Defining social exclusion

In Latin America and the Caribbean, to be an indigenous person, an afro-descendent, a woman or disabled increases the chances of belonging to the group of the socially excluded.  Social exclusion is defined as a chronic scarcity of opportunities, access to basic services of quality, labor markets and credit, adequate infrastructure, and the judicial system.

For many years, the poverty and social degradation resulting from the region’s inequality were considered simply an economic problem. Only in recent years have greater attention and analysis been paid to the complex set of social, economic, and cultural practices making up "social exclusion", in which certain groups are given limited access to the benefits of development based on race, gender, ethnicity, or physical abilities.

Ironically, in Latin America and the Caribbean the "excluded" are not small segments of the population. In a number of countries with high indigenous or afro-descendent populations, they can actually constitute the majority. Afro-descendents are often considered the most "invisible" among the invisible. They are absent from positions of political, economic and educational leadership. Despite their invisibility, preliminary estimates put the afro-descendent population at a surprising 30% of the region’s population, with the largest concentrations in Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, and Haiti.

Indigenous peoples also make up a substantial percentage of the Latin American population.  Nearly 40 million people of indigenous origin live in Latin America and the Caribbean, making up 10% of the region’s population, yet they account for 25% of the region’s poorest.  In Brazil, Peru, Bolivia and Guatemala, ethnic groups—indigenous and afro-descendents—constitute the majority of the population and 60% of those living in poverty.

Policies to fight social exclusion

At a conference held at IDB headquarters, Joan Subirats, Professor of Political Science at the Universidad Autonoma de Barcelona in Spain, presented several policies based on the European experience that could be used to formulate a strategy to combat social exclusion in Europe. The following are the main points of Professor Subirats’ presentation:

· If an individual is excluded by, for instance, changes in the social structure, loss of his or her job, or by the disintegration of certain basic social integration coordinates, the response, be it of a political or social nature, must be structured in such a way as to prevent exclusion and uncertainty.
· If the subject of exclusion is, for example, a single mother who also happens to be disabled, policies must be formulated in a highly coordinated and integrated manner between those involved—for instance, public ministries or non-profit organizations—and, if possible, at the local level.  This approach, rather than grappling with the problem at the national level, has certain advantages.

· If the exclusion process is highly dynamic, with several combined factors such as failure in school, low productivity in the workplace, lack of social safety nets, or single parenthood, the response must be geared towards prevention, social insertion and promotion mechanisms, as well as the reestablishment and strengthening of bonds with the family, the workplace and the community.

· Finally, if training is part of the fight against exclusion, public policies must include procedures and tools for individual and community involvement, and the strengthening of human and social capital.