming year?

I’m looking forward to seeing how governments start implementing some of these strategies, and how that translates into more services on the ground supporting the emergence and growth of inclusive businesses. ESCAP has developed a partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to support inclusive business models in agriculture and food systems, at the policy level and also on the ground. As this continues to develop, I’m sure we will focus more on measuring impact, and looking at the gender dimension and women’s economic empowerment. Lastly, an important issue to watch is the nexus with environmental sustainability.