Towards the World Conference on Social Work and Social Development 2016: in search of greater equity in the Latin America region

Article Index

By Nelsida Marmolejos
from Global Newsletter - May 2016

Looking for practical solutions to address the vulnerabilities and perils they face daily, thousands of men and women have joined forces in an effort to achieve the improvement of their living conditions and well-being, upholding equity and social justice. The empowerment of people, meaningful involvement and participation became the key words for many civil society organizations striving to improve social development outcomes. The adoption by the United Nations of the new 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda makes it imperative to find solutions that are responsive to the complexities, needs and capacities of individual countries, solutions that combine the economic, social and environmental dimensions while putting the highest priority on the eradication of poverty and on reducing inequality, while also aimed at saving the planet.

Nelsida Marmolejos 500x750
ICSW President for Latin America Nelsida Marmolejos, the Director of DIDA (La Dirección de Información y Defensa de los Afiliados a la Seguridad Social) of the Dominican Republic

According to the UNDP Human Development Report 2014, over 2.2 billion people — more than 15 per cent of the world’s population — “are either near or living in multidimensional poverty”. Millions of people receive income below the meager amount of two dollars a day. At the same time, inequality is on the increase, with incredible concentration of wealth in the hands of a very few.

While each country has primary responsibility for its own socio-economic development and for finding appropriate responses to existing problems, the policy advice of international organizations can facilitate a better policy mix. In this light, the adoption of ILO Recommendation 202 (2012) regarding national floors of social protection definitely gave a boost to national efforts to find better social protection options.

Latin America: growing social challenges and the quest for solutions

In 2015 the population of Latin America was approximately 630 million people. It has become a predominantly urban region — more than 80 per cent live in big cities and other urban areas. While the poverty situation has improved across the region, the poverty levels are still very high: according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), in the 19 countries of the region there were 167 million of people living in poverty, with 71 million among them in extreme poverty.

Latin America was one of the pioneers in developing innovative ways to address the scourge of poverty. Important initiatives in the social protection area that were developed across the region became well known —Bolsa Familia and Brazil Sem Misera were introduced in Brazil and proved their effectiveness. The programs like Oportunidades in Mexico, Asignacion Universal por Hijo in Argentina and many other schemes are helping to alleviate the plight of poor people. The above-mentioned programs in Brazil have grown from covering 3.6 million families in 2003 to 13.8 million in 2012, while a solidarity-based pension system in Chile went from 560,00 beneficiaries in 2008 to 1.1 million in 2012.

Social protection policies in Latin America reflect different national circumstances and vary considerably. However, a recent study has identified a number of common characterizes within the region, such as: the recognition of the importance of reducing inequalities and realizing social, economic and cultural rights; the recognition of the role of the State in correcting market asymmetries; the need to increase and maintain social investment in response to economic crises; the adoption of comprehensive poverty reduction policies; and taking account of disparities based on gender, age and ethnicity.

Approaching social protection as a human right, Recommendation 202 advocates the extension of social protection to all, thereby addressing vulnerability and inequality in society. Universal and inclusive social security has been recognized as an appropriate and effective way to guarantee the delivery of basic social services. The reality on the ground in many Latin American countries, however, often prevents universal social protection, first of all because of the wide-spread informal sector as well as the precariousness of manual labor.

The exiting informal arrangements are a factor in the deregulation of the labor market, impeding efforts to get a decent work for thousands of people in our societies. In this sense the entrenched informal sector has become an obstacle in achieving the objectives of ILO Recommendation 202. The adoption of agreed global agendas and the specific provisions on social inclusion that they contain have prompted Governments to come up with their own plans for promoting social inclusion. This development has helped to strengthen awareness of the social dimensions of citizenship, which have become a factor in transforming the social policies of Governments.

As a combination of these developments, social security has been expanded in many Latin America countries in significant ways. Inclusive policies have facilitated the apprehension of the positive effects of social investment, strengthening rights-based elements in these programs. The evidence collected by ECLAC shows that, in recent years, countries in the region have improved the effectiveness and scope of their taxation policies, increasing as a result their social spending. According to the above-mentioned ECLAC report, the public share in social expenses increased from 49.3 per cent 1991-1992 to 65.7 per cent in 2011-2012. In terms of the GDP share it increased from 12.9 to 19.2 respectively. By sector, the public spending allocations on social security and social care has increased from US $185 per capita, (or 4.5 per cent of the GDP) in 1991-1992 to US$ 469 (8.2 per cent of GDP) in 2011-2012. As a result the coverage of the population by health care and pension schemes has substantially improved, reaching the level of 67 per cent of the urban population in 2012.

