El Salvador: Draft Budget Confirms Structural Problems in Public Finance

By ICEFI and CLALS*

US banknote lot

U.S. Banknote Lot/ Creative Commons/ https://www.pxfuel.com/en/free-photo-jqchd

The budget that President Nayib Bukele submitted to El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly in September increases much-needed social spending appropriate for the country’s current socio-economic context, but it lacks clear objectives and benchmarks — and fails to address ongoing structural problems in public finance.

  • The proposed budget is based on revenues of US$5.466 billion, 92.7 percent of which will come from taxes. In gross terms — without considering tax rebates — that amounts to a tax burden of 18.2 percent of GDP, just below the 18.3 percent that ICEFI estimates for 2019. In net terms, the budget claims taxes will reach 18.1 percent of GDP (compared to 17.7 percent in 2019), but that figure is not realistic: it estimates tax refunds of only $16.5 million — compared to $117.4 million for the January-August period of this year. This error threatens to undermine serious Legislative debate.

Spending in the proposed 2020 budget reaches $5.774 billion — equal to 20.8 percent of GDP, compared to 22.3 percent estimated for 2019. Some areas that are already struggling, such as environmental programs, face significant cuts, while others will experience modest decreases and increases.

  • According to the draft, Central Government operating costs will decrease by 1.8 percent of GDP, driven by cuts in contracting of services and purchase of goods as well as in current transfers. Capital expenditures, on the other hand, will increase 0.3 percent over 2019 — that is, about 3.3 percent of GDP.
  • The Central Government’s spending on social development is slated to grow to its highest level in decades — about 10.5 percent of GDP ($2.921 billion), compared to 9.7 percent this year. The main beneficiaries of the increase will be municipal governments, pension systems, trusts for social security, and health care. With some 800,000 children and adolescents lacking schools to attend, the proposed increase in the education budget — from 3.73 percent (in 2019) to 3.75 percent — is minimal.

The budget anticipates a slight increase in the federal deficit. The non-financial public sector, including trusts to cover social security obligations, will experience a deficit of 3.1 percent of GDP (compared to the 2.7 percent that ICEFI estimates for 2019) — pushing total public debt to 70 percent of GDP. That’s less than the 70.7 percent estimated for 2019, but ICEFI cautions that the decline could easily evaporate as the government faces growing demands over the course of the year. Either way, debt servicing will remain the most significant item in the 2020 budget, reaching $1.102 billion (4 percent of GDP).

The perennial challenge that El Salvador’s leaders like their counterparts throughout the region  face is how to stimulate economic growth and reduce inequalities to make the state more democratic and effective. But this budget, if implemented as drafted, will achieve neither goal in politically significant ways. The fiscal data underscore that the fundamental structural problems low revenues, inadequate public spending, and high fiscal deficits and public debt remain unaddressed.

  • The increase in capital spending, while positive, is insufficient to have its desired impact of driving economic growth. ICEFI’s analysis indicates that the jump in social spending is certainly warranted by the growing unhappiness in various social sectors, but also falls far short of what’s needed to reverse ongoing negative trends. The cuts in environmental protection from a minuscule 0.07 percent of GDP (2019) to 0.05 percent seem outright foolish for a country that has already shown vulnerabilities, which could aggravate existing economic and social conditions. Rather than taking on the serious challenges El Salvador and its economy face, the 2020 draft budget kicks the can down the road, without credible expectation that the task will be easier in the future.

December 9, 2019

* The Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales conducts in-depth research and analysis on the region’s economies. Data and charts supporting this article can be found by clicking here. This is the third in a series of summaries of its analyses on Central American countries.

Honduras: Facing the Budget Challenges?

By ICEFI and CLALS*

Honduran Lempiras

Honduran Lempiras/ Alex Steffler/ Flickr/ Creative Commons

Honduras’ proposed budget for 2020 reduces support to the country’s most needy – while protecting the military and security agencies – and, particularly if the debate on priorities is not made more inclusive, risks exacerbating already high political tensions and chronic economic mismanagement. On the revenue side, the draft budget shows a drop in tax revenues from 18 percent of GDP in 2019 to 16.5 percent – which, ICEFI has found, is not justified by technical analysis of the circumstances. Government spending – excluding payment on the national debt but including transfers to funds and trusts – equaled 19.7 percent of GDP, compared to 21.5 percent in 2019. (ICEFI estimates that the average government spending in Central America in 2019 will be 18.5 percent.) This drop will affect most public entities, particularly in social spending.

