Are the Americas more socially inclusive?

The 2014 Social Inclusion Index is not just another good news story. This portrait of seventeen countries in the Americas depicts a dynamic region that…

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Are the Americas more socially inclusive?

Uruguay and Argentina lead the Social Inclusion Index. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

The 2014 Social Inclusion Index is not just another good news story.

This portrait of seventeen countries in the Americas depicts a dynamic region that goes beyond the clichés about income inequality. It paints a picture of how citizens expectations today are not only about economic improvement, but also about finding a voice in policies that will affect their collective futures.

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It’s a major story about the transformation of the Americas that reflects a generational shift in how we think about development.

Good-bye Ginni co-efficient, the old gold standard to measure income inequality; hello, Social Inclusion Index, which ranks 17 countries on 21 variables from GDP growth to government responsiveness.

This multidimensional approach evaluates everything from access to public goods such as education to protection, gender rights and racial discrimination, and even adds access to justice and disability rights to paint a more comprehensive picture of where the Americas are today in terms of socio-economic well-being, justice and governance.

While economic inequality still matters in a region that has been characterized as the most unequal on the globe, the story of the Americas must be viewed with greater appreciation of the positive changes that have allowed so many of its citizens to become part of the middle class.

The index measures something that was often hard to quantify:the trust that has been built and also the gaps in that trust that can push a nation to invest in human development.

Social Inclusion Index 2014

Americas Quarterly Social Inclusion Index 2014. (AS/COA)

Kevin Casas-Zamora, Secretary for Political Affairs, Organization of American States, speaking at a Council of the Americas event in Washington, said it best when he noted the region’s democratic progress. “Democracy is our ally. It is bringing Latin America forward.The current generation must deepen democracy without destroying it.” That is a warning that must be heeded as the Americas moves from a period of consolidating democratic gains since the end of military rule to a new era of greater national independence, characterized by a focus on regional solutions to economic and social problems. These require greater patience and a longer time span to resolve. Access to education and justice are improving, but reaping the benefits of government investment in these areas will not happen overnight.

What this third Social Inclusion Index demonstrates is the great progress that has been made in reducing poverty and creating greater inclusion.

The task for the future will be to keep things moving forward, something that is often a greater challenge as the expectations of many in the 17 countries has sometimes moved ahead of the ability of policymakers and elected officials to fulfill.

But Chris Sabatini, editor of the Americas Quarterly who undertook this project, reminded the audience “that progress on transitions has expanded freedoms. . . . Macroeconomic reforms of the last twenty years created greater economic stability, thus laying a foundation for enduring social changes that are taking place in the region.” It would have been impossible to have discussed Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender Rights even ten years ago.

Today these issues are common in the public discourse about rights, with laws changing rapidly in many countries to recognize earlier gaps in protection.

Gaps remain, and among the most obvious are gaps in gender and citizen security. The most visible threats to security still come from within the household. Violence against women is inseparable from citizen security. The Index underscores that where deep inequalities in the treatment of women is evident, we also find a lack of progress in a country’s inclusiveness. Women still lag behind in almost every country, but especially women of color and those who are of indigenous origin.

And this issue speakers volumes about the bigger problem that still plagues the Americas.

Latin America still remains the murder capital of the planet, with 25 murders per 100,000 persons for all countries concerned, far above the global average.

This disquieting note underscores the challenges that the region faces in terms of inclusion, despite an overall positive economic trend that has moved so many people out of poverty (defined in this report as incomes of less than $4 dollars a day) to become part of a middle class that buys cars, homes, and finds work in the formal sector. Yet Brazil, the southern hemisphere’s largest country, is ranked 8 of the 17 nations measured in the Index.

Its middle position reflects a weaker economy, even though Brazil has more inclusive policies on LGBT rights, or has demonstrated remarked reductions in overall poverty levels in recent years.

So which country was the most inclusive?

Uruguay ranked first in the Index, retaining its number one place from last year, but also improving its overall ranking becomes variables for economic growth, political rights, and access to housing all showed improvements.

Uruguay, Argentina, and Costa Rica lead this year’s Americas Quarterly Social Inclusion Index.

Uruguay ranked first in the Index, improving its score from a year earlier in several areas such as economic growth, political rights, and access to adequate housing. (AS/COA)

Second place was a tie. Argentina and Costa Rica both spent more on social programs and women’s rights.

The United States came next, although it is the country that still has the highest social spending in the region. The failure of the U.S. to track femicide, the murder of women, was a reason for its drop in the Index rankings.

It is no surprise that at the bottom were the three countries of the Northern Triangle in Central America – Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

These places remain toxic. A deficit of social spending, horrific homicide rates, and little access to justice or other public goods from education to employment undermine any citizen trust in the state. The ongoing crisis of child migrants from that region to the U.S. further underscores this point as we witness how these fragile states are no match for the forces of crime and corruption that have consumed these places.

In this ambitious attempt to paint a more accurate picture of the Americas it is important to note that any system of rankings comes with its own shortcomings.

There is a critical problem in the way many countries collect some data, if they do so at all. Moreover, it is often hard to compare different sets of information since they defy statistical comparisons. These flaws in the raw material, however, should not detract from the significance of this Index to all of those who still want to read an evolving good news story that the Americas promise when we take the long view. This is something to think about in a time when even the former U.S. Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, describes the world situation as “a mess.”

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Johanna Mendelson Forman is a Scholar-in-Residence at the American University School of International Service and a Senior Advisor at the Stimson Center, Managing Across Borders Program, Washington, D.C.