COPENHAGEN — Shortly after he was elected Uruguay’s first left-leaning president, Tabare Vazquez declared that, “We have to reconstruct the future from the limitations of our own times.”
Reconstruction and transformation are occurring across Latin America. A “pink tide” has brought politicians like Vazquez to center stage, posing a challenge for North America and Europe. Reform and high commodity prices are buoying the region. Latin America’s economies are doing better now than they have in a long time.
But reconstruction doesn’t happen overnight. The “limitations” that Vazquez spoke of are vast. Latin America is still far from being able to compete with the might of China or India. And it continues to have the widest gap between rich and poor. The richest 10 percent of its people earn nearly half the total income, while the poorest 10 percent earn just 1.6 percent. In contrast, the top 10th in industrialized countries earn 29.1 percent of total income, while those in the bottom 10th earn 2.5 percent.
Across Latin America and the Caribbean, one in four people survive on less than $2 a day. Fifty million — equivalent to the entire population of the United Kingdom — cope on less than $1. Moreover, 14 percent of the region’s inhabitants lack enough income to afford basic health care. Perceptions of corruption and inefficiency are high, underpinning weak public trust in institutions, while infrastructure investment has recently declined sharply.
Although Latin America has the will to solve its massive challenges, it lacks the resources to solve everything at once. So it is important to get an overview of how Latin America’s scarce financial resources would be used most effectively.
This October, together with the Inter-American Development Bank, the Copenhagen Consensus Center will host a conference — the Consulta de San Jose — that will look at what can be done throughout the continent.
Of course, the region has seen many such well-meaning conferences. But this one will answer a concrete question: If Latin America had, say, an extra $10 billion to spend over the next five years on improving welfare, which projects would bring the greatest benefits? How much could be achieved if additional funds were spent on education, on making public administration more efficient, or on combating violence and crime?
The Consulta de San Jose will carefully examine these and other issues, ranging from health care to the future of the region’s environment. A team of 20 regional specialist economic experts drawn from Latin America and elsewhere will weigh up options and carefully consider the costs and benefits of the identified solutions.
The team consists of eminent academics, including economist and Chilean Finance Minister Andres Velasco, United Nations Under-Secretary General Jose Antonio Ocampo, Harvard University professor and former Venezuelan Central Bank board member Ricardo Hausmann, and Nancy Birdsall, president of the Center for Global Development.
In closed sessions, the panel will create a prioritized list of the most promising solutions. To draw in community participation and involve the region’s future leaders, students from one of the top business schools in the region will weigh in. They will listen to the same experts on corruption, schooling, health, and the environment, but will bring the perspective of youth to their deliberations.
Currently, Latin American policymakers and aid organizations spend money without the guidance of a coherent, explicit set of options. As a result, they don’t know whether their resources help the most people possible. This conference underscores the region’s desire to be self-sufficient. It will draw attention to the problems facing Latin America, but, more importantly, it will draw attention to their solutions, while allowing decision makers to focus on spending money on projects that do the most good.
Latin America is undergoing an exciting transformation. The Consulta de San Jose may be able to help it construct a future with fewer limitations.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.