  • Education faces deep cuts. The budget of the Secretariat of Education, for example, will drop from 4.85 percent of GDP in 2019 to 4.49 in 2020. Transfers to public universities are slated to be reduced 23.1 percent from 2019 levels, and scholarships are also on the chopping block – cut 27.5 percent for national and 37.5 percent for international scholarships.
  • Health spending in Honduras – the country with the highest poverty rates in Central America – will decline from 2.39 percent to 2.37 percent at a time that inflation is more than 4 percent. The budget for Infrastructure and Public Services will be hit hardest – cut from 0.82 percent of GDP to 0.40 percent. Capital expenditures or investment will decline 33.5 percent year on year, including 38.5 percent from machinery and equipment and 34.6 percent for construction.
  • One of the only government sectors seeing increases is in the military and security, according to ICEFI. The 2020 budget proposes a 39.6 percent increase from 2019 on military and security equipment.

At first glance, the budget would appear to produce a surplus in 2020 of about 0.4 percent of GDP, which is double that ICEFI estimates for 2019. But factoring in the transfer of resources to the funds and trusts – a more reliable way of tracking fiscal behavior – the deficit will actually be 1.5 percent of GDP. That’s lower than ICEFI’s estimate of the deficit this year (1.9 percent), but it is achieved at the expense of the wellbeing of a majority of the Honduran population.

If approved and implemented as proposed, the budget will set back several strategic goals that the Honduran government itself has set. The budget confirms the government’s desire to reduce the public deficit principally through cuts to social spending and some capital expenditures – even though the approach contravenes commitments made under the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child and General Comment No. 19 (2016) on public budgeting for the promotion of children’s rights, which establishes that states should not deliberately adopt regressive measures that undermine child’s rights.

  • Although some provisions of the budget in principle could expand production of goods and services, they do not clearly point to either social inclusion, especially in terms of gender, age, and ethnicity. Budget allocations dedicated to attention to women are very low, equaling barely 0.19 percent of all spending. Neither does the budget focus on achieving any particular Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The transparency and inclusiveness of the budget debate in the Honduran Congress will be crucial to determining the longer-term impact of this budget on human rights and the provision of public goods and services to the most vulnerable Hondurans, including children, adolescents, and women. Executive and Congressional decisions on the budget will shift the country’s path toward prosperity and governance – or continue down a path of instability and tension. More breaks for those capable of paying taxes, while cutting essential services to those who cannot, will be a step in the wrong direction. At a minimum, Honduran leaders should demonstrate the benefits of such moves will outweigh the costs. The legitimacy and effectiveness of the Honduran budget will depend on a broad, inclusive, and honest debate.

November 26, 2019

* The Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales conducts in-depth research and analysis on the region’s economies. This is the second in a series of summaries of its analyses on Central American countries.

Mexico’s Teachers Between a Rock and a Hard Place

By Christian Bracho*

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Members of Mexico’s Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de Educación (CNTE) at a mass mobilization in 2013. / Eneas De Troya / Flickr / Creative Commons

Teachers in Oaxaca and other Mexican states are increasingly fearful and resentful of both their union and the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI).  Since the 1970s, Mexico’s Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de Educación (CNTE) has operated as a formalized dissident caucus within the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de Educación (SNTE), the national union that has been an essential part of state machinery since the 1940s and strongly aligned with the PRI.  CNTE rallied for many causes, such as union democratization, regional autonomy, and economic justice, and enjoyed the most popular support in the 1980s.  As they accumulated power in the 1990s in states like Oaxaca, CNTE leaders turned to neo-corporatist strategies to incentivize teachers’ participation in union mobilizations.  An extensive point system, for example, rewarded teachers for going to marches, camping out during strike periods, and attending rallies in Mexico City; teachers who failed to participate in a minimum amount of activities lost union privileges and benefits.  By 2005, Oaxaca’s union had split over its focus on politics rather than pedagogy.  Over the last ten years, dissident teachers have increasingly faced government pressure and violence.

  • In 2006, military police broke up a rebellion led by striking teachers in Oaxaca state, in which dozens of activists were killed. In 2013, the massive teacher strike against President Peña Nieto’s constitutional reforms – which would require states to implement national education policies – ended with the violent eviction of teachers from Mexico City’s zócalo.  In 2014, 43 student teachers in Guerrero state were massacred, and last year over a dozen protesters were killed in Nochixtlán, outside of Oaxaca’s capital city.

