A “Year of Action” to End Inequality

In yesterday's State of the Union address, President Barack Obama pledged to expand opportunity for all Americans and reverse the trend of economic inequality in the United States. He said, "Let’s make this a year of action."

Much like the gap between the rich and poor, public conversations about economic inequality are growing. At the World Economic Forum in Switzerland last week, business and political leaders highlighted income inequality as one of the top risks to economic growth. Today, United Nations officials warned that income disparities “can undermine the very foundations of development and social and domestic peace."

In Latin America and the Caribbean, we know the effects of economic inequality all too well. Over the last two decades, there has been significant economic growth in the region, and many countries have graduated to middle-income status. Despite this growth, many countries are caught in a “middle-income trap,” where national and regional statistics mask glaring inequalities in income, access to health services, and education, among others. As a result, many international donors have withdrawn critical funding from the region with the assumption that governments will pick up the slack.

This is a dangerous assumption: a recent report by the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean found that levels of poverty in the region are remaining stable despite the region’s economic growth. In Mexico, the region’s second largest economy, about half of the country lives in poverty.

Economic inequality manifests in all spheres of life, and sexual and reproductive health does not escape this reality:

• In our region, nearly 40% of women become pregnant before their 20th birthday. Girls living in poor, indigenous, and rural areas are three to five times more likely to become pregnant.

• Poor women have the greatest unmet need for contraception. In Bolivia, one in three poor women want—but cannot obtain—contraception, compared to just 10% of middle-class women.

• According to the UN, the international funding gap for sexual and reproductive health in Latin America and the Caribbean is an estimated $1.86 billion.

Our region is no longer a priority for governments and foundations that provide development assistance. It is assumed that the needs of Latin American and Caribbean countries are on track to be met and that poverty is no longer a problem. But the truth is that our region still has a long way to go.

Nearly 100 million people in Latin American and the Caribbean still live on less than $2 a day, and governments have not made up for the withdrawal of international donors in our region. The strong economic growth some countries have experienced has not been accompanied by a significant increase in national health investments.

The good news is that we know what to do to ensure people's well-being. Our local partners use mobile health units to reach rural populations and have programs that bring health care to poor adolescents. Our regional network is reaching those most in need with critical services, but the challenge is obtaining the resources to reach millions more.

Still, we are hopeful because, as President Obama said, “If we summon what is best in us, with our feet planted firmly in today but our eyes cast towards tomorrow – I know it’s within our reach.”

What are Your Hopes for the Next Four Years?


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