Latin American Report


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20 August 1999

All Poverty Should Not be Treated Equally

By Zoraida Portillo

LIMA, Aug 11 (IPS) - Governments of developing countries, like many in Latin America, spend enormous amounts of money on poverty relief programmes that are often unsuccessful, while more experts are saying it is a mistake to treat all poverty problems the same.

Kim Bolduc, representative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Peru, gave a clear example of poverty differences when she asked a group of journalists to compare the situations of two women. What possibilities can a globalised world offer a woman who is over age 35, lives in the country, is illiterate, lacks a reliable income and speaks Quechua, compared to the opportunities of a woman who earns the same income but is better educated, lives in the city and speaks Spanish? Though both women would be considered poor by traditional economic standards, the second woman is in a better situation than the first, stated Bolduc.

According to economist Carlos Figueroa from the Research Centre at the private University of the Pacific, ''Once we analyse poverty's other variables, such as employment, health, housing and education, we inevitably come across a much broader issue which is social exclusion.''

The University of the Pacific was one of the sponsors of a workshop on creating new methods for measuring poverty. Over one hundred researchers, academics and experts gathered at the international conference to analyse Latin American poverty and inequality. Participants discussed the lack of measurement tools that are sufficiently complex to identify the poorest people and their needs, as well as the absence of direct contact with the poor population to find out how effective poverty relief programmes have been.

Experts at the workshop concurred that, without reliable statistics, direct contact with the population, or solid information and evaluation tools, it is impossible to know what the real impacts of relief programmes have been, or if the programmes are serving the people who really need them.

Figueroa believes that a good starting point for creating effective programmes is to recognise that not all poor people are equally poor. In doing so, the problem can be approached with better understanding of the viewpoint of the poor themselves.

''A poor resident knows how to recognise the differences that exist between him and his neighbour,'' Figueroa asserted. ''Using this method means learning what they think and what they really need. This way, we can better direct spending and reduce the gap between those who need certain resources and those who don't - resources that are currently distributed indiscriminately among all the poor,'' he said.

According to the World Bank, another of the workshop's sponsors, 45 percent of the Latin American population suffer extreme levels of poverty, earning the equivalent of one dollar per day, or less. On the other extreme, the richest five percent in Latin America earns more than 50 percent of the region's total income.

Another issue linked to poverty is the unequal or unjust distribution of wealth, which the UNDP Human Development Report indicates is continuing to deepen instead of improve. ''In the last decade we have witnessed an increase in the concentration of income, resources and wealth among people, businesses and nations,'' said this year's UNDP report.

The UN agency's statistics show that, in 1997, the income of the world's richest 20 percent was 74 times greater than the income of the poorest 20 percent. In 1990, their income was 60 times greater. Levels of inequality are much greater in Latin America than in other countries with similar average incomes. Brazil, Chile and Mexico are the region's countries with the most extreme levels of inequality, according to the experts participating in the University of the Pacific workshop. One of the most glaring examples of the region's inequalities is the enormous gap between the richest 10 percent and the rest of the population. ''Among the middle-income groups, the differences are not very evident, but between the richest 10 percent and the next 10 percent there is an abyss,'' stated Pierre Werbrouck, World Bank representative.

Conference participants also studied the social differences. For example, the heads of families among the richest 10 percent have at least three more years of education than heads of family of the second richest 10 percent. But measured against the poorest 10 percent, the difference is more than seven years. The information confirms the results of studies by other international bodies that show poverty in Latin America is not just a political problem or a conflict between capital and labour, but is an issue of educational and cultural standards, family structures and lack of opportunity.

The United Nations Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) calculates that for every year less of education received, there are 30 percent less chances for escaping poverty or achieving a higher standard of living. ECLAC also believes that early motherhood is synonymous with poverty because it reduces a woman's educational opportunities.

Another significant issue studied at the conference was women's employment. Among Latin America's wealthiest population, 75 percent of women work outside the home, while among poor women just 40 percent earn any kind of income. Most perform domestic duties which are not economically valued.

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