Although these incidents provide teachers’ unions considerable cause for continued mobilization, my research indicates that teachers in states like Oaxaca are less convinced that their ongoing struggles represent authentic political resistance.  Many say they are fulfilling syndical obligations – less a reflection of personal convictions – because attendance is recorded and assures payment.  Teachers tell me that they trust neither the government nor the union; they see government as an entrenched century-old political machine that has resurged with more impunity than ever, and the union – both nationally and regionally –as driven by special interests and cronyism.  Maestros feel they have little recourse but to fend for themselves and families.  They fear the violence that the government may visit upon them, but they also fear the public shaming they face if they criticize the union’s political tactics or support government reforms.

Education reform in Mexico is vital to improve the overall quality of teaching and learning – and to address the social and economic inequalities across the country.  Government action is essential to such efforts, but endemic corruption has stained the public’s image of national and state leaders, cultivating distrust of top-down policies.  The union is also essential to protecting teachers’ interests and challenging the hegemony of the national government, but its neo-corporatist strategies such as the point system delegitimize the activist banner waved by leaders in states like Oaxaca.  Especially with increasing symbolic and physical violence, teachers are in an impossible position, stuck between two forces they don’t trust and facing dire consequences if they challenge the authority of either the government or union.  Though dissident teachers are important to putting a check on government impunity and corruption, the union’s sustained mobilizations have negatively impacted their profession and student achievement.  While “the teacher fighting is also teaching” – a common refrain in Mexico – teachers must also be free to step away from the march and into the classroom.

March 16, 2017

* Christian Bracho teaches in the International Training and Education Program at American University’s School of Education.

Does Trade Incentivize Educational Achievement?

By Raymundo Miguel Campos Vázquez, Luis-Felipe López-Calva, and Nora Lustig*

Female student walking by building

A student walks around Preparatoria Vasconcelos Tecate. / Gabriel Flores Romero / Flickr / Creative Commons

Mexico’s experience with free trade has challenged one of the tenets of faith economists know well from reading early in their careers David Ricardo’s Principles of Political Economy and Taxation: that “the pursuit of individual advantage is admirably connected with the universal good of the whole” and that “[trade] distributes labor most effectively and most economically.”  Under this principle, “wine shall be made in France and Portugal; corn shall be grown in America and Poland; and hardware and other goods shall be manufactured in England.”  Mexico reminds us that while these benefits exist in the abstract, there are trade-offs to be faced—that there are, potentially, social and individual costs induced by trade liberalization.

In a recently published paper entitled “Endogenous Skill Acquisition and Export Manufacturing in Mexico,” MIT economics professor David Atkin shows the ways in which individual people experience trade and how it affects their decision-making – sometimes in ways that may not necessarily be socially desirable.  It analyzes a time period (1986-2000) during which Mexico underwent major economic transformations, including a rapid process of trade liberalization after 1989 and the introduction of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994.  Analyzing data for more than 2,300 municipalities in the country, the paper tells us that young Mexicans at the time faced a very basic decision: to stay in school and continue studying or to drop out and look for a job (among the many being created in the export-oriented manufacturing sector), most of which did not require more than a high school education.  Atkin found that, on average, for every 25 new jobs created in the manufacturing sector, one student would drop out after 9th grade.  (The World Development Report 2008 on Agriculture for Development had raised the question about “missing” individuals in this age group, but in relation to migration.)

  • While trade brought positive effects including a higher demand for low skilled workers and an eventual increase in their wages – consistent with David Ricardo’s basic notion – Atkin concluded that in Mexico it had the socially undesirable effect of preventing, or slowing down, the accumulation of human capital. The reduction in human capital investment is a trade-off which can have negative effects on the economy as a whole.
  • Factors other than free trade might explain this effect. First, young students may drop out if the returns to schooling are not high enough to compensate for the additional investment.  Second, a lack of access to credit and insurance for relatively poorer households might make it impossible for aspiring students to finance their investment and obtain higher returns by continuing to tertiary education or to cope with shocks and avoid abandoning school.  Finally, the result could be driven by a lack of availability of information about actual returns to investment in education, which could lead to myopic decision-making.

