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Q&A: “Latin America Faces a Tough Balancing Act”

Suzanne Hoeksema interviews ALICIA BÁRCENA, head of ECLAC

UNITED NATIONS, Sep 30 2009 (IPS) - Chile is leading the way towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), while Honduras is seriously lagging behind, says Alicia Bárcena, executive secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).

Alicia Bárcena Credit: UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

Alicia Bárcena Credit: UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

In an interview with IPS, Bárcena highlighted the main achievements and challenges of the region as it moves toward the 2015 deadline for the MDGs amid global financial turmoil.

Poverty reduction, child health and primary education are among the goals that will most likely be met on time by at least one-third of the Latin American and Caribbean countries.

Poverty across the continent has decreased from 48.3 percent of the population in 1990 to 34.1 percent in 2007 – from 200 million people to 184 million people.

Unlike the World Bank’s dollar-a-day definition, ECLAC – one of the five regional commissions of the United Nations, headquartered in Santiago, Chile – sets the boundaries of extreme poverty at an intake of 2,200 calories a day.

However, the financial crisis poses challenges that will slow down or even reverse some of the improvements that have been made the past six years, she warned.

“In time of scarcity and crisis we are faced with a tough balancing act,” Bárcena told IPS. “On the one hand, we need resources to heal the economy, and on the other hand we must invest in a safety net for the poor and vulnerable.”

Even though there are signs of economic recovery, social recovery will proceed on a slower pace, she warns. In the crisis, “lower income groups lost relatively more income than higher income groups and it will take them longer to regain their losses.”

Despite today’s challenges, the continent seems better prepared for severe economic upheaval than in the 1980s, the so-called “lost decade”.

The current crisis was met with significantly lower inflation, less debts and more fiscal space compared to the hyper inflation and bottomless debts that characterised previous crises.

Bárcena stressed that policymakers must not allow the past to repeat itself. “The social gains made are easily lost and hard to recover. We should protect those gains. The crisis is a challenge, but it also an opportunity to lay the foundation for a basic floor of social protection for our societies and people,” she said.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

IPS: When talking about the Millennium Development Goals, which Latin American and Caribbean countries are expected to meet which goals and which countries are still lagging behind? ALICIA BÁRCENA: Chile is doing remarkably well and it will most likely be able to stick to the first MDG, reducing extreme poverty by 50 percent. In Honduras, on the other hand, the situation is worrisome with 49.4 percent of the population still living under conditions of extreme poverty.

Uruguay, Argentina, Costa Rica, Brazil, Panama, Venezuela and Mexico have made considerable improvements in terms of poverty reduction and investing in the poor. However, the distribution of wealth and filling the inequality gap remains a huge challenge, particularly in Brazil and Mexico.

One of the continent’s major successes in fighting poverty is the Conditional Cash Transfer programme (CCT) which provides money directly to poor families via a social contract with the beneficiaries – sending children to school and bringing them to health centres. Cash provides emergency assistance, while the conditionalities promote longer-term investments in human capital.

CCT has proved to be notably successful when provided to women. The programme does not only make women more independent, it also benefits other MDGs such as primary school attendance by boys and girls and children’s health. I expect that most countries will meet both of these goals.

Unfortunately, maternal mortality remains high. The maternal health MDG will not be easily met. First and foremost in the rural oriented countries, women have limited access to health care or they choose to deal with intimate health issues themselves.

IPS: How has the financial crisis affected the Latin America and the Caribbean countries and its people, and what role does ECLAC play in mitigating the effects of the crisis? AB: The difference is made by states who have really committed themselves to reduce poverty and who have continued to do so during the crisis.

As socioeconomic observers, ECLAC reminds governments not to lose momentum and not to uncover the poor. Social spending tends to drop in times of financial crisis and we have been trying to alert the governments of their good practice.

I foresee that unemployment will become the biggest problem. Over the past five years, unemployment dropped from 11 to seven percent but it will expectedly rise again to at least nine percent. Women lose their jobs much faster and easier than men. Around 73 percent of all women work in the informal and domestic field for which there is no social security.

Fortunately, a hopeful example comes from Chile. President Michele Bachelet has pushed for social security and pension for women working in the domestic area – a breakthrough!

IPS: What do you think about the new U.N. woman’s agency that the General Assembly recently agreed upon? AB: I am sure it will upgrade and mainstream the gender issue. [U.N. Secretary-General] Ban Ki-moon has really made a difference in changing the gender architecture in the U.N. administration.

I also think that women do have different qualities that can be useful in certain areas such as peacekeeping and peacebuilding. The Department of Field Support, for example, has positively changed since it is headed by Under-Secretary General Susana Marcorra.

ECLAC has become more gender-balanced as well, just as the World Bank. But the IMF [International Monetary Fund] really needs some more women.

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