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The nuances of exclusion

Once nearly inaudible, the public debate over the poverty and marginalization of ethnic groups in Latin America and the Caribbean is now hard to ignore.

The region’s leaders are showing a new awareness of an old problem that until recently was obscured by official indifference and inaction. In his inaugural address early this year, Mexican President Vicente Fox startled the legislators in his audience by committing himself "to eliminating all types of exclusion and discrimination of our minority groups." Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso has expressed similar concerns in reference to the situation of Brazilians of African descent and of indigenous groups.

Latin America’s leaders are coming to the conclusion that excluding a significant proportion of the population from the development process is not cost-effective and, in the end, harms everyone. As IDB President Enrique V. Iglesias put it recently, "for us, economic growth is also investment in human resources. The most important resource available to an economy is its people, and the opportunities lost as a result of social exclusion are many."

If it were possible to eliminate the gaps that separate these groups from the rest of the population–in health and education, for example–the benefits would be even more palpable. With equal opportunity in access to job markets, Brazil would increase its gross national product by 25 percent, according to recent IDB data. This same study estimated that 25 percent of the poverty in Bolivia, Brazil, Guatemala, and Peru is related to race and ethnic origin. According to the National Planning Department of Colombia, on that country’s Pacific coast, where 90 percent of the population is African-Colombian, 85 percent of the inhabitants live in poverty, compared with the national average of 32 percent.

The role of the state. The United Nations convened a World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance at the end of August 2001, in South Africa, to draft a program of action that explains the nature of racism and identifies strategies to combat it. Mary Robinson, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, stated recently that "future generations will not look kindly on us if we fail to try to resolve this problem today."

Around the world, thousands of nongovernmental organizations and associations of racial and ethnic groups have fought for the rights of minority populations for many decades. But little can be achieved unless governments are willing to adopt the changes necessary to dismantle systems that allow–and even encourage–the discrimination and marginalization that is evident to anyone travelling in Latin America or the Caribbean.

"The state plays, and will continue to play, an essential role on various key fronts to promote social inclusion: education, health, the fight against crime, poverty reduction, and the elimination of job discrimination," said Iglesias at a seminar on social exclusion held at Bank headquarters in Washington D.C. last June. "The governments are the driving forces in this field. We are here to help them," he added.

The market cannot resolve these issues on its own. Iglesias called for action by the state wherever inequalities exist and where there is a need to prepare people to enter the job market.

The main recommendation to emerge from the IDB seminar was for governments to stop denying the existence of racism. The process of civil participation was described as an activity that goes beyond consultations because it includes the right to evaluate programs and their impact as well as the requirement for transparency in the distribution and management of national budgets.

The IDB’s commitment. The IDB has been a pioneer in the field of combating social exclusion since its Eighth Replenishment in 1995, when it made a commitment to invest 50 percent of its loans in the social sectors. More than 40 percent of the Bank’s current portfolio involves projects related to poverty reduction and social equity. In 2000, 10 percent of the projects approved by the Bank recognized indigenous groups as beneficiaries or stakeholders.

The IDB recently approved an action plan against social exclusion that includes allocating $250 million to promote the development of strategies and projects that expand opportunities for people of African descent and members of indigenous groups. The plan also puts greater emphasis on gathering statistical information on minority groups; new research and dissemination efforts; and training for representatives of traditionally excluded groups and civil society organizations.

"We preach diversity but our development models are still unicultural," says Victor Hugo Cárdenas, former vice president of Bolivia and former president of the IDB-sponsored Indigenous Fund. It will not be easy to move from scorn for some cultures to appreciation and inclusion, but the time has come to take decisive steps in that direction.

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