Despite progress, many in region remain vulnerable

As we lost Gabriel Gárcia Márquez this year I am reminded of his speech upon receiving the Nobel Prize in 1982: “Neither floods nor plagues, famines nor cataclysms, nor even the eternal wars of century upon century, have been able to subdue the persistent advantage of life over death.”

Indeed, in these last 30 years, Latin America and the Caribbean have undergone tremendous transformations. Democracy has consolidated in the vast majority of countries, and men, women, children, youth and the elderly have experienced major improvements in health, education and access to economic resources. These are the dimensions that compose the Human Development Index (HDI), a measure of well-being of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

Latin America and the Caribbean today have the highest HDI compared to other developing regions. And while income inequality has increased in other regions, ours has managed to reduce the gap, mainly because of the expansion of education and public transfers to the poor.

In the last decade, poverty has been reduced in the region by almost half, and the middle class rose from 22 percent of the population in 2000 to 34 percent in 2012, according to new UNDP figures.

Despite these achievements, a worryingly high share of the population is living in constant uncertainty. They are neither classified as living in poverty (living on less than $4 a day), nor have they gained access to a stable middle-class status (with $10-$50 a day).

These are our region’s vulnerable people: just over a third of the population, 200 million men and women living on $4-$10 a day and at risk of falling into poverty. Almost half of them (98.5 million) are working. Of these, 54.4 percent are informal workers; almost half, 49.6 percent have no access to medical services; 46.1 percent are not entitled to a pension for retirement; and 53.2 percent have no formal contract.

Clearly, if countries of the region do not reduce their vulnerabilities and strengthen their resilience to financial crises and natural disasters, we won’t able to guarantee, let alone expand, progress in the social, economic and environmental realms.

The Human Development Report entitled “ Sustaining Human Progress: Reducing vulnerabilities and building resilience” also shows that not only in Latin America and the Caribbean, but in all regions, the pace of social and economic progress is slower than in the past decades.

The average annual growth rates in the region’s HDI dropped by about half during the past five years compared to growth between 1990 and 2000.

This was a larger drop than in all other regions except the Arab states. More of the same policies will not yield the same results as before.

The report emphasizes the need to expand a truly universal social-protection scheme, particularly in the most critical phases of life, as is the case with children, young people entering the labor market and the elderly, and to strengthen our resilience, that is, our ability to deal with adversities without a major setback in well-being.

Job quality is a key concern for our region. Workers, mostly informal, living in precarious urban dwellings, are highly vulnerable to shocks. In the long term, access to more decent jobs will be critical to advancing human development, social cohesion and citizen security, another crucial challenge for the region.

Investing in the resilience of people and countries to increase their capacity to cope successfully with crises — whether financial or related to natural disasters — is certainly a way to boost “the persistent advantage of life over death,” words Gárcia Márquez immortalized in his historic speech.

Today we have an urgent task that requires a joint effort of our societies, with private sector and governments that are increasingly efficient and committed to a long-term vision of sustainable development.

Jessica Faieta is United Nations Assistant Secretary-General and UNDP Director for Latin America and the Caribbean.