Who are society’s most vulnerable?
Latin America’s most vulnerable are those in the brown zones: areas where the state is absent, in terms of effective bureaucracy, public service provision and properly sanctioned legality. Depending on the country, you have a different threat, but increasingly public security is becoming a big issue in many Latin American countries – and this comes down to the state’s presence in its territories.
Why does Latin America remain the most unequal region in the world?
My research has looked at how commodity production has created inequalities at the subnational level. In Chile, for example, you find the wealthiest region’s in the north – low unemployment, low rates of poverty, low income inequality – and, yet, they have the worst healthcare. Why? Because the copper boom in 1982 brought with it the establishment of the health care system, but at the time, copper mining was almost exclusively in the hands of US companies. These companies built mining towns - with shops, healthcare, education and police – exclusively for their employees, around 40% of the population. So in these areas we see a serious underdevelopment of public infrastructure. In the Chilean case, non-state provision of these public services has actually disincentivised the state from providing them.
You’ll find local politicians and activists turning to these companies to find solutions to their service problems, rather than state actors. They run parallel to the state, or even replace it. It’s these types of cases, in the region’s brown zones, that contribute to Latin America’s ongoing inequality.
What should every policy-maker have at the front of their mind when working to reduce inequality in Latin America?
We’ve now established that growth itself isn’t going to get you to where you need to go. You need to do something with that growth. I think the priority is state-building. If we want to think about development in the robust sense, we need institutions that can do things, such as guarantee access to health care, to education, guarantee a safe working environment, protect clean water, clean air! We don’t have a historical example of places doing these things without the state being involved.
The region is one of the most violent; it is also one of the most unequal. Is there a link?
There is the hypothesis that the cause of violence is inequality. This region is very unequal, and this region is very violent, therefore inequality causes violence. But there’s also an argument that it’s not the case, it’s actually a question of state capability. If you think about it, the state comes before both violence and inequality. So if you have a strong capable state, that can control its territory and provide public services, then you’ll have lower levels of inequality. There is health care, education and a certain level of redistribution in taxation – and you’ll have lower levels of violence because the cartels and the gangs won’t control the territory. So why do we have the violence in Latin America? Really, it’s because there are pockets of territory where there is no state presence, and the vacuum has has been filled by these violent actors.
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