Latin America and the Caribbean must take up the cause of social protection with the same level of commitment with which they have embraced economic reform, Inter-American Development Bank President Enrique V. Iglesias said today at a conference on how to shield societies' most vulnerable groups from the impact of economic crises and natural disasters.
Social protection cannot be left up to improvisation, which frequently turns out to be costly and inefficient. And it must be placed high on the region's agenda for social policy modernization, Iglesias added in his opening speech of the Feb. 4 and 5 Conference on Social Protection and Poverty Programs held at the IDB's Washington, D.C. headquarters.
Some 200 specialists, policy makers and representatives from international organizations and civil society groups were taking part in the event organized by the Poverty and Inequality Advisory Unit of the IDB's Sustainable Development Division.
Most Latin American and Caribbean countries lack strong social protection mechanisms or safety nets to prevent and mitigate the blow of economic crises, natural disasters and other calamities such as diseases on their poorest people, or the effects of demographic trends such as the ageing of the population.
Mexico's Social Development Secretary, Esteban Moctezuma Barragan, highlighted in his keynote speech the need to establish an Inter-American Civil Protection System, to globalize protection for the poor and to set up emergency financial mechanisms. He also underlined the need for setting clear rules, specific institutions to deal with emergencies, and appropriate mechanisms for citizens' participation.
A series of studies show that catastrophes --both of the natural and the man-made kind-- hurt the poor the most, a fact reflected in their lower incomes and higher rates of unemployment, malnourishment and school dropouts than the general population's levels. There is also evidence of lower levels of investment in the development of human capital among society's most vulnerable groups.
The consequences of this reality spread beyond the disadvantaged. In the long run, they will worsen inequality and stunt economic growth and productivity across the board.
The IDB conference, which seeks to stress the need to build these safety networks and to expand the knowledge of the size and characteristics of the problem of poverty, also serves as a forum to discuss the region's experiences and assess their results.
The first day of the meeting will be devoted to analyzing the national and international responses to recent economic crises and to natural disasters as those triggered by El Niño and Hurricane Mitch and the design of social safety nets.
On Friday, participants will study the role played by microcredit to reduce fluctuations in income and consumption among the poor, the role of jobs programs and unemployment insurance, as well as the tools for protecting the poor from the economic impact of disease and old age.
The IDB will also sponsor a series of national dialogues to promote social consensus on equality and antipoverty policies. The first of these fora will take place in Mexico City on Feb. 15 and 16.
- Christina MacCulloch