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Remarks: OAS Secretary of Political Affairs Kevin Casas-Zamora at AQ's 2014 Social Inclusion Index Launch

Kevin Casas Zamora

(Image: Max Taylor)

August 01, 2014


Location: Washington D.C.

Good afternoon.

I want to start by thanking the organizers: the Americas Society/Council of the Americas, the friends at Americas Quarterly and, of course, Chris Sabatini, who’s done a phenomenal job at the helm of this wonderful publication. Thank you, Chris.

I’m grateful and honored to be summoned to this discussion on a set of issues –inequality, social inclusion, social cohesion—whose current relevance in the hemisphere is the direct result of its centuries-old neglect. The realization that the current levels of inequality negate all the values that we purport to defend has become common place, as has the more practical notion that societies built on social exclusion are more prone to economic and political breakdown.

It has taken us many years and tragedies to get to this point, and it is incumbent upon us that we don’t let the current sense of urgency slip away. However, in order to shift the public debate in the direction of more just societies we need more than anger and urgency. We also need intellectual tools that allow us to articulate the sense of unfairness, identify its root causes, and, hopefully, redress them. We are here to celebrate the renewed effort to develop another one of those tools – the Social Inclusion Index published by Americas Quarterly.

I’ve been given 15 minutes to speak and in that time it is difficult to do justice to the many reflections elicited by this terrific index. So I will try briefly to make 4 points: one about the idea of social inclusion, one about the Index itself, one about citizen security, and the final one about the relationship between social inclusion and democracy in Latin America.

My first point is about the concept of social inclusion. In the past few years we’ve seen a veritable explosion of debates about income inequality, and some of the indicators used to measure it, such as the Gini coefficient or the share of income enjoyed by the 1% of the population, have indeed become part of the conversation.

This is very good, but it is also risky, for income inequality and its indicators are very imperfect proxies for the social trait that most of us here, I suspect, care deeply about – i.e. the ability of a society to grant effective access to basic rights and opportunities to every human being, regardless of sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity or socio-economic origin. A society that consciously tends towards that goal is, I venture, what we would call an inclusive society. And it goes well beyond a society that is capable of achieving a fair distribution of income.

Let me put it this way: a highly unequal society income-wise is, almost by definition, an exclusionary society; yet, a highly egalitarian society income-wise is not necessarily an inclusive society. Don’t take my word for it. According to World Bank figures, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Sudan have a much more egalitarian income distribution than Uruguay. Indeed, Irak’s income distribution is better than Canada’s. But I need not tell you which of these are more inclusive societies if you happen to be a woman or a gay person or someone who prays to a different god than that of the majority or to no god at all. Important though income inequality is, a fixation with it as a proxy for social inclusion is no better than our old fixation with GDP per capita as a proxy for development. Both can be misleading.

So my first message is very simple: I praise Americas Quarterly for forcing us to broaden the scope of our quest, and for unwittingly warning us about the magnitude of our endeavors. In the current climate of righteous denunciation of inequality beware of focusing too much on income disparity, because what we as a society ought to aspire to is more than a fair distribution of money. The community I, for one, aspire to live in is one where access to certain fundamental rights is universally guaranteed, and where every person enjoys, in practice, the capabilities –both individual and collective—to choose the life that he or she deems valuable. This is not measured by the Gini coefficient. This is measured, however imperfectly, by the Social Inclusion Index. Well done.

My second reflection concerns the Index itself, and here I shall take the liberty to engage in a bit of unsolicited but well intentioned advice. After three years, the Index is no longer an innovation. It is, at this point, part of the policy discussion in the Americas. As such, I would think that turning the Index into a practical tool, one that is easy to use and deploy by policymakers, should be the overriding priority. As good’ol Karl Marx used to say: the point is not merely to understand the world, but to change it.

The usefulness of this kind of instrument depends, I think, on three factors: on it being able to detect trends and changes of trend; on the information being comparable across countries and across time; and on the figures being able to convey messages that spur people to action. In the case of the Social Inclusion Index all this ought to lead, in my respectful opinion, to three practical implications:

First, revise the frequency of the publication of the index. Structural factors of society, such as enrollment in school or civil society participation or female access to political power, seldom change overnight. Let the Index breathe and come back to us with new information. Publish it every 3 years or, at least, every other year.

