Our Perspectives


Latin America and the Caribbean: Looking beyond income to build on recent progress

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In Latin America and the Caribbean, 25 million to 30 million people risk falling back into poverty. Photo: UNDP

The countries of Latin America and the Caribbean experienced historic economic and social transformation in recent years. This has led to a considerable reduction in poverty and inequality and to advances in closing gender, labour and education gaps. These achievements are the result of a favourable economic environment as well as proactive social inclusion policies.

Despite this, 25 million to 30 million people risk falling back into poverty—a third of those who left poverty from 2003 to 2013. The most vulnerable are the newly employed, women and workers in the informal sectors of the economy. Many face social exclusion that cannot be resolved with higher income, such as discrimination due to ethnic or racial group, skin colour, sexual identity, migrant status or disability.

This week we are launching our flagship regional publication, the Human Development Report for Latin America and the Caribbean. The report, Multidimensional Progress: Well-being beyond income, proposes new metrics and new ways to act to protect the social and economic achievements of the past decade and defeat the structural obstacles to these achievements. That includes what we call “hard exclusions”, which go beyond income to factors like gender, race, ethic group, sexual orientation and disability.

How do we move forward from here?

First, by recognizing that factors for exiting poverty are different from those that prevent falling back. The former are strongly associated with employment and returns on education—especially in urban areas. The latter are correlated to four factors: access to social protection (such as a pension), access to care systems (to level out incentives for women’s participation in the labour force), having physical and financial assets (such as owning a bank account, a home, a motorbike or a car that act as ‘cushions’ when crisis hits), and better labour skills.

Second, by addressing hard exclusions that are not correlated with income. More than closing ‘gaps’ in access to services, these exclusions speak of a citizenship deficit: discrimination that occurs because of identity, lifestyle, disability or skin colour. Being a woman, of African descent, indigenous, LGBTI, youth, a person with disabilities… all of this affects opportunities, the possibility of social and economic mobility and access to services.

Given these deficits, we must advance equal opportunity and affirmative action policies. Quotas to increase the number of women in parliament is a successful example of this approach. Other examples are the innumerable advances in recognition of collective rights, political autonomy and land/territory of indigenous peoples and communities in our hemisphere.

Our report reveals that women in Latin America and the Caribbean work three times more at home (unpaid work) than men. And they earn less in the labour market, despite studying more than their male counterparts.

Demographic trends and the absence of care services (especially for children and older persons), restrict better participation of women in the labour market and families’ income generation. Moreover, a third of all women and girls face sexual violence at least once in their lives. 

Third, it is essential to build a bridge between the short and long term. While much attention is now centred on how to revive economic growth, we must develop new approaches among different sectors and at the national and local levels throughout the life cycle. A pending issue that will influence the agenda is the transition from extractivist economies based on raw materials, to economies that find a new environmental balance, of biodiversity protection and of energy transformation.

We understand that each Latin America generation defines what type of structural change it pursues. ‘More-of-the-same’ in economic growth does not guarantee the progress we’ve seen will continue. Neither will countries ‘graduate’ from the structural challenges of progress and exclusion by crossing an income threshold.

To achieve the ambitious goals laid out in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, we need to take a multidimensional perspective, to build sustainable and holistic well-being – beyond income.

We understand multidimensional progress as a reachable horizon in Latin America and the Caribbean: “Nothing that diminishes the rights of people and communities or jeopardizes the environmental sustainability of the planet can be regarded as progress.” This approach is already being developed by thousands of actors, with millions of achievements beyond income in all of the region’s countries.

Jessica Faieta Blog post Poverty reduction and inequality Sustainable development Development Effectiveness Human development report Effective development cooperation