The movement of capital toward locations with lower labor costs is an expected, and intended, result of an agreement such as NAFTA, pursuing higher export competitiveness at the regional level.  David Ricardo would have said that TVs and automobiles shall be made in Mexico, while software shall be made in Silicon Valley.  What completes the story, however, is that because of distortions like the ones mentioned above – low educational quality, under-developed credit markets, or weak information that skews decision-making – free trade might lead to socially undesirable consequences.  And it did in the case of Mexico, as Atkin convincingly shows in his paper.  It seems that when Ricardo gets to the tropics, the world gets more complex.

November 7, 2016

* Raymundo Miguel Campos Vázquez teaches at the Centro de Estudios Económicos at el Colegio de México, and is currently conducting research at the University of California, Berkeley.  Luis-Felipe López-Calva is Lead Economist and Co-Director of the World Development Report 2017 on Governance and the Law.  Nora Lustig is Professor of Latin American Economics at Tulane University.

Can Latin America Escape the Middle-Income Trap?

By Rick Doner and Ben Ross Schneider*

challenges logo (revised)2

Photo Credit: Inter-American Development Bank / CLALS / Edited 

Most literature on the “middle-income trap,” widely understood as a core obstacle to sustained development in Latin America, focuses solely on economic dynamics and understates the importance and challenges of political coalition-building.  That literature, largely generated by economists in academe and international financial institutions, argues convincingly that in Latin America, as well as Southeast Asia, once countries achieve some degree of success in economic development, they get stuck.  They are unable to compete with low-cost producers in traditional sectors – initial development success brings higher wages and other costs – while they also have failed to gain the capacity to compete with developed economies in frontier industries, where technological capabilities and productivity levels are far higher.  These analysts stress that Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Mexico – or for that matter Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand – need to build on their achievements over the past half century in order to make the leap into the ranks of the world’s most prosperous nations.  They highlight the trap’s proximate origins in productivity slowdowns and recommend policy solutions that focus on improving human capital through investment in education and vocational training.  But identifying problems and potential solutions does not explain why leaders fail to adopt the solutions.  In other words, it’s not clear from existing writings why the trap is actually a trap.

The literature does not acknowledge that fundamental political obstacles, especially lack of effective demand and pressure for these solutions, are at the heart of the problem.  As is evident from the history of failed programs to improve education and R&D, political will to invest in such public goods is in short supply.  Politicians are rarely willing to forgo the short-term political benefits of satisfying entrenched interest groups for the long-term developmental benefits of creating institutions capable of helping the broader citizenry to upgrade its capacity for technology absorption.  A core reason for this lack of political will is the weakness of the societal constituencies that might demand the necessary policies and effective institutions.  Our research indicates that relations among key societal actors in middle-income countries are less amenable to building the consensus that economists advocate. In a recent article, we argue that the same conditions that facilitated or accompanied movement to middle-income status – such as foreign investment, low-skilled and low-paid work, inequality, and informality – have generated political cleavages that impede upgrading policies and the construction of institutions necessary to implement them.  This fragmentation is why the trap is a trap. Three lines of fragmentation are key:

  • Big business is divided between foreign and domestic firms. The former can undertake productivity-improving measures in-house and/or at their home headquarters, whereas local firms tend to focus in non-tradeable services and commodities whose demand for better training and R&D is lower than in manufacturing.
  • Labor is fractured between formal and large, growing informal sectors. Enjoying longer job tenure and on-the-job training for specific skills, formal workers have little interest in broader skills development.  Informal workers, on the other hand, constantly shift jobs and would prefer investments in vocational institutions offering general training.
  • These societies remain overall less equal and, as is now well known, inequality undermines the will and capacity to provide broad public goods such as quality universal education and support for technology development.

 Pro-growth coalitions of various types have been key to productivity improvements in now-high income East Asian countries, such as Korea and Taiwan.  The fact that these countries had stronger (and more autocratic) governments does not preclude developing or building on such coalitions in countries with messier political systems and weaker bureaucracies.  First, leaders can build on sectoral pockets of high productivity, such as aquaculture in Chile, wine in Argentina (and rubber in Malaysia).  Second, international and regional institutions can help supplement demands for skills by supporting programs that focus on technical and vocational institutions that actually meet and are linked to employers’ needs.  Third, organizations such as the ILO can promote business associations that represent the local firms for whom collective technical training and R&D are especially important.