Second, try not to include more variables in the Index unless you have a mighty reason to do so. In a room such as this one you’ll never achieve consensus on the set of factors that shape social inclusion. We all have our favorite variable that is not reflected in the current index. Whatever flaws it may have, you have a terrific tool as it is, one that no-one else does. Methodological stability makes for a comparable index, and a comparable index is far more useful than one that is not.  

Third, play up the country rankings. You make a very discrete use of country rankings as opposed to each country’s score card, particularly in the magazine’s hard version. Giving more visibility to the region-wide rankings according to the different variables that go into the Index would allow, I think, a better understanding of the relative weaknesses of each country and the areas of policy where they fall short of regional standards. Rankings are powerful devices to move policymakers to action. It may be sad to acknowledge, but envy and shame are powerful human impulses.

My third comment is about the issue of citizen security and its connection with development. The report in the magazine dismisses cursorily the idea that citizen security and development are linked and suggests that the connection runs instead through social inclusion, a connection that the Nicaraguan case purportedly shows. This is slightly more complicated, I think.

For starters, the separation between development and social inclusion is problematic. I prefer to understand development as a process that expands the capabilities of human beings to choose the life they deem valuable. This definition, anchored in the work of Amartya Sen, challenges the equivalence of development with economic growth and inherently incorporates the notion of social inclusion. In practical terms, this understanding of development demands that a number of collective investments are made to allow all individuals the possibility to acquire and expand those capabilities. If we accept this definition, then there is a clear correlation between development and citizen security.

Think of this. Latin America’s homicide rate is currently about 25 murders per 100,000 people. This is a weighted average. In fact, some countries have much higher rates, unparalleled in the world. Now, if you take the top 30 countries on the list of the UNDP Human Development Index—which includes no countries from Latin America—, they have an average homicide rate of 1.3 per 100,000 people. This is not random. When it comes to citizen security, this is the real story.

And one ought to tread carefully with the case of Nicaragua. It is, no doubt, a fascinating case in this discussion, one that holds many positive lessons. But let us not forget why we always bring it up. We bring it up because it is less violent than we expect it to be. But Nicaragua is a violent country too. At 11 homicides per 100,000 people Nicaragua is well above the global average and above the threshold at which murderous violence is considered an epidemic. By tweaking a few prevention programs and a few policing methods a country can certainly chip away at violence levels, have a visible impact, and ameliorate crime problems. But ultimately, investing heavily in human development is the only way to build safe societies in the long run.

And when I say investing in human development, I mean, in practice, increasing the amounts and effectiveness of public investment in education, public health, childcare, and job training for young people. There is no way to have safe communities in societies, such as those of Latin America, where at least one out of five young people neither studies nor works. There are simply too many young people in Latin America without a stake in society. That’s a human tragedy but is also a time bomb from the standpoint of security.

So we need to do many things if we want to turn the tide of crime in Latin America. We need to modernize law enforcement institutions and invest in information systems; we need to face up to the tragedy of prisons in the region; we need to improve trust between law enforcement institutions and communities, so as get people to report crime; we need to increase the presence of the State in troubled spots that are beyond the law’s writ; and so on and so forth. But none of this is remotely as important as investing in human development.

But we also need to do something else: we should put the gender dimension at the center of the discussion on citizen security. Security policies in the region typically give priority to property crimes or murderous acts that are committed in the public space by strangers to the victim. In other words, they give priority to the types of violence that disproportionally affect men. The fact of the matter is that for the other half of the population the most visible threats to security come from within the household and within a limited circle of relatives and acquaintances. We see domestic violence and, specifically, violence against women as something different and separate from citizen security. This, in my view, is wrong. It is wrong on principle, and it is wrong in practice.

Ten years ago, when I was doing research for a UNDP report on citizen security in my country, I came across a revealing piece of information: the single largest number of police interventions in Costa Rica were due to problems of domestic violence, well above property crimes or drug-related offences. Whether we think of it as something different, in my country, at least, violence against women in the household is part and parcel of what law enforcement institutions do in practice.

It is high time that we stop seeing citizen security through the eyes of the male. Rather than keeping domestic violence apart from citizen security, we should bring it into the mainstream of this discussion and into the heart of citizen security strategies.

