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

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.


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. In every indicator, African descendants fall into the most marginalized categories.


In the country with the largest African descendant population in the Hemisphere -- Brazil -- we know that if the white and black populations were classified separately, the Human Development Index (HDI) of a hypothetical Afro-Brazilian nation would rank 101, while an all white nation would rank 46. The official HDI ranking for Brazil is 69, which is roughly the average of two racially divided Brazilian countries. The exclusion of Afro-Brazilians harms development prospects for the nation as a whole.


An Inter-American Development report recently calculated that Brazil and other Latin American economies could expand by over one third, if people of colour were fully included in the workforce of their nations. For example, blacks in Brazil are almost half the population -- 48 per cent, or 80 million, based on the most recent official statistics -- but their economic participation is only 20 per cent of GDP. Unemployment is 50 per cent higher among Afro-Brazilians than whites, and blacks who are employed earn less than half of what whites earn. The majority of Afro-Brazilians, 78 per cent, live below the poverty line, compared to 40 per cent of whites. Colombia has the second largest African descendant population in the region. Afro-Colombians make up about 26 per cent of the entire population, but represent well over 75 per cent of the poor and earn 34 per cent less than their non-black counterparts. Lack of access to jobs and lower wages are problems facing African descendants throughout the Latin American region.


The gap between the races has broad development consequences, particularly in larger nations like Brazil and Colombia. Afro-descendants have not benefited from development improvements and the gap stifles development for those nations as a whole.


Despite the compelling data cited above, quantifying the problem continues to be a problem in most countries because disaggregated data by race is abysmal throughout much of the region. With the exception of Brazil, a frontrunner on racial statistics, and a handful of other nations making progress on statistics, such as Colombia, Costa Rica, Belize, and Bolivia, most countries still do not have an adequate basic count of their African descendant population, let alone disaggregated statistics on development. One example of the challenges of collecting racial data can be seen in Colombia. Afro-Colombians have historically identified with their geographical community and have only more recently identified with racial categories. Therefore, an individual from the state of Chocó, San Andrés or Providencia might only mention where their home is as a way of designating their race. This made data collection difficult during the 1993 census, when only 500,000 people identified themselves as Afro-Colombian, or about 1.5 per cent of the total population. According to recent DANE updates, the total Afro-Colombian population is conservatively estimated at 18 per cent, although several official government documents report that Afro-Colombians could be as much as one third of the total population. However, there is optimism that the situation could improve with the creation of several special government ministries or councils established in the last six years in Brazil, Ecuador, Honduras, Peru and Uruguay to examine the needs of African descendants and other racial minority groups. Despite the lack of attention to African descendant populations in most places, Governments are increasingly collecting and analyzing data on the situation of Afro-Latin Americans. Countries like Brazil and Colombia have begun policy and legal measures to respond to race-based exclusion. It is also encouraging that a growing, albeit still small, number of black Latin Americans are winning elective office and gaining government appointments, which should translate into increased policy attention and opportunities to develop new development projects to address pervasive inequality gaps. The international community must support these efforts by investing institutional and human resources to improve data collection in order to better understand the problem and track policy solutions.


To further eliminate racial gaps, it is necessary to develop targeted African descendant projects to address inequalities in education, health care and job creation in order to incorporate blacks as quickly as possible into society. In addition to targeted approaches for African descendants, Governments must not forget to increase the representation of blacks in general safety-net programmes as a longer-term strategy to mainstream people of African descent in broader poverty alleviation programmes and ensure that blacks do not fall farther behind. The exclusion of African descendants from society has had grave consequences on the ability of nations to develop. Blacks continue to lag behind their white counterparts throughout the region, while Governments and international organizations have been slow to recognize the significance of Latin America's African descendant population in designing programmes, even though there is growing evidence that race is a key factor in the distribution of income, wealth and public services. The continuing lack of attention to pervasive socio-economic gaps must be addressed or Latin America as a whole will lag behind other regions of the world.

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