Race and Poverty in Latin America: Addressing the Development Needs of African Descendants

By Morrison, Judith | UN Chronicle, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Race and Poverty in Latin America: Addressing the Development Needs of African Descendants


Morrison, Judith, UN Chronicle


Latin America has made solid economic strides over the past two decades in terms of sustained economic growth, increasing average income levels and decreasing average infant mortality rates. However, these improvements do not share the full development picture. There has been widespread concern that despite these gains Latin American nations should be progressing more quickly--often leading to comparisons with Asia and, in more insidious moments, to an oversimplified discussion of Latin America merely having a culture that does not lead itself to development. What is rarely mentioned is that most of the region's nations still confront deeply seated racial inequality and discrimination that impacts all aspects of economic and social life. These problems of inequality must be addressed and resolved in order to deepen and sustain opportunities for large segments of the population. Ending racial discrimination in order to fully incorporate African descendant citizens, who account for 30 per cent of the region's population but make up more than half of the poor, is one of the most pressing tasks facing the Hemisphere.

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Data illustrates that race continues to be one of the most persistent predictors of poverty in the Americas, which is particularly troubling because African descendant populations tend to speak their nation's language as their mother tongues--whether it is Spanish or Portuguese--and are in close proximity to urban, coastal, port or mining areas, which tend to be centres for employment and economic growth opportunities. A targeted approach to eliminating racial gaps is needed to combat discrimination and lack of access to opportunities for these large communities.

There are an estimated 150 million African descendants in Latin America, according to the World Bank in 2006, which makes blacks the largest marginalized racial or ethnic group. In contrast, there are approximately 28 million indigenous peoples in Latin America, according to 2007 estimates, also from the World Bank. This makes the African descendant population five times larger than the indigenous population. International attention to the important needs of indigenous populations in Latin America has been widespread for the past twenty years. International institutions have set up targeted indigenous peoples' funds, and donor organizations have developed long-standing relationships to financially sustain the indigenous movement and their organizations. This support has translated into sustainable long-term policies and significant political victories for the indigenous movement. However, international attention for African descendants is much more recent; it only really began to take off in this decade, with the preparations for the World Conference against Racism in 2001 and, unfortunately, to date these efforts have not translated into a sustained source of international financial support for specific programmes dedicated to working with African descendants or their organizations. This lack of international commitment to addressing the development needs of African descendants makes the need for a targeted African descendant development so urgent.

A good starting point for addressing African descendant needs are the areas outlined in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) established in 2000 and unanimously adopted by 189 world leaders through the Millennium Declaration. These eight goals for poverty reduction, educational improvements, gender equality, child mortality, maternal health, infectious disease prevention, environmental sustainability and developmental partnerships will not reach the majority of the population with the current levels of discrimination against blacks. Despite the fact that there is no explicit reference to minority or ethnic groups in the goals or their corresponding indicators, the analysis of the eight goals above demonstrate the extent of African descendant exclusion; in other words, the MDGs provide a framework for analyzing poverty. …

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