August 22, 2016

* Rick Doner and Ben Ross Schneider teach political science at Emory University and MIT, respectively.

Can Latin America Achieve Fiscally Sustainable and Egalitarian Social Citizenship?

By Fernando Filgueira*

Uncertain Future

Photo Credit: Jan Tik / Flickr / Creative Commons

Latin America is undergoing a profound transformation of its social policies and of the very concept of social citizenship, but the outcome of this process is far from certain.  Electoral democracy, urbanization, increased educational attainment, and increased exposure to new and broader consumption patterns have destroyed the political foundations for conservative modernization.  The turn of the century has witnessed advances in social outcomes and public policies that for the first time provide a true window of opportunity for achieving more productive and egalitarian societies.

  • Decreasing poverty, lower income inequality, improved and expanded employment, and access to transfers and services to popular sectors were made possible by five critical factors: booming prices for Latin American commodities fueled economic growth and employment; stable prices – a positive legacy of the Washington Consensus era – meant that wages and transfers were not undermined by inflation; increased state fiscal capacity and commitment to social policy enabled a doubling in 15 years of real social per-capita expenditure; a demographic dividend, when combined (the young and the elderly) dependency ratios are lowest as a percentage of the population; and improved education access, completion, and credentials, which facilitated enhanced opportunity and increased productivity.

Yet these five advantages will lose steam in the next couple of decades.  Growth will wither as the commodity boom ends and expansionary monetary policy is limited.  Most Latin American economies are facing increased inflationary pressures. Existing tax structures and in some cases productivity levels will not permit social expenditure to increase at the rate of the last 15 years.  The easy phase of the demographic transition (when dependency rates are going down) is or will be over in most countries towards 2025.  Some countries in the region will face the European dilemma of an aging population, but they will do so with a lower GDP per-capita, weaker fiscal capacities of states, and a significantly more unequal income distribution.  While the soft targets of expanded education – primary school and expansion of lower middle school – have been achieved, the tough ones remain: extended coverage in early childhood, completion of high school, quality improvement, and true reduction of inequality of outcome in learning.

  • Five fault lines in Latin American social regimes make these problems a major threat to the sustainability of both social and economic development. A) Women’s incorporation into the labor market remains low (50 percent) and is highly stratified.  B) The absence of a robust state-led care system for early childhood and the persistence of a patriarchal distribution of care burdens undermines a route to development that is both more efficient and egalitarian.  C) Stark contrasts between insiders and outsiders in informal and formal labor markets and access to social protection and cash transfer  systems contribute to an expansionary monetary and fiscal policy that mainly benefits insiders unwilling to be taxed for redistributional public and collective goods and insurance. D) The region’s middle class and new emergent class, moreover, are not willing to increase taxation, since they do not perceive the quality of public goods and collective social services as adequate. And E) the pattern of fertility shows some of the worst patterns in social terms, including that most biological reproduction is left to the poor: Latin American governments do not equalize opportunity early on and through the educational system – which in the most unequal region of the world with diminishing but non-convergent fertility rates – leads to a productivity failure since underinvesting in the poor is underinvesting in the frontier of productivity enhancement.

These challenges will condition the possibility of a new social citizenship and a social investment model based on robust public goods, expansion of merit goods, and universality of entitlements.  It is not enough that elites are no longer able to control the political and economic game through status enclosure and authoritarianism.  In order to craft truly universal social policies conducive to providing inclusion for all, societies must confront narrow corporatism and restricted targeting – and the political economy they sustain.  Contributory models based on formal wages and targeted social policies based on need will not disappear, but they have to take a back seat to a model of basic universalism where access to quality public and collective goods is truly universal, and entitlements in transfers and services are not dependent on need or labor formality.  There have been important advances, such as a marked increase in non-contributory systems of cash transfers in terms of pensions and child-family transfers, but the commodity boom and the rise of the emergent and middle classes that drove them are not permanent.  A coalition that is willing to forgo private spending power in order to enhance quality of life through collective services is needed.  Such a coalition is made conceivable by these political, economic, and social epochal changes, but it is by no means guaranteed.  If reforms do not make it a reality, the promise will be shattered, and the pendulum between failed populism, with state-led “Robin Hood” incorporation attempts, and a technocratic closure of democracy and state bashing, will remain the central and tragic dynamic of the region.**

July 18, 2016

*Fernando Filgueira is a Senior Resarcher at the Centro de Información y Estudios del Uruguay (CIESU) and Collaborating Researcher the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.  He is a member of the International Panel for Social Progress led by Amartya Sen.