There has been increased evidence that the countries that allocate substantial funds to social spending are also countries that can demonstrate significant achievements in reducing economic informality, and therefore, poverty. In this context one could mention Uruguay, Chile, Brazil and Costa Rica, where the number of employees contributing to pension funds is about 80 per cent of the total. Building up social capacity has a positive effect in encouraging individuals to participate in pension schemes, eventually strengthening pension funds and their own security.

The region provides very encouraging examples of effective social security policies, aimed at improved coverage and poverty reduction. Argentina, having introduced family allowances, reduced poverty by almost 20 per cent; in Brazil, rural social insurance covers up to 80 per cent of the population in rural areas. The introduction of “Renta Dignidad” in Bolivia contributed to the reduction of poverty by 6 per cent, while in Uruguay the universal basic pension was introduced for all persons over 65 years old.

In the Dominican Republic inclusive public policies in the social area brought about increased purchasing capacity on the part of Dominicans – while in 2007 health care spending consumed 35 per cent of family income, in 2014 it fell to 22 per cent. The program Solidaridad (Solidarity) provides citizens with benefits and subsidies, in a transparent way, covering such areas as electricity, gas for domestic use, assistance to older persons and people with disabilities, and others. The program covers about 873 thousand households, with benefits provided to more than a million poor people. According to ECLAC data, extreme poverty has been reduced in that country by half — from 16 to 8 per cent. More than 3 million beneficiaries enjoy the Health Subsidized Regimen in 2015, with the aim of increasing the number by 4000 people; 100,000 young children and 50,000 domestic workers were included in this program. The quality public services aimed at providing meals to school children have been expanded, significantly, decreasing the fixed costs of families regarding food. The social protection scheme also includes support provided by the Ministry of Education throughout the school year to students in the schools with extended hours (from 8 am to 4 pm). The free benefits include breakfast, lunch and a snack, apart from the books, uniforms, shoes and backpacks.


Vulnerability to shocks, poverty and the inequality prevalent around the world, particularly when people lack social protection, often foster individualism and attitudes of indifference, even in the presence of social perils, thus undermining the solidarity indispensable for social action. In the XXI century we are witnessing numerous scientific and technological breakthroughs, but at the same time we can’t leave unnoticed the dehumanizing trends in society, when consumerism becomes a supreme value, as emphasized by Frei Betto in his statement “Dignity and Human Values” during the preconference in Brazil.

Today, more than ever, in the face of huge challenges, we need to foster universal support for people in need, as well as solidarity for organizations dealing with social work. It is not only about feeding people or providing them with shelter and health care. It is more than that, it is about social changes that would enable citizens to have a dream, a life project. We must create a world where civil education has its firm place, where a person can expand his horizons and go beyond his expectations.

We must promote social re-engineering, so that international solidarity can set stronger roots, be creative and foster values based on social work oriented towards the needs of local communities.

We should not depend on some passing fads regarding solidarity; rather we must prevail in advancing our vision and values. Facing the increase of poverty, individualism and consumerism, we must strengthen the civil society organizations that we belong to. Belonging to a global organization such as the ICSW enables us — in the globalized world in which live — to have a say in the influential international organizations that have a positive impact on our daily work. Working not for the sake of material benefits, but because of the importance of the course of action chosen, we can move forward. This sense of belonging is important, as it enables us to build a decent future with the participation of all of us in the organization, at all levels, allowing our voices to be heard at home and at the international forums.

Towards Seoul

Looking for an exchange of experiences, as well as to develop common proposals and guidelines for action, we convened an important international forum in the Dominican Republic in December 2014 aimed at discussing ways and means for making the social protection systems on the continent more equitable and humane. The Governments, civil society organizations and international organizations present at the Forum drew up lines of work and agreed on some basic principles aimed at continuing to work on social protection floors, responding to the needs of the population and taking into account the existing domestic economic conditions. The discussions continued in March this year in San Paulo, Brazil at the Forum sponsored by SESC, CBCISS and ICSW, which aimed at discussing the issues of dignity and values in the context of the forthcoming Joint World Conference on Social Work and Social Development in Seoul.

The human dimension of social policies prevailed during the interesting and productive discussions, enriching the vision of the participants and paving the way for some conclusions and recommendations. The Sao Paulo Forum underscored the importance of dignity in all aspects of social development and social work, emphasizing the essential links between dignified existence and citizenship, the paramount role of education in articulating a long-term life vision and in finding a sense of purpose in life. It was stressed that the humanization of health care requires compassionate approaches and attitudes built upon individual engagement, not charity. Given the longevity trends, ageing with dignity and active ageing are vitally important in the contemporary world. These and other reflections of the participants facilitate our understanding of the dignity discourse, even though they do not exhaust all manifestations in today’s world.