Towards the World Conference on Social Work and Social Development 2016: in search of greater equity in the Latin America region

By Nelsida Marmolejos
from Global Newsletter - May 2016

Looking for practical solutions to address the vulnerabilities and perils they face daily, thousands of men and women have joined forces in an effort to achieve the improvement of their living conditions and well-being, upholding equity and social justice. The empowerment of people, meaningful involvement and participation became the key words for many civil society organizations striving to improve social development outcomes. The adoption by the United Nations of the new 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda makes it imperative to find solutions that are responsive to the complexities, needs and capacities of individual countries, solutions that combine the economic, social and environmental dimensions while putting the highest priority on the eradication of poverty and on reducing inequality, while also aimed at saving the planet.

Nelsida Marmolejos 500x750
ICSW President for Latin America Nelsida Marmolejos, the Director of DIDA (La Dirección de Información y Defensa de los Afiliados a la Seguridad Social) of the Dominican Republic

According to the UNDP Human Development Report 2014, over 2.2 billion people — more than 15 per cent of the world’s population — “are either near or living in multidimensional poverty”. Millions of people receive income below the meager amount of two dollars a day. At the same time, inequality is on the increase, with incredible concentration of wealth in the hands of a very few.

While each country has primary responsibility for its own socio-economic development and for finding appropriate responses to existing problems, the policy advice of international organizations can facilitate a better policy mix. In this light, the adoption of ILO Recommendation 202 (2012) regarding national floors of social protection definitely gave a boost to national efforts to find better social protection options.

Latin America: growing social challenges and the quest for solutions

In 2015 the population of Latin America was approximately 630 million people. It has become a predominantly urban region — more than 80 per cent live in big cities and other urban areas. While the poverty situation has improved across the region, the poverty levels are still very high: according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), in the 19 countries of the region there were 167 million of people living in poverty, with 71 million among them in extreme poverty.

Latin America was one of the pioneers in developing innovative ways to address the scourge of poverty. Important initiatives in the social protection area that were developed across the region became well known —Bolsa Familia and Brazil Sem Misera were introduced in Brazil and proved their effectiveness. The programs like Oportunidades in Mexico, Asignacion Universal por Hijo in Argentina and many other schemes are helping to alleviate the plight of poor people. The above-mentioned programs in Brazil have grown from covering 3.6 million families in 2003 to 13.8 million in 2012, while a solidarity-based pension system in Chile went from 560,00 beneficiaries in 2008 to 1.1 million in 2012.

Social protection policies in Latin America reflect different national circumstances and vary considerably. However, a recent study has identified a number of common characterizes within the region, such as: the recognition of the importance of reducing inequalities and realizing social, economic and cultural rights; the recognition of the role of the State in correcting market asymmetries; the need to increase and maintain social investment in response to economic crises; the adoption of comprehensive poverty reduction policies; and taking account of disparities based on gender, age and ethnicity.

Approaching social protection as a human right, Recommendation 202 advocates the extension of social protection to all, thereby addressing vulnerability and inequality in society. Universal and inclusive social security has been recognized as an appropriate and effective way to guarantee the delivery of basic social services. The reality on the ground in many Latin American countries, however, often prevents universal social protection, first of all because of the wide-spread informal sector as well as the precariousness of manual labor.

The exiting informal arrangements are a factor in the deregulation of the labor market, impeding efforts to get a decent work for thousands of people in our societies. In this sense the entrenched informal sector has become an obstacle in achieving the objectives of ILO Recommendation 202. The adoption of agreed global agendas and the specific provisions on social inclusion that they contain have prompted Governments to come up with their own plans for promoting social inclusion. This development has helped to strengthen awareness of the social dimensions of citizenship, which have become a factor in transforming the social policies of Governments.

As a combination of these developments, social security has been expanded in many Latin America countries in significant ways. Inclusive policies have facilitated the apprehension of the positive effects of social investment, strengthening rights-based elements in these programs. The evidence collected by ECLAC shows that, in recent years, countries in the region have improved the effectiveness and scope of their taxation policies, increasing as a result their social spending. According to the above-mentioned ECLAC report, the public share in social expenses increased from 49.3 per cent 1991-1992 to 65.7 per cent in 2011-2012. In terms of the GDP share it increased from 12.9 to 19.2 respectively. By sector, the public spending allocations on social security and social care has increased from US $185 per capita, (or 4.5 per cent of the GDP) in 1991-1992 to US$ 469 (8.2 per cent of GDP) in 2011-2012. As a result the coverage of the population by health care and pension schemes has substantially improved, reaching the level of 67 per cent of the urban population in 2012.