**Read the full version of this essay, which is based on research done for the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and for EUROsociAL on social policy, labor dynamics, and demographic change.

Brazil: Sacrificing Anti-Poverty Success?

By Hayley Jones*

Bolsa Familia

Photo Credit: Senado Federal / Flickr / Creative Commons

Brazil’s flagship antipoverty program, the Bolsa Família, faces an uncertain future as the government of Interim President Michel Temer confronts adverse economic and political circumstances.  The program, which provides direct cash benefits to poor households on the condition that children fulfill education and health-related targets, was an important factor in Brazil’s progress on poverty and inequality since the early 2000s – between 2001 and 2013 the poverty headcount ratio declined from 24.7 percent to 8.9 percent, and the Gini coefficient declined from 59.3 to 52.9.  The Bolsa Família (formerly called Bolsa Escola) was a pioneer in the use of cash transfers in social policy in the 1990s.  The idea is enticingly simple: the cash allows families to meet immediate needs, while the education and health conditions ensure poor children are better equipped to lift themselves out of poverty in the long run.  Under Presidents Lula and Dilma, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) put the policy at the heart of its platform, and reaped advantages at the polls with the expansion of coverage and benefits.  The program now reaches about one-quarter of the population.

The social gains made in part thanks to the Bolsa Família may now be at risk.  Brazil has been hit hard by the collapse of commodity and oil prices over the last two years and is currently experiencing what is predicted to be the country’s worst recession since the 1930s.  GDP fell by roughly 4 percent in 2015 and is expected to do the same in 2016.  The deep political crisis gripping the country since earlier this year further threatens the program.  Temer, his party (PMDB), and Finance Minister Henrique Meirelles have stressed the need to cut spending to reduce the deficit.  While many areas of social spending, such as pensions and education, are protected in the budget under the 1988 Constitution,  the Bolsa Família is not.  With the large political constituency benefitting from the program, there is likely little appetite in the interim government to ax the program altogether.  In fact, at the end of June Temer announced a 12.5 percent increase to the Bolsa Família – more than the 9 percent promised by Dilma – to compensate for inflation.  But he also emphasized that benefits should be temporary and that there is a need to focus on exit doors from the program.  Social Development Minister, Osmar Terra, has suggested that the program could be made more efficient and costs cut by 10 percent.

Temer may not be entirely wrong to highlight the need for exit strategies, but they should be exit strategies from poverty rather than from the Bolsa Família itself.  There is so far little evidence that it has done much to change the life trajectories of poor young people that would allow them to move out of poverty. The emphasis on increased school enrollment and attendance as transformative obscures much deeper problems, including poor school progression and completion rates in low-quality schools, a lack of educational infrastructure and resources, poorly trained teachers, and outdated curricula, among others.  If Temer is serious about moving beneficiaries out of poverty and the program, priority will have to be given to correcting regressive spending in public education (which prioritizes higher over basic education); better aligning curricula with labor market demand; and addressing the poor job opportunities for low- and semi-skilled workers. Economic realities and the rhetoric on efficiency and exit strategies do not bode well for such changes.  Under Temer, the Bolsa Família seems likely be limited to a policy tool for risk insurance and meeting basic needs rather than a platform for extending the social gains of the last decade.

July 12, 2016

*Hayley Jones is a DPhil (PhD) Candidate in the Department of International Development at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom.  Her thesis examines long-term poverty reduction in the Bolsa Família program.

How Sustainable are Latin America’s Advances on Poverty and Inequality?

By Eric Hershberg

Brazil Contrasts

“Projeto Contrastes.” Photo Credit: Gabriela Sakamoto / Flickr / Creative Commons

The significant decline in poverty rates and income inequality in Latin America over the past two decades – driven by a combination of sustained economic growth and intelligently designed social policies – may slow or even be reversed as economic conditions deteriorate across much of the region.  Poverty had begun to drop in most countries even before the commodity boom accelerated growth rates in South America beginning around 2003.  The “Washington Consensus” policies of the 1990s impacted wage income and employment negatively, but other factors diminished their impact on poverty.  By overcoming profound macro-economic instability, which among other things produced hyperinflation that devastated disadvantaged sectors of the population, the economic adjustments of that period were not entirely regressive.  Moreover, a concurrent shift toward targeted social programs – which redirected subsidies away from less vulnerable segments of the population in order to protect the poorest of the poor.  By 2002, the number of people living on less than $1.90 a day had declined 4.6 per cent from where it had been at the beginning of the 1990s, according to the World Bank, while the number living on less than $3.10 stayed flat and actually rose (from 135.6 million to 138.1 million).  Performance varied across countries.  By 2012, after a strong decade of growth and a wave of progressive governments, the progress was much more impressive, with poverty dropping to 33.7 million ($1.90/day) and 72.2 million ($3.10/day).

