Latin American Report


World Bank Fighting Poverty in the Dark (26/6/1999)

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1 August 1999

Poverty in Bolivia to Stay for Generations

By Alejandro Campos

LA PAZ, Jun 3 (IPS) - If all goes well and according to the most optimistic expectations, Bolivia will have to work hard during the next two generations to escape the poverty that currently afflicts 70 percent of its population.

This was the conclusion reached by economists and other experts who gathered this week to comment on the most recent 'Social Outlook' report released by the Santiago-based United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).

Structural adjustment has not been able to rise Bolivia out of the world's ''most poor nations'' category, said this month's ECLAC report. Latin America is as poor as it was 20 years ago, before the beginning of the ''lost decade'' of the 1980s when the external debt crisis brought the entire region down economically. In 1979, 35 percent of Latin America's population lived in poverty, nearly equal to the 36 percent reported in 1997. The problems Latin America is facing will not be overcome through financial and structural adjustments alone. Profound cultural changes are necessary as well, warned Juan Cariaga, a Bolivian economist who is also a World Bank consultant.

''Poverty will persist as long as Latin Americans fail to take day-to-day responsibility for improving the quality of life of their fellow citizens,'' said Cariaga. Citizen participation through paying taxes is important because the fight against poverty is not just the government's responsibility, he added.

But Milton Gomez, leader of Bolivia's Workers Union, an umbrella group for most of the country's trade unions, the poor have been paying with hunger for the structural economic adjustment of the last 15 years, which has ''brought wealth to the minority sector that currently holds political power.''

It is the neoliberal economic model imposed by international financial agencies what is flogging the poor majority, depriving low-income Bolivian's of work and education, Gomez said. He added that privatisation of state-run companies put more than 25,000 mining families on the street, as well as another 25,000 workers from other industrial sectors.

Bolivia's deputy minister of Finance, Ramiro Cavero, stated that it will take the efforts of two generations for the country to beat poverty. More than 70 percent of the Bolivian population is poor, according to ECLAC - ''a worrisome percentage given Latin America's regional average,'' stressed Cavero.

Cavero maintains, however, that the country is not as poor as it was 20 years ago. The poverty rate fell from 85.5 percent in 1976 to 70.2 percent in 1992, when the most recent census of population and housing occurred. Poverty continues to decrease, affirmed the vice-minister, and it will be proved in the next census in the year 2000. Cavero recognised that stabilisation plans and structural reforms implemented since 1985 have resulted in job losses and a growing informal market.

But not all economic news has been negative. According to ECLAC, the distribution of wealth in Bolivia has improved since 1979, and the average income per person has grown from 798 US dollars in 1979 to 1,070 currently. Life expectancy at the time of birth improved from 59.3 to 61.4 years from 1990 to 1997. Infant mortality fell from 151 per thousand births in 1976 to 67 per thousand in 1994. Maternal mortality rates decreased from 416 per thousand births in 1989 to 390 per thousand in 1994.

Official data indicate that unemployment improved from 10.39 percent in 1989 to 3.64 percent of the economically active population in 1995. However, non-governmental organisations and independent economists disagree with this information.

Government statistics are also positive regarding school attendance, which they indicate increased from 73 to 81 percent between 1992 and 1996. Illiteracy is said to have fallen from 36.8 percent in 1976 to 20 percent in 1992.

[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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