Perspectives on Urban Poverty in Latin America
On September 17 the Comparative Urban Studies Project brought together scholars and professionals from the North and South America to discuss social policy and urban poverty in Latin America.
The first panel, which focused on social policy, included speakers Clarisa Hardy, Eduardo Amadeo, and Barbara Stallings. Clarisa Hardy, the executive director of Fundación Chile 21, began the seminar by discussing the relationship between democracy and social policy in Latin America. She analyzed the crisis created by widespread desire for social services and a general lack of funds, experienced by the majority of Latin American countries. This crisis results in a need for more universal social programs that can counter the power of the financial and banking industries. Hardy also argued that the best social results are achieved when benefits are dispersed more evenly and civil society is actively involved in policy decisions. She concluded that social policies are the cornerstone of the relationship between growth and social development. Eduardo Amadeo, President of the Argentine Social Policy Association, focused on the case of Argentina, emphasizing the economic problems which were not caused by the devaluation, but rather the failure of a competitive labor market. He noted that the present economic crisis affects all social groups and the near-universal disappointment of Argentines with their government's actions during the nineties has resulted in their desire for rights and citizenship over and above basic assistance. The frustration of Argentina, he postulated, was due to the impotence of present economic tools to effect more equitable income distribution. This caused NGOs and social movements to be pushed beyond capacity. Mr. Amadeo suggested that the solution to many of Argentina's dilemmas was to deal with problems from an interdisciplinary approach and to improve interactions among organizations.
Barbara Stallings, of Brown University, commented on both presentations, asserting that the role of steady economic growth in social policies cannot be overemphasized. Her reasoning was that growth provides resources for social spending without starving other important programs, since growth helps provide jobs, which are the root of social policy. Dr. Stallings noted that Latin America cannot afford social policies. However, since demand is widespread and increasing, finding new ways to finance these policies first through local resources, and then through external resources is crucial for the stability of the region. In response to Hardy's suggestion to create a powerful social ministry capable of countering the power of the finance and banking ministries and social ministries, Stallings argued that such an institution was not likely to come into existence. However, in order to achieve more power-sharing between the two ministries, Stallings suggested an ante-agreement between ministries on a floor for social spending, and publicizing the salary information for the central bank and finance ministry in order to promote more equitable distribution of funds for salaries.
The second panel revealed a number of ways to understand and evaluate poverty in urban areas. Janice Perlman, President of the Mega-Cities Project, presented a study of intergenerational poverty in the favelas of Rio de Janiero over a 20 year period. According to Dr. Perlman, Brazilian society at large sees the squatters as social leeches who lack social values. Favela-dwellers are a marginalized population whose expectations regarding their own social mobility are minimal. Dr. Perlman's study finds that racism and prejudice against favela dwellers are stronger today than in the 1960's, and even with increased levels of schooling wages have not increased commensurably. Dr. Perlman dispels the common notions about migrants and squatters, discrediting the assumptions that favelados are "marginal elements" and threats to political stability. She concludes that although they lack expectations and opportunities for social mobility, over 50% believe their lives will improve in the next 5 years.
William Beezley, University of Arizona, presented a study of the culture of poverty in Mexico, summarizing historical attitudes and definitions of poverty and the effects of policy decisions on the self-perception of the poverty-stricken. He recalled Oscar Lewis's work chronicling the life studies of poor families, calling for studies of urban poverty to consider the ways that the poor are integrated into society in subtle ways, such as through popular culture. He emphasized the need that definitions of poverty to consider social and historical factors as well as quantitative statistics.
Patricia Landolt, University of Toronto, presented a paper on linkages between migrant labor, capital, the state, and the relationships among Central American migrants in the U.S. She emphasized the importance of migrant earnings as a cornerstone of income for Central American families. Dr. Landolt discussed the emergence of migrants as consumers and as an important sector the economy and labor market. She also noted that it is not only the economically active population that migrate, but also children and the elderly. Dr. Landolt portrays the migrant as powerful consumer and investor, and more importantly a guarantor of economic stability and a transnational citizen.
Gabriel Kessler, Universidad General Sarmiento, Argentina, presented a paper on the "new poverty" in Argentina and Latin America. Dr. Kessler discussed the impact of structural adjustment policies, debt, and the decrease in the quality of public services of the middle classes. He stated that the poverty of the 90's is that which is expressed in the city. The poor of Buenos Aires have found vacant spaces in the central zones where the conditions are severely deteriorated and both uncertainty and insecurity have decreased the quality of life. He discussed the social fragmentation and the deterioration of the political situation in Argentina. Dr. Kessler concluded that the impoverishment of society does not only have effects on a single sector of society, but across social networks and the society as a whole.
Marta Schteingart, El Colegio de Mexico, reflected on the presentations, discussing the difficulties on evaluating poverty. She clarified that Argentina is not alone with regard to the existence of a significant middle class and the rest of Latin America should not be forgotten. All of the panelists portrayed different aspects of urban poverty from a variety of different perspectives. A consistent theme throughout the presentations was the connection between labor and poverty.
Marianne Fay, World Bank, began the third panel with a discussion on the reality of urban poverty in Latin American countries. Although the incidence of poverty is half of the rural population, the majority of the poor live in urban areas (60%). Demographic trends are such that poverty is urbanizing, which results in a need for multi-sector interventions: improved basic services (water and sanitation), targeted social and health programs (violence), and health interventions with a preventive focus (lifestyle and nutrition). She noted the common misperception that the urban poor are already being served. One strategy to assisting the urban poor is to build on their coping strategies by assisting in the accumulation of more and better assets, social capital, and provide social safety nets. Similar to other panelists, she emphasized the need to focus on job and employment creation strategies.
Patrick Breslin, Inter-American Foundation, presented some examples of the programs and organizations that the IAF has funded. He discussed projects ranging from youth and children to the environment and recycling. He discussed how projects can redefine people's lives and improve their personal dignity. He stated that it is clear that urban poverty has many dimensions and it is more than low income and lack of housing. He also discussed the need to seek future funding for projects related to job training, skills, savings and loans, and micro-credit. Alan Wagenburg, Inter-American Development Bank, discussed the importance of social capital. He noted the connection between an increase in social capital and corresponding increases in economic growth, less criminality, and better and more access to health care. The IDB is currently implementing a 5-step approach to promote social capital and ethics in poverty alleviation strategies: promote awareness and discussion, build and disseminate knowledge, establish a university network, internal change, and concrete actions. Mr. Wagenberg hopes that these efforts will result in the future consideration of social capital in development programming at the IDB.
Jeff Boyer continued the panel with a review of the USAID's Urban Programs Team projects and activities. The Urban Teams goals include helping enable cities to offer healthy places to live within a sustainable environment, provide basic infrastructure and housing, feature robust economies, and promote better city governance. They hope to achieve these goals through a variety of different programs: building partnerships, increasing USAID leadership regarding urban development and finding the right balance between credit and grant financing. Clarisa Hardy concluded the panel, remarking that we are facing a very complex problem. Strategies for poverty alleviation are not just a problem of job creation, but the type of jobs created. She also discussed the need to focus on violence, cultural conflict, and migration.
Joseph Tulchin closed the meeting reflecting on the scale of urban poverty and the difficulties created by the need to contrast the macro-organizations and macro-policies contrasted with micro-experiences at the grassroots level. He emphasized the importance of perfecting the marriage between policy and local experience. The seminar brought attention to the growing urban problems in Latin America stimulating insightful discussion on how to define and evaluate poverty, the importance of social policy and social capital in poverty alleviation, and the on-going efforts of development organizations to reduce urban poverty in the region.