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Caribbean Fails at Tackling Poverty

June 22 2000

By Wesley Gibbings

PORT OF SPAIN, Jun 22 (IPS) - Three years into the first International Decade for the Eradication of Poverty, countries of the Commonwealth Caribbean are reporting mixed results while all are experiencing problems reaching social policy targets. A recent study conducted by the Jamaica Survey of Living Conditions (JSLC) indicates, for example, that the incidence of poverty in the cash- strapped north Caribbean island has actually been on the decline. But while the JSLC was pointing to the lowest poverty figures in over a decade - a 15.9 percent incidence level - access to some basic services remained starkly absent.

The JSLC study found that up to 72 percent of poor households used pit latrines and only 12 percent had indoor plumbing. A similar Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) sponsored survey in Belize in 1998 found that "deep-seated structural problems of transformation have kept the population of parts of the country locked in poverty for some considerable period."

The survey concluded that in this lone Central American member of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) 25.3 percent of all households and 33 percent of individuals were poor on the basis of their expenditure on food and non-food items.

"Moreover," the study said, "9.6 percent of households and 13.4 percent of individuals were considered to be extremely poor or indigent: their level of expenditure was not high enough to enable them to satisfy their basic food requirements."

The problem has moved CDB President Neville Nicholls to declare that "there is a patent need to temper economic reform strategies with policies designed to promote social equity."

Such a prescription has featured highly in the deliberations of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) which had convened the first-ever Caribbean Ministerial meeting on poverty in 1996.

"Income distribution hasn't changed in the past decade," a recent ECLAC study revealed. "High levels of inequality persist and several countries have the most concentrated income distribution in the world."

"This has happened even in countries that have achieved significant growth rates," the study said.

ECLAC said that "reciprocal conditioning between growth and equity and the distributive content of development depends critically on the application of policies that promote wider social distribution of the benefits of economic growth."

Consequently, the smaller economies of the region continue to face more than their fair share of challenges. In St. Lucia, for example, the decline in earnings from the banana industry and negative growth in the light manufacturing sector over recent years have been blamed for high levels of poverty accounting for 18.7 percent of households and 25.1 percent of individuals.

In that island, a much-touted Poverty Reduction Fund set up in 1998 and which gained widespread community support faced questions of corruption and led to successive audits by the government. In the end, no evidence of corruption was found though there were indications of "several administrative lapses and infelicities".

In Trinidad and Tobago, which has been benefiting from an expanding economy and falling unemployment, vigilance remains the word in the monitoring of poverty, and new mechanisms are being examined to alleviate the plight of an arguably growing under-class.

In 1998, for instance, a Hardship Relief Fund was established to, among other things, offset up to 25 percent of the water bills of poor households and, last year, a school-based Book Loan Scheme was introduced targeting 53,000 students. "Effective poverty reduction must incorporate policies and programmes that are geared to alleviating the plight of the poor, the socially displaced, the street children, the homeless and the elderly," Finance Minister Brian Kuei Tung said in his budget presentation last October.

Many, however, dispute a claim by the government that measures, such as an increase in government pensions to a minimum of 100 dollars a month, had effectively lifted such persons out of the poverty cycle.

There is general recognition, though, that further action in this area is needed. In Kuei Tung's words: "The benefits from development are not always equitably or fairly distributed."

In a poverty assessment survey conducted in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, researchers made a similar point with reference to the allocation and availability of national resources.

"The Government needs to reorganise its tax regime in such a way that it can continue to maintain balance, having regard to the requirements to expand the economic and social infrastructure and to provide a safety-net for the vulnerable," the survey said. Measures such as these are specifically defined in the Declaration and Programme of Action of the 1995 World Summit for Social Development. But, in many cases, Caribbean governments have been hard-pressed to comply in the face of sharp declines in their economic fortunes.

Against that backdrop, a role for the developed world is increasingly being defined, even in the face of a reversal of past trends.

Addressing the recent General Assembly of the Organisation of American States, St. Lucia's Foreign Minister, George Odlum noted that "the track record ... is rather in the direction of reducing assistance to developing countries and not increasing such assistance."

"As the new millennium beckons, a looming prospect of the digital divide threatens to make the insecure people of the developing world even more insecure and, consequently, even more desperate. Desperation breeds conflict," the minister warned. So far, countries of the Caribbean have staved off such a response to growing insecurities but recent conflict in Guyana, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and persistent political conflict in Jamaica are thought, by some, to be the seeds of a far more volatile future.

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