Development & Aid, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Poverty & SDGs

URUGUAY: Northern Slum on the Front Line of the Millennium Goals

Raúl Pierri

MONTEVIDEO, Jun 19 2006 (IPS) - Alongside the meetings and efforts of governments and international agencies to meet the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, anonymous heroes and heroines in different parts of Uruguay are throwing themselves daily into the front line of the struggle against poverty.

They do not generally attend seminars or conferences, and often have no official backing. They are just people who do what they can to tackle social problems, giving their time and energy to find solutions that make a difference.

But for once, the part played by local communities in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) was highlighted at an international meeting on “Cooperation and Development in Uruguay: the Challenge of Local Development,” organised by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Jun. 12-14 in Montevideo, the Uruguayan capital.

The MDGs, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2000, are to halve extreme poverty and hunger, achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality and empower women, cut maternal mortality by three-quarters and infant mortality by two-thirds, and combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases. The specific goals are to be met by 2015, based on 1990 reference levels.

“Local communities are the places where strategies to fight poverty become concrete, through concerted action by different multilateral agencies and national and municipal governments,” Pablo Mandeville, the resident representative of UNDP in Uruguay, said at the meeting.

One of the many people in the front line of the war on poverty is María Elena Curbelo, a medical doctor who works as a volunteer in Las Láminas, a slum neighbourhood outside the northern town of Bella Unión.

This shantytown of 180 families is considered by many to be the nadir of poverty in this country of 3.3 million people, whose economy collapsed in 2002 after three years of recession. The final blow was the late-2001 financial crisis that shook neighbouring Argentina, on which Uruguay depended for one-third of its trade.

Thanks to the efforts of Curbelo and a dozen other people who work with her, a significant reduction in child mortality has been achieved in Las Láminas, independently of any local organisation or official authority.

Uruguay, a country that has traditionally had a strong welfare state and social policies, was alarmed when the dire poverty in Bella Unión came to light in 2003, after a hepatitis epidemic broke out. Suddenly, the media took an interest in the plight of the people living on the outskirts of the town, which is 615 kilometres north of the capital and a stone’s throw away from the Brazilian border.

At that time, the infant mortality rate in Bella Unión was 55 per 1,000 live births, compared to the national ratio of 15 per 1,000. And the average weight of children there was similar to that of children in some African countries.

The coverage of the situation in the area did not provoke any particular reaction from the Uruguayan government of the time, headed by the conservative Jorge Batlle (2000-2005), but civil society did respond. The town was quickly flooded with donations in an outpouring of solidarity from trade unions, schools and families all over the country.

The Las Láminas community used the donations to put together food baskets which were delivered regularly for one year to the homes of the girls and boys with the lowest weights. Thanks to this, infant mortality fell to 17 per 1,000 live births.

The second of the eight MDGs is to “ensure that all boys and girls complete a full course of primary schooling,” but in many parts of the developing South this is prevented by high levels of poverty.

Ninety percent of the children in Las Láminas are or have been undernourished, 99 percent suffer from anaemia and more than 90 percent are failing or have fallen behind in school.

“The problem is that children under the age of two who are undernourished suffer irreversible deficiency in growth and brain development, from which they cannot recover. By the time they are three, it is too late. Even if they do go to school, they will fail time and again,” Curbelo explained to IPS.

In response to the problem, in January the community of Las Láminas opened a children’s centre for early intervention, which looks after 25 preschool boys and girls who were premature or undernourished. They are given physiotherapy, food and medicine.

The centre was built thanks to donations collected through a local television programme. The medicines are donated by a local hospital, and the nurses and doctors, including Curbelo, work there on an entirely voluntary basis.

Another MDG is to “reduce by three-quarters the maternal mortality rate.”

Last week the people of Las Láminas opened a clinic in coordination with the ministry of Public Health, with funds donated by Uruguayans living abroad. Soon they will have a gynaecologist to care for the large number of teenage mothers in the neighbourhood. A series of talks is also planned, to provide information on preventing unwanted pregnancies.

Objective number 11 of the MDGs is to “achieve significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers, by 2020.”

In Las Láminas, housing and access to water and electricity are still major problems. “The government offered to relocate the residents, but they want to go on living here,” Curbelo said.

There are a total of 153,000 Uruguayans living in 412 informal settlements, 300 of which are on the outskirts of Montevideo, according to the latest figures from the National Institute of Statistics, dating from 1998.

There are other examples of individual efforts to fight poverty in this country, such as the experience of cooperative working and living in the self-managing Community of the South, founded in 1955.

The group of six families collectively own 17 hectares just outside of Montevideo, cultivate the land together and sell their excess produce, with the proceeds channeled back into the community.

They solved their housing problem on their own through mutual solidarity, building their houses with wood, mud bricks and straw, Rubén Prieto, a member of the community, told IPS.

Work is divided among the members: some take charge of the cooking and cleaning, others do the farming, while others run the community preschool and teach farming skills to the young.

In Prieto’s view, the biggest challenge in the fight against poverty is bringing about a change in mentality.

“A personal transformation is necessary, to be able to be self-sustaining and create relationships of solidarity, in the midst of a society that teaches each one to fight for his or her own interests. A more cooperative vision and a special sensitivity are needed,” he said.

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