Latin America’s poverty persists despite progress

SANTA ROSA, Peru – On a stifling morning a handful of people stand in the shady doorway of the health center, watching the occasional cargo truck lumber through this village of about 200 people.

A typical day might bring half a dozen people to the health center in the southeastern Peruvian rain forest. Many of them are children with diarrhea from parasites – a sign of persistent poverty in a village that has no running water or sanitation system.

The world is halfway to the 2015 deadline set by the United Nations in 2000 for cutting poverty in half. Overall, Latin America is more than halfway to that goal, with Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Ecuador having made the greatest progress in the past seven years, according to the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

However, 194 million people in the region still live in poverty, 71 million in extreme poverty. And despite their progress, Mexico and Ecuador still have poverty rates of about 40 percent.

Experts say that while poverty worldwide has decreased dramatically since 1990, in many regions assistance is not reaching the poorest of the poor. In Latin America, those people are most likely to be indigenous or live in remote rural areas like the Andes, the Amazon or the mountains of Guatemala, where health, education and basic services like water and sanitation are scarce or nonexistent.

Worldwide, the number of people living on less than a dollar a day decreased from 1.25 billion to 969 million between 1990 and 2004, according to a new study by the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute.

But “income growth benefited mostly those just below the dollar-a-day poverty line,” said Akhter Ahmed, an agricultural economist and co-author of the IFPRI study, during a telephone press conference in early November. “If we keep doing things the way we have been doing them, the poorest of the poor are not going to climb out of poverty by 2015.”

Ruth Vargas Hill, an economist and another co-author, said the study – which broke down income levels to ranges of 75 cents-$1, 50-75 cents, and less than 50 cents a day – shows that “we need to do a better job of targeting policies and programs to the world’s poorest people.”

Extremely poor people are more likely to be members of marginalized social groups, such as Latin America’s indigenous people. They also are more likely to live in remote rural areas, far from health centers, schools and markets for their crops.

These obstacles make it “difficult for them to emerge (from poverty) without some outside assistance,” Hill said. “They are unable to invest in the education of their children, which causes their children to be much more likely to be poor and for poverty to be passed on from one generation to another.”

Extreme poverty has persisted even in developing countries that have seen significant economic growth in recent years.

“Economic growth does not automatically translate into poverty reduction, especially for the very poorest, who do not participate in the market,” said William O’Keefe, senior director for advocacy for Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops’ international relief and development agency.

The IFPRI study shows that assistance must “be focused not just on economic growth, but also on the difficult process of short-circuiting poverty traps,” O’Keefe told Catholic News Service. Funds are needed to fight HIV and other health problems, such as malnutrition, he said, as well as to provide education, access to markets for farmers, and agricultural and rural development.

Although much remains to be done to reduce poverty and hunger significantly in some regions of the world within the next seven and a half years, “the progress that has been made in pulling people up is absolutely significant,” O’Keefe said.

“That success has just focused us on some of the remaining serious problems,” he said. Development agencies such as CRS now have “a clearer understanding of what we need to do to address the remaining terrible problems,” he said.

Ahmed said the study’s findings indicate that while broad-based economic growth is important, it must be accompanied by health care and social protection programs, especially for children and people who are elderly and ill.

Many countries, including Brazil, Mexico and Peru, have launched programs that provide payments to low-income residents in exchange for making sure their children are vaccinated and keeping them in school, but those programs do not always reach indigenous people in remote communities, he said.

Ahmed said that microfinance programs, which provide small loans to farmers or people with very small family businesses, have been helpful in reducing poverty, but usually do not serve the very poorest people, who lack business skills. Those programs are more effective for very poor people if they are combined with training, he said.

Drought, hurricanes, flooding – which scientists say are likely to become more frequent with global climate change – and serious illness are especially devastating to people living in extreme poverty.
“The impact of a shock can last for many years,” said Hill.

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.