Despite the fact that Latin America has the worst income distribution in the world and high levels of poverty measured by income, the region compares favorably with other parts of the developing world when it comes to health and education.
A new Human Poverty Index (HPI), produced by the United Nations Development Programme and published in the UNDP's Human Development Report 1997, shows that eight Latin American and Caribbean nations rank among the top 10 in a survey of the 78 developing nations for which there is sufficient information.
Trinidad and Tobago, Cuba, Chile and Costa Rica are among the top five in the list, which is calculated on the basis of the percentage of a population that suffers deprivation in three areas: longevity, knowledge and a decent standard of living. Deprivation in longevity is represented by the percentage of people not expected to survive to age 40, and in knowledge, by the percentage of adults who are illiterate. Deprivation in living standards is represented by a composite of the percentage of people without access to safe water, people without access to health services, and the percentage of underweight children under five.
Even the region's poorer nations, such as Haiti, Guatemala and El Salvador, are by no means at the bottom of the list. For example, Haiti ranks higher than 17 other countries, and conditions in Guatemala are better than in 32 other developing countries.
"Thanks to continued investments in the social sectors, conditions of living among the poor have undoubtedly improved in Latin America and the Caribbean over the past 10 years," says IDB economist Samuel Morley. "The number of poor people is falling thanks to reduced inflation and economic recovery in several big countries. But at the same time, the absolute numbers of poor people has increased in many countries."
Brazil is not included in the ranking because of its sharp regional contrasts. The poverty-stricken Northeast region has an HPI of 46 percent, the same as Guatemala. But the Southeast, with an HPI of 14 percent, ranks Brazil among the top 15 in the list.