U.N. development agency lauds advances in the South

Countries across Latin America and elsewhere in the developing world have achieved impressive human development gains in recent decades, lifting hundreds of millions of people from poverty and propelling billions more into the ranks of a new global middle class, says the 2013 Human Development Report.

The document was presented Thursday in Mexico City by United Nations Development Programme.

The 2013 Human Development Report, titled “The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World,” analyzes more than 40 developing countries—referred to as “the South”—that have made rapid human development gains in recent years. The report lauds innovative social programs in the Latin American region, in particular those that aim at reducing poverty and historic social inequalities, such as Mexico’s Oportunidades program and Brazil’s Bolsa Familia.

“Economic growth alone does not automatically translate into human development progress,” writes program Administrator Helen Clark in the report’s foreword. “Pro-poor policies and significant investments in people’s capabilities — through a focus on education, nutrition and health, and employment skills — can expand access to decent work and provide for sustained progress.”

“The rise of the South is one of the most remarkable phenomenon in the new global arena,” said Heraldo Muñoz, program director for Latin America and the Caribbean. “Among 40 countries in various regions worldwide, the report highlights Latin America, especially Brazil, Chile and Mexico, considered pioneers in the three main development drivers: more proactive states in development policies, greater integration with global markets and, altogether, exemplary innovation in social policy.”

In Brazil, for example, the percentage of the population living on less than US$1.25 a day dropped from 17.2 percent to 6.1 percent between 1990 and 2009. The country has achieved four of its eight millennium development goals in advance of the 2015 deadline, and is on track to achieve the other four on time.

By 2030, Latin America and the Caribbean will be home to one in 10 members of an emerging global middle class. Billions of people across the world are becoming increasingly educated, socially engaged and internationally interconnected. Four of the five countries with the largest number of Facebook users are in the South: Brazil, India, Indonesia and Mexico, the report said.

Latin American growth has been led by strong states that experienced a gradual and sequenced integration with the world economy, the report notes. While Brazil experimented with inward-oriented economic strategies, national companies were still encouraged to export and compete globally. Brazil’s Embraer, for example, is now the world’s leading producer of mid-sized jet aircraft. Chile encouraged investment in sectors where the country had a comparative advantage, such as wine, wood products and fish farming, which would also boost employment in the country’s rural south.

Innovation in social programs is another hallmark of successful states, the Human Development Report concludes.

“The rising South is developing a broader social and poverty reduction agenda in which policies to address inequalities, institutional failures, social barriers and personal vulnerabilities are as central as promoting economic growth,” the report says.

Well-known Latin American conditional cash transfer programs like Brazil’s Bolsa Familia, Mexico’s Oportunidades and Chile’s Chile Solidario, for example, have helped foster a more equal distribution of economic and social opportunities. Conditional cash transfer programs are designed to increase people’s incomes and their access to health and education by making transfers conditional on requirements such as visits to health clinics and school attendance. These programs cost less than traditional in-kind social assistance; for example, Bolsa Familia and Oportunidades cost less than 1 percent of gross domestic product.

The social policy successes of Latin America are increasingly being emulated elsewhere. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg traveled to Mexico to study its Oportunidades program before launching Opportunity NYC: Family Rewards, the first conditional cash transfer programme in the United States.

“In designing Family Rewards, we drew on lessons from Brazil, Mexico and dozens of other countries,” Mayor Bloomberg writes in the 2013 Human Development Report. “No one has a monopoly on good ideas.”

Brazil, for example, has worked with African governments to adapt its home-grown school grant programs, literacy campaigns and public health projects to local needs and circumstances. As of 2011, it had 53 health agreements with 22 African countries.

Much more can — and should — be done, the report argues. “Over the next few years, policymakers in developing countries will need to follow an ambitious agenda that responds to difficult global conditions, notably the economic slowdown, which has decreased demand from the North. At the same time, they will need to address their own urgent policy priorities.”

Latin America has seen income inequality fall in most countries since 2000, in large part due to national antipoverty initiatives, but it still has the most unequal distribution of wealth of any region in the world. “In Brazil, at least a quarter of inequality in earnings is associated with household circumstances, such as parents’ educational attainment, race or ethnicity, or place of birth. Such persistence of income distribution patterns across generations is also evident in Chile and Mexico, although Mexico has seen increased intergenerational mobility in recent years,” the report says.

Another challenge analysed by the U.N. agency is that of sustainability. The report shows that environmental challenges pose a real threat to development: some 3.1 billion more people would live in extreme income poverty globally in 2050 under the environmental disaster scenario examined by the agency, 155 million of them in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Governments and companies in Latin America are cooperating to develop and share new climate-friendly technologies, with Latin America taking a lead. Brazil is investing billions in public funds in renewable energy technologies, and Mexico recently enacted the world’s first comprehensive national climate change law, with targets for reducing carbon emissions and dependence on oil for electricity and transportation. Increasingly active civil society organizations are bridging the gap between citizens and government in Latin America, as in other regions.

These organizations range from broad social movements and single-issue advocacy groups to labor unions and community groups, the Report notes. In Brazil, the Sanitarista movement of health care professionals played a central role in developing the country’s public health care system and expanding services to the poor, for example.

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