Helen Clark: The Third Forum for Social Strategic Thinking in Latin America

22 Feb 2010

The Third Forum for Social Strategic Thinking in Latin America
Opening Address by Helen Clark, UNDP Administrator

I appreciate the opportunity to address this distinguished forum of ministers, high-level government officials, academics and development practitioners. Thank you for participating in this important exchange of views on the social consequences of the current economic crisis and how countries in the Latin America region responding to them.

I would also like to express my sincere thanks to the Government of Spain, which made this, and previous fora possible. They were all co-organized through the Spain-UNDP Trust Fund entitled "Towards an Integrated and Inclusive Development in Latin America". Spain is a very sympathetic and generous partner for the work of UNDP.

Today’s Forum takes place in times of great global challenges. In the past few years, the world has witnessed major food and fuel crises, a global recession, and more frequent recurrence of climatic disasters. Natural catastrophes, like the earthquake in Haiti, have also wrought much pain and destruction.

The crises have had a negative impact not only in the financial and economic sphere – they have strained social systems and threaten to reverse hard-won social gains in all corners of the world.

I just arrived back from the Pacific, where, in Vanuatu, I attended the Pacific Conference on the Human Face of the Global Economic Crisis.

There I had the opportunity to hear from seventeen year old Danielle Willis, from Palau, who, speaking on behalf of Pacific youth, shared with us how the crisis is affecting the lives of the people in the region.

She spoke of how more mothers and fathers are unemployed; how meals are being skipped; children are being pulled out of school; and how frustrations, tensions and violence are increasing at home and within communities.

She urged the leaders at the conference to listen to the voices of the vulnerable and reminded them that their decisions would affect millions.

Although Danielle’s daily life in Palau may differ from that of seventeen year olds in Bolivia, Guyana or Panama, she pointed to one important thing true in both the Pacific and the Latin America region - and indeed across the world: it is the poor and the vulnerable who feel the impact of the global economic crisis most severely.

Research has shown that past economic crises have left lasting effects on the most vulnerable. A study of the longer-term impacts of the East Asia crisis concluded that around half of Indonesia’s poverty count in 2002 was a result of the 1998 crisis even though macroeconomic recovery had been accomplished well before 2002.

These effects remind us of the importance of designing and implementing social protection schemes which protect the most vulnerable in times of crisis.  

Latin America is a region with some of the largest programmes of social protection. The region however, has not been spared from the global downturn and past programmes may need to be adjusted to respond to the crisis, if they have not already been. For these reasons, a gathering like this Latin American Forum for Social Strategic thinking is particularly timely and relevant.

After steady growth since 2002 and remarkable progress in macroeconomic and social indicators, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) forecast a decline of 1.8% in regional GDP in 2009. In 2009 unemployment rates increased in practically all countries in the region and although it is expected that employment will increase in 2010, the recovery is likely to be slow.

Although the region is on track for reaching many of the Millennium Development Goals, the combined effects of the global crises risk jeopardizing recent progress. After an impressive six years of falling poverty levels, estimates suggest a significant poverty increase - over nine million more people were expected to live in poverty in 2009. This is basically equivalent to the total number of people who were lifted out of poverty in 2007 and 2008 combined.

When it comes to extreme poverty, the impacts of the economic crisis are even greater, as the food and the fuel crises had already reversed the region’s falling trend in poverty rates in 2008. This means that in 2009 there were an estimated five million more people living in extreme poverty compared to the previous year.

As is usually the case, the impact has been uneven across groups and areas.

I urge you to give particular attention to the impact of the crisis on gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Even before the crisis, women in many countries in the region were more likely than men to be living in poverty. Now they are also disproportionately affected by the crisis. The same goes for children. Child and maternal mortality are projected to increase, and school enrolment, particularly at younger ages, is also likely to suffer setbacks in some countries.

These are not only problems for today. When poor families are forced to pull their children out of schools, that has a lasting impact on poverty as school drop-outs tend to earn less as adults.

While the impact of the crisis has been significant, however, it has generally been smaller than in other developing regions.

Latin America’s impressive growth records before the crisis, and the progress towards achieving the MDGs, demonstrate what good leadership, sound policies and appropriate support from the international community can achieve.

One of the most important lessons which can be drawn from the Latin America region is that inclusive and sustainable development is not an automatic result of economic growth: explicit policies to promote human development must go hand in hand with economic policies and initiatives. Markets do not deliver equity and justice; nor is that their function.  That must be done through deliberate public policy.

Over the past 10 years, social protection initiatives have multiplied in most countries in the region. Investments in social protection and the institutional mechanisms of social policy have benefited from constant innovation and improvement.

Experience shows that with appropriate social protection it should be possible to protect a significant number of the world’s poorest people in times of crisis, thereby sustaining human development achievements.

This is confirmed in a UNDP survey financed by the Spain-UNDP Trust Fund. The survey, a copy of which will be distributed to you during this Forum, details how Latin American social ministries responded in timely and effective ways to the crisis, which otherwise could have had more serious implications.

UNDP has been a partner in these efforts:

As part of the Poverty and Social Impact Analyses project (PSIAs), we supported the governments of Paraguay and those in the Eastern Caribbean region to assess the impact of the crisis. This contributed to identifying policy options to protect socially vulnerable groups.  

In El Salvador, we have been supporting efforts to institutionalize the Comunidades Solidarias Rurales programme, through the development of tools for medium and long-term planning and costing. As well, we have provided support in the development of the rural and urban poverty maps.

In some quarters, it may be thought that measures designed to assist the poorest and most vulnerable are inconsistent with doing what it takes to reinvigorate the economy. It is UNDP’s experience, however, that comprehensive social assistance through tough times builds the resilience which can strengthen economic outcomes.

Although countries differ in their needs and capacities, there is much to be gained by exchanging experiences and co-operating in the design of social protection programmes.

In September of this year there will be a major summit here at the United Nations in New York, aimed at accelerating action towards meeting the MDGs by 2015.

By identifying successful initiatives, scaling them up and replicating them around the world, we can step up progress towards the Goals.

Latin America has a lot to offer in this regard.

Innovations pioneered in the region reveal just how effective social policy can be in advancing development goals. A leading example are the cash transfer programs which have been implemented in 17 countries in the Latin America region and benefited over 101 million people. Now such schemes are also being implemented around the world, and other regions are keen to learn from this region’s experiences.

The Third Forum for Social Strategic Thinking in Latin America
Opening Address by Helen Clark, UNDP Administrator

Through the International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth in Brasilia, UNDP has facilitated efforts to share the Latin American experience of cash transfers and social protection with Africa. In India, we helped to organize a conference which shared practical experience from Latin America with Asian countries already undertaking or considering such programmes.

I know that during this Forum you will examine how, in times of crisis, to improve and better implement existing social schemes like cash transfer programmes and those in the field of health and education.

Related topics which you may wish to consider include how to ensure that major social protection programmes are flexible enough to identify and support new families falling into poverty during crises; and how to move away from ad hoc social protection programs towards comprehensive social policy. Also important are how to improve measures to address unemployment and how to enhance the access of the poor to credit for income generating activities.

The past two forums were certainly a success, and I expect this one to be no exception.

Not only am I certain that you will walk away with enhanced knowledge of practices and innovations which can be implemented to accelerate development in  your own country, but also you will contribute to sharing the Latin America experience so that it can be of benefit to other regions of the world.

Thank you