Skip to main content

World Bank economists see few gains in Latin America

WASHINGTON -- Twelve years after the U.N. Assembly declared the Decade of
Indigenous Peoples, the Native population of Latin America still barely
gets by, said a recent report by World Bank economists.

The picture they present is bleak. Rates of Native poverty in the region
have barely budged over the last decade. Labor earnings have flat-lined.
Native children still tend to get less schooling, have lower test scores
and receive less income for each year of education compared with

These were among the trends noted by Gillette Hall and Harry Patrinos,
World Bank economists, at a public panel held in late February in the
nation's capital. Their new book, "Indigenous Peoples, Poverty and Human
Development in Latin America," updates baseline research from 1994 to
present a socioeconomic picture of Native people today.

The report focused on countries where Native numbers are the largest:
Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru. Native peoples are a majority
in Bolivia and comprise large pluralities in Peru and Guatemala. Latin
America's indigenous number about 30 million, the authors wrote, or 10
percent of the regional population.

Health care is at the root of the poverty divide, the authors said. In
Mexico, 44 percent of indigenous children suffer from stunted growth, a
fact which inhibits education and later limits employability. The cycle of
poverty, they noted, begins before children ever go to school.

Dozens of tables from the book tell a grim, if numbing, story. Native
people are four times more likely than other Mexicans to be illiterate.
Two-thirds of indigenous women in Guatemala have no knowledge of modern
contraception. In Bolivia, Native people are twice as likely to live in
extreme poverty as their neighbors.

Amid all the dreary numbers are signs of hope. Oportunidades, a homegrown
Mexican program begun in 1997, provides monthly cash payments to families
for each child attending school and undergoing health checkups. The program
has expanded in recent years to the upper secondary level and now provides
credits convertible for university tuition or business startups. In 2003,
4.2 million families participated.

Another innovation is performance contracting. Result-based agreements
between indigenous communities and authorities, widely used in places like
Australia, are being slowly adopted in the region, said Patrinos. With such
accords, the supplier, not the beneficiary, is penalized for noncompliance.

But political leverage is hard to come by in Latin America, Patrinos noted.
Treaties were not a part of the Spanish conquest. Constitutional provisions
for indigenous recognition, where they exist at all, are often qualified or
voted down. Recent field research in Mexico, added Hall in a later
interview, showed that many Native groups are virtually excluded from
municipal level decisions.

The election of Evo Morales in 2005, Bolivia's first indigenous president,
is a step toward empowerment. But the transition from radical opposition to
political leadership is complicated. Guillermo Perry, chief economist for
Latin America at the World Bank who chaired the panel via video remote,
cautioned that moving from protesting to governing will be difficult for
people so long excluded from the process.

"Latin Americans are taught to be proud of their heritage," said Perry, who
is Colombian, "but they see it as a thing of their past. They don't make
the link" between the indigenous of yesterday and today. Perry said he was
never taught about indigenous cultures in his own schooling, what he
considers the first step toward making Native people visible.

"One of the major challenges is that budgets are allocated by legislatures,
and we see that across Latin America many legislatures are not
representative" of Natives, women and other groups, added co-author Hall,
who was raised in Latin America. In Bolivia, she said, Native
representation in the legislature has quickly risen from less than 5
percent to almost 30 percent -- a figure which still under-represents the
Native majority.

Allocating seats is one alternative. "A country like Colombia has quotas"
of legislative seats reserved for the indigenous, she noted. "But there the
[Native] population is about 3 to 6 percent. If you're talking about a
country like Peru, we're talking about 50 percent of seats that would have
to be reserved for indigenous people. I don't think that's going to work."

High birth rates are also a chronic drag on economic development, the
authors acknowledged later. But data about population growth is
contradictory, said Patrinos. After some drop in Native numbers, larger
proportions of Guatemalans and Bolivians have identified themselves as
indigenous in recent years, likely a result of strong social movements and
political gains.

Whatever the general picture, the fate of women is worse. "Across the
board, particularly with health and employment, the worst thing to be that
we know of in these countries is an indigenous woman," said Hall, noting
that descendants of the African population have yet to be properly studied.

Perry has asked for a further study to look at economic opportunities and
networks. Hall said she and Patrinos have also talked about writing a
follow-up report in 10 years: "We hope if we have the opportunity to write
it, the story line is far different." Added Patrinos, "Too many times there
are these pronouncements and no real follow-up."

Royalties from the book, published by Palgrave Macmillan, will be donated
to indigenous organizations in Latin America.