Race and Ethnicity: By the Numbers

By Morrison, Judith | Americas Quarterly, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Race and Ethnicity: By the Numbers


Morrison, Judith, Americas Quarterly


Why refi ning country census methods to accurately count race and ethnicity matters- for policy, development and business.

Despite growing recognition that racial and ethnic groups across the Americas are disproportionately poor, government interventions that address their needs have been inadequate. Yet if the region's current economic growth is going to be sustained, it will require policy tools that address the exclusion of these groups from the larger society.

The lack of solid data has been the biggest obstacle to developing programs that target these marginalized groups. There has never been a more critical moment to get such programs under way.

Eleven of the 20 most unequal countries in the world are in Latin America, and four nations in the region have become more unequal-measured by the Gini coeffi cient-since 2000.1 Most tragically, the systemic lack of access to socioeconomic opportunities for Indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants not only cripples future development, but poses a current threat to stability. For example, six of the fourteen most violent countries in the world are in Latin America, and three of them have the highest levels of global inequality.2

Quality data, particularly via household surveys, can assist in developing programs that can systematically address exclusion.

LEARNING HOW TO COUNT

Household survey data are one of the most important sources of information for determining levels of access and gaps in national coverage. Reliable data help decision-makers analyze successes and failures of a wide range of programs, such as water and sanitation. More broadly, the data serve as a cornerstone for measuring development progress, designing targeted programs, and monitoring the success and effi ciency of development programs.

But when household surveys inadequately incorporate racial or ethnic populations in sampling, they provide limited socioeconomic information on the most marginalized groups in society-the very groups that often lack access to basic services. Another problem is that marginalized racial and ethnic groups are often not incorporated in the data collection exercises that serve as the basis for national policy and investment decisions.

In countries such as Panama, Paraguay, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, and Bolivia, over 60 percent of the Indigenous and Afro-descendant populations are poor. Nevertheless, in too many cases the extent of these populations' exclusion from society has not been accurately measured because of household surveys that do not include ethnicity-even in countries where poverty is as high as 80 percent in Indigenous or Afro-descendant communities.

In those countries where data are available, the lack of access to services in Indigenous and Afro-descendant regions is so high in certain sectors that their exclusion distorts national indicators. For example, Latin America and the Caribbean may have diffi culties reaching Millennium Development Goal targets in areas such as maternal health in part because of persistent racial and ethnic gaps.

In Guatemala, Indigenous women are three times more likely to die in childbirth than their non-Indigenous counterparts. This gap is signifi cant enough to affect the overall statistics for the country as a whole.3 In Panama, the maternal mortality rate among the rural Indigenous is 10 times higher than the national average of 70 per 100,000 live births.4

Further, we have discovered that race and ethnicity are a more important determinant of people's access to quality health care than income. For example, Indigenous citizens in Mexico receive overall lower quality health care regardless of their level of personal income. In a 2005 report based on an assessment of health protocols in rural areas of the country by Barber, Bertozzi and Gertler, Indigenous peoples in higher income brackets were only able to access quality health care at a level equivalent to the poorest quintile of non-Indigenous peoples. …

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