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A thirst for ethics

One of the core values of a society is to protect its children, but in Latin America, 58 percent of all children live below the poverty line and 33 percent of those under the age of two are malnourished. The number of completely neglected street children is growing.

Equity is a value prized by our civilization, yet Latin America is the most unequal region on the planet. The wealthiest 10 percent of Latin Americans have 84 times the income of the poorest 10 percent.

Protection of the family is a core value, but the fact is that poverty is destroying numerous Latin American families every day, and single mothers head 30 percent of the households in the region. Maternal mortality rates in the region are five times those in the developed world.

According to Bernardo Kliksberg, general coordinator of the Inter-American Initiative on Social Capital, Ethics and Development, these distressing figures reflect the magnitude of the ethical challenges facing the region. "Given the severe problems of poverty and inequality in Latin America, policymakers and development officials should be guided by basic ethical values such as accountability, sensitivity to poverty, a profound respect for the dignity of the poor, sense of urgency given the irreversible damage that poverty causes, and support to others so that they no longer need help," Kliksberg said at an international meeting entitled Ethics and Development: The New Challenges. The event, which was organized by the IDB and held September 1 to 3 in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, attracted more than 400 participants who heard proposals by experts, government ministers, prominent intellectuals, religious leaders and representatives of private enterprises and civil society.

At the meeting, Kliksberg announced the initiative, which brings together the IDB, the government of Norway, and 15 academic centers to expand the debate on ethics in the region and address such topics as the social responsibilities of business, volunteerism, and actions to reduce poverty. The purpose of the initiative is to help strengthen both ethical values and social capital in the countries of the region, since these aspects are closely interrelated and mutually empowering. International experience indicates that the countries having the most social capital and strongest ethical values have had the best results in terms of economic performance, quality of life, and democratic maturity.

The debate on ethics and development. During the opening session of the meeting, organized by the IDB in conjunction with the governments of Honduras and Norway, Bank President Enrique V. Iglesias–who was joined by Honduran President Carlos Flores and Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez, archbishop of Tegucigalpa–declared t that "there is a hunger for ethics in the world."

"The restoration of democracy that we have seen in Latin America has brought with it a demand for higher ethical values," Iglesias said. "Communities are judging the actions of government employees, businessmen, and international organizations. Civil society, one of the most powerful forces in the years ahead, will increase its ethical demands."

"There is also a hunger for solidarity," added Iglesias, who emphasized the importance of developing strong human and social capital in the region, both as a value in itself and as a means of supporting economic progress and firmly grounding democracy in the countries of Latin America. President Flores continued by suggesting that the region needs not only resources and opportunities, but also a greater international understanding of the difficult realities it faces. He stressed that we must see "what we can do with what we have" instead of automatically applying models or prescriptions from other latitudes. Flores added that development is not ethical unless it addresses the gap that separates 80 percent of the world population with severe unmet needs from the 20 percent whose needs are met.

Cardinal Rodríguez asked: "Why are people not conscience-stricken by what is happening ?" He said there is a pressing need to promote applied ethics and greater humanism in Latin American societies (see link on the right to read an interview with the cardinal).

Also taking part in the opening ceremony at the headquarters of the Central American Bank for Economic Integration were its president, Pablo Schneider and Ambassador Jan Erik Leikvang from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Norway. Leikvang said that equity, inclusiveness, and social participation must be core ethical imperatives of the development agenda. Helge Semb, IDB representative in Honduras, warned against economicism and said that basic economic accords are not an end in themselves but rather a means of improving the quality of life.

The dimensions of ethics. The meeting featured three levels of analysis. The first addressed the relationship between ethics and economics; the second the relationship between ethics and health, education, and care of the environment; and the third the status of children and the excluded.

Among the prominent guests invited to the meeting were Astrid Fischel, vice president of Costa Rica, who presented the results of the "Solidarity Triangle." This is a Costa Rican initiative that coordinates commitments and resources from national and local governments, companies, and communities to develop initiatives with a shared vision. More than 3,000 development projects have been carried out under this program.

María Teresa Szauer, director of Sustainable Development at the Andean Development Corporation, emphasized the sustainable development approach as an ethical alternative for dealing with worldwide environmental problems. She said development initiatives must try to unite the environmental, economic and social aspects of problems and promote the capacity to meet current needs without compromising future ones.

Javier Sanín, a political scientist, referred to the need to find new ways to involve and compensate those, such as children and young people under the age of 18, who are not adequately represented by the political system (even in democracies where they often constitute a majority). He also mentioned the importance of respecting the cultural identities of ethnic, regional, and generational groups, and the significance of gender issues. He said we must put an end to poor public policies for the poor and, with a note of skepticism, added that codes of ethics alone will not correct the situation.

Bianor Scelza Cavalcanti, director of the School of Public Administration of the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Brazil, suggested new ways of thinking about topics ranging from the fight for pure ethics to the Brazilian government policy of violating patent agreements in order to furnish five million HIV-infected persons with medicine that can prolong their lives. Cavalcanti suggested that these actions represent a triumph of applied ethics in today’s world.

Carlos Anibal Degrossi, dean of the University of Buenos Aires School of Economics, presented a calculation of the economic importance of ethics. Ethics is not an end in itself, he argued, because countries that disregard ethics tend to be less efficient at both the micro- and macro-economic levels.

The meeting was held under the auspices of the Central American Bank for Economic Integration, the Andean Development Corporation and the National and Catholic Universities of Honduras.

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