Poverty, inequality and discrimination in Latin America

When governments are seeking to reduce poverty based on discrimination and increase access to the enjoyment of rights, policies must also aim to reduce discrimination due to historical factors. Español

Maryluz Barragán
28 December 2017

"Social inequality is more violent than any protest." Photo by: Clara (via openGlobalRights/DeJusticia). All rights reserved.

Poverty is the deprivation of one's well-being, is not having a decent home where to take refuge, to be sick and not receive the necessary care, to work in unhealthy conditions, to not have the opportunity to go to school, among many other situations. 

This implies a significant threat to guaranteeing fundamental rights. In particular, in Latin America and the Caribbean, poverty tends to be closely related to discrimination and inequality. That is why, any poverty reduction policy in the region must recognize these phenomena and propose positive actions to counteract them and not remain neutral before them.

Poverty is a cause and consequence of human rights violations. The impoverished face the fact that they are often unaware of their own rights. They tend to experience a stigmatization, segregation and discrimination cycle that compromises the fulfillment of their rights to equality and a dignified life. In the same way, historically discriminated people tend to be overrepresented in the group of people with lower incomes. 

This is because poverty dynamics are also mediated by discrimination factors that influence the exclusion of women, Afro-descendants, indigenous people, people with disabilities, LGBT, among others. This results in two things: i) people belonging to minority groups are more likely to fall into poverty circles; ii) a greater lack of protection of the rights of minority groups living in poverty.

For example, the report on multidimensional poverty of Multidimensional Progress: Wellbeing beyond income (2016), indicates that many members of the more than 400 indigenous groups in the region suffer from systemic deficiencies that make it difficult for them to enjoy the same level of protection as residents who are non-indigenous.

In Guatemala, non-indigenous children go to school twice as many times as their indigenous peers. In Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru and Mexico, non-indigenous children study between two and three and a half years more than those who are indigenous. Considering the importance of education as a main factor of socio-economic mobility, these limitations entail a serious impact on the right to education of indigenous children with direct repercussions on their civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.

In terms of inequality, the most recent report of the IACHR on Poverty and Human Rights (2017) states that in 2014 in Latin America, 10% of the population accounted for 71% of the total wealth. This in comparison with half of the population, which was in a situation of poverty and had only accumulated 3.2% of total wealth. In that context, and in more specific terms, only 1% of the population owned 40% of the wealth.


Gini index accross the region. Source: ECLAC 

Likewise, in the last report by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, The Social Panorama of Latin America 2016, despite the efforts made by governments to reduce inequality, Latin America and the Caribbean continues to be the most unequal region in the world. This coincides with the UNDP report (2016), which states that 10 of the 15 most unequal countries in the world are in the region.

Policies must also aim to reduce discrimination due to historical factors such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, among others, because elements facilitate the impoverishment of various social groups.

In light of this problem and the trend of wealth concentration, it is essential that the States of the region, at the moment in which human development measures are structured, take into account the risks of diversion of social policy resources and the greater vulnerability of minority groups. 

On the one hand, the structuring of more rigorous fiscal controls of public spending and an active participation of the impoverished population could limit the diversion of resources destined to poverty reduction.

The limited capacity that this segment of the population has to denounce and/or conduct citizen oversight over public resources destined to social programs facilitates the irregular management of the same. 

For this reason, it is necessary to make available an effective information system so that everyone is aware of these resources, as well as to implement clear and expeditious procedures for reporting corruption cases. This offers a two-way control system with concrete actions by the State and that commits citizens to contribute to the improvement of their living conditions.

And on the other hand, without having to enter into the debate about what is more serious if poverty discrimination or poverty caused by discrimination, it is essential that measures to reduce poverty take into account the way in which historical discrimination of minorities influences the resource distribution and rights protection.

When governments are seeking to reduce poverty based on discrimination and increase access to the enjoyment of rights, policies must also aim to reduce discrimination due to historical factors such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, among others, because these are elements that facilitate the impoverishment of various social groups.  


Article previously published at openGlobalRights/DeJusticia

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