UN Human Development Report 2015 – Latin American Perspectives

Latin America continues to make steady if unspectacular progress in the UN’s annual Human Development Index, but socioeconomic inequality, especially between men and women, poses a threat to further advances.

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The UN has released its annual Human Development Report and statistical Index for 2015, focusing on the challenges and opportunities that work and employment offer for global development. In a press release, the authors of the report say this year’s edition discusses the ways in which fast technological progress, deepening globalisation, aging societies and environmental challenges are rapidly transforming what work means today and how it is performed, and calls for governments to act now to ensure that no-one is left behind and that everyone can enjoy equitable and decent work.

For Latin America, the report and Index highlight the generally strong progress that the region continues to make in advancing human development, but warns that gender imbalances in the workplace are a particular problem that threatens to slow down this progress. This is especially so when it comes to domestic and care work, with Latin American and Caribbean women still shouldering the burden of this work, both paid and unpaid.

Jessica Faieta, Assistant Administrator and Director of the Regional Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean within the UN Development Programme (UNDP), said in a separate press release on the region that “the report confirms that women in Latin America and the Caribbean face the triple challenge of working outside the home, caring for their own children and increasingly for the older generation, further increasing unpaid work. In order to meet the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the region needs to address the care burden, an important step to leave no-one behind”.

How are Latin American countries performing?

Before diving into the positions and progress of individual Latin American countries, it is worth pointing out the HDR’s caveat that while the methodology for this report remains the same as before, updates to individual national data over the past year means that countries’ data and HDI scores for this year are not directly comparable to how they fared in previous editions (such as those reported by Eye on Latin America last year). For example, while Chile has appeared as the highest-ranking country from the region for several years, in this year’s report Argentina is ranked higher, and would also have done so in last year’s report using the newest data. It appears 40th in the global rankings with an HDI of 0.836, just ahead of Chile (42nd, 0.832), and the two are the only Latin American countries to appear in the “Very High Human Development” bracket.

Next up is Uruguay, which rises two places to be 52nd with an HDI of 0.793. It is also one of only 14 countries in the world, and one of two in Latin America (alongside Venezuela) to have a Gender Development Index (GDI) score above 1, indicating equal or better human development for women compared to men. Panama is next in the HDI Latin America rankings, in 60th position with a score of 0.780.

Cuba is ranked 67th in this year’s report, with a score of 0.769. While at first glance this might look like a setback after appearing 44th with a score of 0.815 in the 2014 report, this ‘change’ is down to the statistical revisions mentioned earlier, and in fact on the revised data Cuba would have ranked 66th with a score of 0.768. However, the country is still on something of a longer-term slide in the HDI rankings, having dropped 14 places and around 0.010 of its score since 2009.

A few Latin American countries then follow in quick succession: Costa Rica (69th, 0.766), Venezuela (71st, 0.762) which as mentioned above is among the best performers in the world on GDI, Mexico (74th, 0.756), and Brazil (75th, 0.755). Rounding off the series of countries in the region to be classified as having a “High Human Development” are Peru (84th, 0.734), Ecuador (88th, 0.732), Colombia (97th, 0.720), and the Dominican Republic (101st, 0.715). In the category below (“Medium Human Development”) are Paraguay (112th, 0.679), El Salvador (116th, 0.664), Bolivia (119th, 0.662), Nicaragua (125th, 0.631), Guatemala (128th, 0.627), and Honduras (131st, 0.606). Finally, disaster-ridden Haiti remains way behind its Latin American and Caribbean neighbours, ranked 163rd out of a total of 188 with a score of 0.483 in the “Low Human Development” category.

mexico prospera sedesol gob mx
Mexico’s Prospera programme (formerly known as Oportunidades) is one example cited by the UN Human Development Report as a successful means of using conditional cash transfers (CCTs) to boost development and opportunities. Photo courtesy of the Mexican Government website.

‘Work for Human Development’

Within the overall theme for this year’s report – Work for Human Development – there are a couple of examples from Latin America concerning socioeconomic development that can, according to the report’s authors, serve as a guide for the rest of the developing world. Central among these is the tailoring of social protection programmes to local contexts, and the successful role that conditional cash transfer programmes (CCTs) have played in Latin America. The two most noteworthy examples of these are Bolsa Família in Brazil and Oportunidades/Prospera in Mexico, and the report also mentions a CCT scheme set up in Nicaragua to address crisis-related labour market risks in the shadow of that country’s coffee price crisis. As the report notes, cash transfer programmes like these provide income support for poor families and build human capabilities by increasing funds for schooling and healthcare for children, and their model has been copied and implemented in other parts of the world, including Sub-Saharan Africa.

On the topic of socioeconomic inequality, the report notes that in Latin America and the Caribbean, women still earn 19% less than men, and are often excluded from senior management positions, with half of all businesses in the region still having no women in these kinds of post. The report also highlights the considerable proportion of women who work in low-paid and insecure jobs, particularly as domestic workers. The region is home to 37% of the world’s total number of domestic workers, and has the second-highest rate of female domestic workers as a percentage of total female employment after the Middle East, according to the press release.

However, the report does reveal that the region is “laying foundations upon which to build progress in gender equality”, in having the smallest gender disparity in mean years of adult education of any region in the world, and among developing regions it has the narrowest gap between women and men’s HDI ratings, at 2.4% compared to 7.6% globally. Having said that, while the region’s share of female parliamentary seats (27%) is higher than the global average (21.8%), this average figure is said to mask “grave disparities” with the percentage of women in parliament reaching less than 10% in countries including Brazil, Paraguay, and Antigua and Barbuda.

Furthermore, income inequality remains the highest of any region in the world, and Latin America and the Caribbean loses 23.7% of its HDI value when this is adjusted for Inequality (giving it its IHDI score). There are also notable disparities along ethnic lines, with the region’s indigenous groups suffering a massive 38% wage gap compared to the general population.

Latin America and the Caribbean’s overall HDI score for this year was 0.748, exactly the same as Europe and Central Asia (not including ‘Western Europe’) and therefore making it the joint-highest scorer of any developing region. However, there are concerns that the rate of progress in the region, while still strong and building on considerable gains made in the past 10-15 years, has slowed somewhat in the last couple of years, which may or may not be linked to the turbulent economic conditions experienced in Latin America since 2013.