‘Inequality conspires against recovery and development’ in the Caribbean: ECLAC chief

Alicia Bárcena, executive secretary of ECLAC, during her keynote speech at FAO Americas headquarters.

The Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), Alicia Bárcena, says that ‘inequality conspires against recovery and development’ in the region amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Inequality conspires against recovery, against development, nutrition, health, education, employment, poverty reduction, against everything. That is why we must address all of its facets,” said Bárcena in delivering on Thursday the keynote address at the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean in Santiago, Chile.

Speaking on the topic, “Latin America and the Caribbean’s socioeconomic context and challenges”, the ECLAC chief gave an overview of the region’s economic, social and environmental state after the crisis stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, along with its prospects for recovery.

Bárcena emphasized that “it is not enough to grow to support equality; first, we must become more equal to grow.

“We cannot grow without equality, because inequality is inefficient,” she said. “The pandemic increased poverty, unemployment and informality, affecting women especially.

“In our region, the factory of inequality lies in productive heterogeneity, structural gaps, low innovation, investment and productivity,” she added. “Inequality defines the region, it is unjust, inefficient, and it conspires against sustainable development.”

Bárcena said this is reflected primarily in the levels of poverty and extreme poverty, which, in 2020, rose for a sixth straight year.

In 2021, despite the recovery, she said a 27-year setback is projected with an increase in extreme poverty (to 86 million people) and the risk of hunger

Bárcena noted that the crisis unleashed by the pandemic intensified global asymmetries between developed countries and developing nations.

She cited as examples of this the significant gaps seen in the economic arena, on health, in the fight against climate change and in crisis response.

Bárcena said 1 percent of the population currently holds 50 percent of global wealth.

With just 8 percent of the population, she said Latin America and the Caribbean accounts for 32 percent of the deaths caused by the pandemic.

She said while the region only accounts for 8 percent of emissions, it is one of the most affected by extreme climate events.

The ECLAC head said that while developed countries have spent US$14.9 trillion to tackle the effects of the crisis, emerging countries have only invested US$2.7 trillion (from January 2020 to September 2021).

In addition, she indicated that the world is witnessing “very weakened multilateralism in the face of nationalist and regionalist tendencies.

“The region must understand that integration is the only way forward,” she stressed. “We must strengthen value chains, and move towards health and food self-sufficiency, not based on imports but rather by bolstering our own value chains.”

Bárcena warned that, in 2022, Latin America and the Caribbean will grow by 4 points less (2.1 percent, after having recorded 6.2 percent growth in 2021) “in an international context of armed conflict, lower trade and the possibility of a withdrawal of monetary stimulus that would increase the cost of financing.”

She added that there is also “great uncertainty regarding the evolution of the pandemic.

“At ECLAC, we propose three compacts: a productive one, a social one and a fiscal one,” she said. “We need explicit industrial policies to universalize social protection systems and progressive taxation, fighting evasion (which amounts to 6.1 percent of the region’s GDP – gross domestic product) and tax exemptions.

“National policies must be accompanied by multilateral action,” Bárcena emphasized, stating that it is necessary to orient countries’ public spending, and increase public and private investment, “which is the ideal bridge between the short and medium term.”

She also insisted on continuing to move towards gender equality and build a care society “to ensure that women do not keep bearing a greater burden with regard to unpaid work.

“The recovery is a historic opportunity for a new social compact that would provide protection, certainty and trust,” she said. “We must move towards a welfare state through a big push for sustainability, based on the 2030 Agenda and Our Common Agenda.”

At the event, which was transmitted live to all of FAO’s national offices and to the general public, FAO’s Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for Latin America and the Caribbean, Julio Berdegué, paid tribute to Bárcena’s trajectory, just days before she is to leave the Commission’s Executive Secretariat.

“Alicia is concluding her time at the head of ECLAC at the end of this month,” he said. “And that is why we have gathered here to pay tribute to her, mainly for having given us intellectual and political leadership at a very tumultuous time, with two successive and very deep crises that have left Latin America very damaged.

“She was a clear voice that delineated new ideas,” Berdegué added. “She and ECLAC have made a critical contribution.”

In addition, the FAO assistant director-general thanked Bárcena for having put the issue of equality back at the center of the public policy debate, and for her constant collaboration and willingness to engage in joint work with the rest of the United Nations agencies.

“For that reason and many others, we want to thank her,” he said. “She is leaving ECLAC, and the UN, but certainly her voice, her intelligence, her kindness will continue to be an asset in the fight for sustainable development.”

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