Inequality declined also – a different challenge in the region that Kelly Hoffman and Miguel Centeno aptly labeled the “lopsided continent.”  Measured by GINI coefficients, income inequality in Latin America, which exceeded that of any other world region at the beginning of the century, grew less pronounced under governments of various ideological proclivities.  A substantial body of research shows that this was a product of two factors.

  • Investments in primary and secondary education, which accelerated during the neo-liberal years, meant lower wage premiums for those with more than basic skills: near universal attendance in secondary school reduced the significance of gaps between workers who had secondary education and those who had little schooling.
  • Innovative social policies – particularly conditional cash transfers – meant that the lower rungs of the income ladder received meaningful transfers from the state, enabling them to narrow the income gaps vis-à-vis less disadvantaged sectors. Less frequently acknowledged was the positive impact of reforms on minimum wage policies and the creation or expansion of non-contributory pensions, both of which were pushed aggressively by several governments associated with the “Left Turns.”  Non-contributory pensions were especially important since the most vulnerable of Latin American aged populations, having spent their working years toiling in the informal sector, had previously lacked any sort of retirement pension.  (Read further analysis of pension reform.)

The region’s slowdown in economic growth and the pressure on public finance brought about by the end of the commodity boom – and the infusion of cash into state coffers that it afforded – raise questions about the sustainability of these advances.  The benefits of investments in education will endure for some time.  Even if education budgets decline, the costs in terms of lower educational achievement would take years to become evident, and it is not at all certain that the funding will decline.  However, the social programs are much more vulnerable, as are the ambitious efforts to increase minimum wages and labor protections more broadly.  Should the economic contraction underway in some countries and on the horizon in others generate an increase in informality, the labor market achievements of recent years could be quickly eroded.   This would impact inequality, and it might soon exacerbate poverty as well.

June 3, 2016

U.S.-Colombia: Launching “Peace Colombia”

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

Kerry Santos

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of State / Flickr / Public Domain

The United States, buoyed by good feelings about what President Obama called Colombia’s “remarkable transformation,” last week pledged $450 million a year in continued aid for the next five years, but it’s not clear yet whether “Peace Colombia” will be very different from Plan Colombia, to which the United States contributed some $10 billion.  The new spending includes unspecified amounts to support the reintegration of FARC combatants who lay down their arms as part of a peace accord expected next month, but much of the emphasis appears to be on old priorities, such as “consolidating and expanding progress in security and counternarcotics.”

  • Obama and Colombian President Santos announced the new program in Washington events marking the 15th anniversary of the launch of Plan Colombia. Amid the many remarks about Colombia’s progress, indicators such as homicide rates (down 50 percent since 2002), kidnapping rates (down 90 percent), economic growth (averaging 4.3 percent), and poverty and unemployment (down slightly) stand out.  By most accounts, moving around core regions of Colombia is easier and safer than it’s been in decades.

Some of these gains of the past 15 years remain tenuous, and “Peace Colombia” will face new challenges as well.  In speeches and backgrounders, government officials have acknowledged that coca eradication and crop substitution programs have failed to reverse Colombia’s role as the world’s biggest producer of coca.  Moreover, programs supporting the demobilization of the FARC will be more difficult to implement than those given to the rightwing paramilitaries in 2002-2006.  Tens of thousands of former paramilitaries are now active in bandas criminales (BACRIMs), which President Santos recently referred to as “2,500 miniscule criminal organizations scattered throughout the country.”  Changing economic circumstances could also complicate efforts to advance peace.  During the years of Plan Colombia, the country got a healthy bump from both domestic and foreign investment – because of the improved security environment as well as the external economic environment, including the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement and Chinese demand for commodities.  Investment remains strong, but the export boom is over, which is lowering growth and squeezing government budgets.

