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

DEVELOPMENT: Latin America Ahead on MDGs – Except for Poverty

Diego Cevallos*

MEXICO CITY, Jul 3 2007 (IPS) - Latin America is leading the developing world in terms of statistical progress towards most of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). However, it is failing on the main goal: halving the proportion of people living in poverty.

The percentage of people living on a dollar a day or less in Latin America fell only slightly, from 10.3 to 8.7 percent from 1990 to 2004 – not a big enough drop to put the region on track to meeting the MDG poverty target by 2015.

And in terms of distribution of wealth, the news is no better, because the poorest segment of the population’s share actually shrank, from 2.8 to 2.7 percent.

These are some of the findings of the ‘Millennium Development Goals Report 2007’ released Monday by the United Nations based mainly on 2004 statistics compiled by more than 20 organisations both within and outside the U.N. system.

More recent figures, from 2006, collected by IPS correspondents in several countries indicate that Latin America continues to lag in terms of the fight against poverty. Furthermore, experts consulted cast doubt on official data reflecting slight improvements and questioned the effectiveness of government poverty alleviation programmes.

According to the U.N. report, the proportion of people living on a dollar a day in the developing world fell 11.7 percent – from 31.6 to 19.9 percent – on average between 1990 and 2004.

And although Latin America and the Caribbean have a smaller proportion of poor people than other developing regions, the decline in this part of the world was a mere 1.6 percent.

The first of the eight MDGs, which were adopted by the international community in 2000, is to reduce by half the proportion of people suffering extreme poverty and hunger by 2015, from 1990 levels.

The rest are: achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality and maternal health, reduce child mortality, combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, ensure environmental sustainability, and develop a global partnership for development.

Latin America and the Caribbean increased primary education coverage from 87 to 97 percent between 1990 and 2005, while non-agricultural female employment rose from 37 to 42 percent in that same period.

The report says women in the region also made progress in terms of political representation, with the proportion of women holding seats in parliament increasing to 20 percent in 2007, up from 12 percent in 1990.

On the health front, the report notes that countries in the region made significant progress in cutting infant mortality, from an average of 54 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1991 to 31 in 2005.

It also points to improvements in maternal health care, with 89 percent of births in the region now attended by skilled health personnel. However, in some of the poorer countries in the region, especially in Central America, the quality of maternal health services remains spotty.

In its follow-up on progress towards the MDGs, the U.N. praises the situation in Latin America overall, but warns that progress towards eradicating poverty has been slow, and that “inequality remains the highest in Latin America and the Caribbean and in sub-Saharan Africa, where the poorest fifth of the people account for only about three per cent of national consumption (or income).”

That is true despite the fact that gross domestic product (GDP) grew by an average of four percent a year between 2002 and 2006, and will continue to grow this year, according to the Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).

Some 205 million people in this region continue to live in poverty, while 79 million are in extreme poverty, the regional U.N. agency reported.

To measure poverty more accurately than the “dollar a day” guideline, most governments in the region have updated the criteria they use, and have implemented special programmes aimed at bringing down poverty levels. However, these have not brought the hoped-for effects.

In Mexico, for example, the “Oportunidades” social assistance programme was launched five years ago to provide aid in the form of funds and nutritional and health assistance to 25 million poor people at a cost of 9.5 million dollars a day. In order to remain in the system, families must keep their children in school, and mothers must attend health classes along with their children.

But despite this effort, the proportion of people in extreme poverty – defined as those who cannot cover their basic dietary needs, with the cutoff being an income of 1.60 dollars a day or less in rural areas and up to 2.20 dollars a day in urban areas – rose from 17.3 to 18.2 percent between 2004 and 2006, after falling from 20.3 percent in 2002.

In Venezuela, according to the National Institute of Statistics, 30 percent of the country’s 6.3 million households were poor and 9.1 percent were extremely poor as of late 2006, compared to 34.9 and 9.3 percent, respectively, in 1990.

To tackle poverty, the government has channeled windfall oil profits over the past few years into a broad range of social programmes, including an adult literacy campaign, housing initiatives, soup kitchens, subsidised food items and free health and dentistry care, which have benefited a large portion of Venezuelans.

Economist Luis España, who heads the “poverty research programme” in the Andrés Bello Catholic University, told IPS that while the poverty rate has been reduced, that has occurred “within a bubble inflated by sudden high oil earnings that are being spent heavily, and if this revenue drops, household income will fall again, and we will return to the same structural poverty rates.”

In Nicaragua, the latest report following up on the MDGs, presented in January by the local U.N. office, stated that as of 2006, 14.9 percent of the population was living in extreme poverty, 4.5 percent down from 1990.

Still, the current rate is a far cry from the 9.7 percent target to be reached by 2015.

Furthermore, these official figures contrast sharply with the results of a study by sociologist Óscar Vargas, who said that despite the various poverty reduction programmes applied in Nicaragua over the past 16 years, the number of poor has actually grown.

“Between 1990 and 2006, more than two million people joined the ranks of the poor. More than 4.2 million people – 82 percent of the population – live below the poverty line, and 2.1 million barely survive in extreme poverty,” said Vargas.

His estimates are based on a number of variables, including the minimum monthly wage (60 dollars a month), the cost of the basic basket of consumer items (approximately 100 dollars a month), the unemployment rate (45 percent), and a World Bank study which reports that the income of the richest 10 percent of households (510,000 people) is equivalent to that of 4.2 million poor Nicaraguans.

In Argentina, researchers point to what occurred in Greater Buenos Aires from 1990 to 2006, where the percentage of people living in extreme poverty fell from 12.5 to eight percent of the population.

Laura Goldberg, a researcher at the Interdisciplinary Centre for the Study of Public Policies, pointed out that large-scale plans against poverty only began to be implemented in 2002, after the late 2001 financial and economic meltdown.

The government in El Salvador, meanwhile, holds out statistics that reflect a reduction in chronic poverty, but experts have called these figures into question.

A U.N. Development Programme report on El Salvador, published in June, which was based on figures provided by the government, found that in 1991, 31.5 percent of households were below the poverty line, and another 28.2 percent were in extreme poverty, compared to 22.8 and 12.3 percent, respectively, in 2005.

But Mario Paniagua, executive director of the Intersectorial Association for Economic Development and Social Progress, maintains that instead of going down, poverty has actually increased. In his view, the official Consumer Price Index (CPI) has been modified to the government’s convenience, and along with statistics on remittances sent home from Salvadorans abroad, it paints a deceptive picture.

* With additional reporting by Marcela Valente in Argentina, Humberto Márquez in Venezuela and José Adán Silva in Nicaragua.

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