Can we win the fight against poverty?

Jamaica Gleaner - - OPINION & COMMENTARY - Jorge Fa­mil­iar Guest Colum­nist Jorge Fa­mil­iar I Jorge Fa­mil­iar is the World Bank’s vice-pres­i­dent for Latin Amer­ica & the Caribbean. Email feed­back to col­umns@glean­erjm.com

DUR­ING THE In­ter­na­tional Day for the Erad­i­ca­tion of Poverty on Oc­to­ber 17, it is worth ask­ing our­selves: Can Latin Amer­ica and the Caribbean win the fight against poverty?

Ac­cord­ing to the lat­est World Bank num­bers, poverty in the world con­tin­ues to fall de­spite the global eco­nomic slow­down. In Latin Amer­ica and the Caribbean mean­while, poverty mea­sured ac­cord­ing to the un­der US$2.50 per day thresh­old dropped from 25.5 per cent to 10.8 per cent be­tween 2000 and 2014.

At the same time, in­equal­ity came down, largely due to the fact that the poor­est 40 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion man­aged to in­crease their in­come lev­els faster than the over­all rate. And all of this thanks to the eco­nomic growth re­sult­ing from the com­mod­ity boom of the past decade —which meant more and bet­ter jobs— and, to a lesser ex­tent, the con­tri­bu­tion of so­cial pro­grammes such as Pros­pera in Mex­ico and Bolsa Fa­milia in Brazil, fo­cused on break­ing the in­ter­gen­er­a­tional cy­cle of poverty among lower in­come fam­i­lies.

In short, the re­gion has ex­pe­ri­enced a pro­found so­cial trans­for­ma­tion. For the first time, there are more peo­ple liv­ing as mid­dle class than in sit­u­a­tion of poverty. We are a more con­nected so­ci­ety now, with greater ex­pec­ta­tions. If in the past any op­por­tu­nity was per­ceived as a good thing, now any progress is seen as in­suf­fi­cient. Our pop­u­la­tion is now more de­mand­ing, both with the econ­omy as well as the au­thor­i­ties. The chal­lenge is to turn th­ese ex­pec­ta­tions into re­al­ity as cir­cum­stances have be­come more com­plex. The com­mod­ity boom is now his­tory, avail­able fi­nan­cial re­sources are fewer and the global econ­omy is grow­ing slowly.

In this sce­nario, the re­gion needs to re­vive its driv­ers of eco­nomic growth. Even though our lat­est es­ti­mates in­di­cate that the re­gion will start grow­ing again (around 1.8 per cent in 2017), it is hard to think that this growth will be enough to speed up the progress made against poverty and in­equal­ity, or to con­tinue ex­pand­ing the mid­dle class.

THE IM­POR­TANCE OF INT’L TRADE

In­ter­na­tional trade is un­doubt­edly one of the en­gines needed to boost such growth. Although a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of re­gional economies have for years fo­cused on pro­duc­ing and ex­port­ing com­modi­ties, they must now di­ver­sify their production and the des­ti­na­tions of th­ese prod­ucts. The Pa­cific Al­liance, in­clud­ing Colom­bia, Chile, Mex­ico and Peru, is a great step in this di­rec­tion. There are other coun­tries, such as Ar­gentina, that are un­der­tak­ing con­sid­er­able ef­forts to open up to the world, re­ac­ti­vate their economies and look to the fu­ture.

As well as work­ing on re­viv­ing growth, we should not be for­get­ting in­clu­sion, as Latin Amer­ica and the Caribbean re­mains the most un­equal re­gion in the world, de­spite his­toric progress achieved in the past decade, which has un­for­tu­nately stag­nated since the eco­nomic slow­down.

One way of fight­ing in­equal­ity while be­ing pre­pared for the econ­omy of the fu­ture, is to in­vest in peo­ple and, more con­cretely, pro­vide bet­ter and greater op­por­tu­ni­ties to kids. The idea is to im­prove their ac­cess to ba­sic ser­vices, such as wa­ter, san­i­ta­tion and health, as well as qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion and the Internet, in or­der to de­velop the skills needed for a bet­ter fu­ture.

Ac­cord­ing to our Hu­man Op­por­tu­nity In­dex, ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion among chil­dren aged 16 and less in Latin Amer­ica and the Caribbean is cur­rently al­most univer­sal. And th­ese ad­vances were es­pe­cially dra­matic in the coun­tries that lagged fur­ther be­hind at the start of this cen­tury.

Dur­ing the same pe­riod, the re­gion ex­panded ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy and com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Ac­cess to mo­bile phones, in par­tic­u­lar, in­creased from 13 per cent in 2000 to over 90 per cent in 2014.

This in­dex re­minds us how much we have achieved, but also how much we still have to go in terms of guar­an­tee­ing greater and bet­ter op­por­tu­ni­ties for all. In­creas­ing the qual­ity of ed­u­ca­tion and in­creas­ing ac­cess to ba­sic ser­vices and tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances will be cru­cial not just to re­vive growth, but ad­vance the great so­cial trans­for­ma­tion that be­gan more than a decade ago.

This is the only way we will be able to win the fight against poverty and in­equal­ity.

GUEST COLUM­NIST

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