My fourth and last reflection is about social inclusion and democracy in Latin America. When you read the Americas Quarterly report, you get the sense that although we may argue about the lack of speed or the lack of completeness of the shift towards social inclusion, we are not talking about reversals of the trend. The trend is clear: in virtually every variable considered by the Index Latin America is doing better than in the past. Despite serious problems of poverty, inequality and marginalization, the region is moving in the right direction when it comes to social inclusion.

I suspect that we are moving in the right direction, because democracy, with all the enormous flaws that we see in its workings in the region, is getting the job done of allowing the participation and representation of long excluded interests and, hence, of reducing socio-economic disparities. Between 1999 and 2013 poverty in Latin America fell 17 points; extreme poverty is today one half of what it was in 1990. Even more remarkably, income inequality has declined. In 14 out of 17 countries in Latin America the Gini coefficient went down over the past decade. These achievements are not rooted simply in the high rates of growth experienced by the region in the recent past, crucial though growth has been. There are deliberate policy decisions that are also at the root of this. For instance, public investment in social pursuits has grown from an average of 12% of GDP in the early 1990s to over 19% of GDP today.

Are there pending challenges? Of course. There are many and they are enormously complex. Poverty continues to afflict over one fourth of the population in the region; income inequality continues to be the highest in the world; with a couple of exceptions, tax systems continue to be precarious and unfair, with revenue levels that on average are half of those of developed countries; de facto powers still hold political sway well beyond what’s healthy for a democratic system; violence still poisons the daily life of our societies.

It is true - we have to tackle all that if we want our democracies to thrive and, indeed, if we simply want them to remain faithful to their ethos. But democracy in Latin America has social and economic achievements to show.

My contention here is that, with some time lag, the distribution of political power allowed by electoral democracy has started to manifest itself in sustainable social progress. A Latin America where the middle classes are a majority for the first time is a region where the demand for public goods and services of decent quality will grow ever louder. A middle class Latin America is a region where many people that for the first time have access to a decent house, a car, a bank loan, will make sure that governments do not play fast and loose with macro-economic balances.

Is this too gradual for our taste? Maybe. But let us not forget that it took this country almost two centuries to realize the promise of equality of rights for the African-American population. And that it took Europe almost nine centuries to move from a parliament of nobles to a parliament elected by universal suffrage. These things are gradual.

What I refuse to accept, in the light of Latin America’s recent experience, is that the reduction of poverty and the creation of more inclusive societies demands giving up on basic checks and balances or demolishing any trace of an independent judiciary or closing down critical media outlets or jailing opponents on trumped-up charges or turning social protests into a crime or labeling as traitors those who exercise their basic right to dissent.

We know better than that. Today, Brazil has 35 million less poor people than 15 years ago and never felt the need to do any of this. Chile, with all its acute inequality problems, has seen 1% of the population emerge out of poverty every year for the past 25 years, and has never resorted to any of this. Neither has Uruguay, which has become a model of economic growth with social inclusion, as shown by the Index that we are discussing here.

I’m not saying that authoritarian regimes are never able to reduce poverty and social exclusion. Sometimes they do. What I say is that it is more than proven that democratic regimes worthy of that name, with check and balances and unfettered civil and political rights, can do it too. And what I’m saying, also, is the memorable phrase once uttered by Saint-Exupery – humankind is not merely a herd that expects to be fed.

Do not accept any wooden nickels. We have a mountain to do in Latin America in terms of building inclusive societies, where widespread poverty is but a faded memory, but democracy is our ally, not our obstacle.

The past generation of Latin Americans had the enormous merit of stepping out of a long authoritarian night and bequeathing us a set of democracies that despite their flaws are much better than the despotic disasters that we had before. The current generation has in its hands the daunting task of deepening democracy by creating more inclusive societies, without destroying democracy in the process.

That’s exactly what we’re up to. And with time lags, with unnerving precariousness, and with real dangers of reversion, we are largely succeeding.

As far as I’m concerned, Latin America’s democratic glass, in spite of all, is half full and is incumbent upon us to keep on filling it up with social justice without giving up our most fundamental freedoms.

Thank you.