Globalization has increased opportunities for progress, but has accentuated the need for improved skills and competitiveness. In confronting the challenge, Latin America and the Caribbean are helped by their recent achievements in economic and political stability, but also burdened with long-standing realities of poverty, social exclusion and the greatest levels of inequality in the world.
About 210 million Latin Americans ?39% of the total population? are unable to satisfy their own basic needs; of those, 98 million live in absolute poverty. The recent upturn in economic growth and social spending has allowed a modest improvement in the reduction of poverty. High levels of inequality nevertheless persist in countries with high growth rates, and the situation is even worse in some other countries.
The equity issue involves both old and new challenges, which are sometimes hidden behind regional averages. There are considerable differences among and within the countries of the region. Growth has been slow in the 1990s (3.5% per year), not enough to reduce unemployment or improve the quality of employment. Some 84% of new jobs have been generated in the informal sector, which is characterized by low productivity and incomes. The income gap between professional and technical categories and less skilled workers has widened by about 50%. In each country, there are some sectors which profit from the opportunities of globalization; but others which are unable to become integrated and will not do so without explicit policies to strengthen the complementarity of productive transformation and equity, of competitiveness and social cohesion. This is the focus of our thinking.
In the context of the restoration and deepening of democracy, the challenge of equity is not restricted to reducing poverty. It must also include equality of opportunity and income distribution. Social exclusion and an acute sense of injustice not only raise ethical problems, but also damage growth and political stability.
Reducing the equity gap requires, first, faster economic growth and increased investment, in a context of openness and macroeconomic stability. Second, it calls for strengthening the link between growth and job creation, improving access to capital, land, technology and business skills for small and medium-sized firms and micro-enterprises, which are responsible for the bulk of the region's jobs. And third, it needs continuing increases in social spending, with improved efficiency and targeting. Reforms are also needed in the latter area to link resources to performance and quality of service and to improve coordination among programmes, some of which should be adapted to the reality of "hard poverty"; to strengthen links with productive development and provide opportunities for the private provision of social services, with appropriate systems of regulation, information, user protection and quality safeguards. Equity also entails adapting policies and institutions to the eradication of discrimination, both on gender grounds and against ethnic groups and other vulnerable sectors.
ECLAC welcomes enthusiastically the strategic commitment to education shown by the Governments of the region, in accordance with the outcome of the World Summit for Social Development. If the society of the future is to be a society of knowledge, access to knowledge must be democratized. Otherwise we shall be sowing even greater inequality for the future. By improving equity, quality and relevance in education, on the one hand, and linking efforts in education and training more closely to productive modernization and civic education, on the other, we shall be taking a positive step towards strengthening the connection between economic and social development and the strengthening of democracy, which have been so elusive in the history of our region.