The creation of economic opportunity is at least as important to the success of Peace Colombia as continued support for the Colombian military and security system, although last week’s speeches and press releases did not shed much light on that.  Achieving peace and building democracy will also require addressing infrastructure deficits, educational inequality, inadequate job training, and poverty.  Several Florida congressmen, arguing that “Peace Colombia” supports an accord that’s overly generous to the FARC, say they’ll oppose Obama’s pledged aid.  The assistance will almost certainly advance, however, because of the strong Washington consensus that Colombia is its biggest (if not only) success worldwide in beating back irregular armed groups.  Moreover, as President Santos and U.S. Secretary of State Kerry emphasized in a press conference, there are no conditions on the new assistance – which should assuage Congressional opponents’ concerns that the relationship will get held up by investigations into alleged human rights violations in the past.  The Presidents spoke of pulling Colombia back from the “verge of collapse” in the 2000s to the “verge of peace” now.  A broadening of strategies in both capitals, including a reassessment of the emphasis on military options, could push the country toward becoming a more inclusive democracy, which ultimately may be what is required in order to achieve lasting peace.

February 8, 2016

Belize: The UDP Wins Again

By Victor Bulmer-Thomas*

Dean Barrow, now elected for his third term as Prime Minister of Belize. Photo Credit: The Commonwealth / Flickr / Creative Commons

Dean Barrow, now elected for his third term as Prime Minister of Belize. Photo Credit: The Commonwealth / Flickr / Creative Commons

Belize’s national elections on November 4 gave the ruling United Democratic Party (UDP) an unprecedented third term in office.  The opposition People’s United Party (PUP) had expected to return to power, for the first time since 2008, in view of the country’s lackluster economic performance (except for a tourist boom), a wave of corruption scandals, and falling prices for Belize’s leading commodity exports.  A new third party, the Belize Progressive Party, also participated, representing a coalition of smaller parties.  The UDP won an increased majority (19 out of 31 seats, the rest going to the PUP).  Dean Barrow has therefore started his third, and last, term as Prime Minister.

Public spending on infrastructure, education, and health funded by borrowing from Petrocaribe was a key factor in the election.

  • The concessional loans from Venezuela had a major impact on the government’s popularity. The possibility that they may be cut in future was one reason why the Prime Minister called the elections 18 months earlier than necessary.  (This privilege, known as the “Westminster convention,” is no longer available in the United Kingdom, where elections are now subject to fixed terms.)
  • Many voters in Belize have also become accustomed to receiving party support in cash or kind in the last 20 years in return for their votes. The PUP, reliant in the past on cash from Michael Ashcroft (a British billionaire with Belizean citizenship), was strapped for cash this time because Ashcroft reached an agreement on most of his outstanding disputes with the government and no longer had much incentive to support the opposition.
  • The PUP also suffered from a weak – albeit honest – leader in Francis Fonseca, who had performed badly in municipal elections earlier in the year and who had failed to impose discipline on the party. He has now resigned, although he will stay as leader until a new one is elected.  The PUP, the dominant force in Belizean politics since its formation in 1950 and the party that took the country to independence in 1981, is now in danger of disintegrating.

The UDP government faces a number of challenges.  The sugar market in the European Union is being opened to unrestricted competition, which could lower prices further.  Concessional funding from Petrocaribe could be reduced or even ended as the economic situation in Venezuela deteriorates.  And Belize continues to face considerable pressure from the U.S. government both with regard to its offshore financial center and as a result of sanctions against various individuals under the “kingpin” anti-drug legislation.  Last but not least, Belize will have to pay compensation to Michael Ashcroft for nationalization of the telecommunications company at a rate to be determined by arbitration over which the government will have no control.  The biggest threat to Belize, however, comes from Guatemala.  The disputed western frontier is porous and Guatemalan poachers have become bolder in recent years, even panning for gold in the mountains.  Both governments had previously agreed to take their territorial dispute to the International Court of Justice, but they must first put it to voters in a referendum – a prospect in which Guatemalan President-elect Jimmy Morales has so far shown no interest.  With a population of only 350,000 (compared with 16 million in Guatemala), the new government of Belize may face an uphill struggle.

November 16, 2015

*Dr. Bulmer-Thomas is a professor at the University College London Institute of the Americas, fellow (and former director) at Chatham House, and author of numerous books, including The Economic History of the Caribbean Since the Napoleonic Wars (2012).