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UN: To Beat Poverty in Latin America, First Tackle Inequality

FILE - Women look at prices at a food market in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Jan. 21, 2016.

Helping Latin Americans overcome economic pressures and natural disasters requires fresh efforts to build a more skilled labor force and widen social safety nets, said a top U.N official for the region, where poverty is ticking up again.

Ending gender and racial divides, and narrowing the gap between urban and rural economies are also key, said Jessica Faieta, Latin America and Caribbean director for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

While inequality remains high across the region, Bolivia, Peru and Dominican Republic have been "flagships" in balancing economic growth with a strong social commitment to vulnerable parts of their populations, she added.

"We feel there is a need for a new set of policies that create a cushion to enable people and communities ... to sustain these kinds of shocks that are not necessarily all related to disasters — they are related to the day-to-day life of losing the breadwinner in the house, for instance," said Faieta.

Latin America has made progress in tackling poverty. More than 90 million people entered the middle class between 2003 and 2013, due to stronger economies combined with a rise in social spending and greater emphasis on education.

FILE - Houses clutter a hillside in one of the many "favelas," or impoverished neighborhoods, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, June 23, 1999.
FILE - Houses clutter a hillside in one of the many "favelas," or impoverished neighborhoods, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, June 23, 1999.

Another 220 million, over a third of the region's population, moved out of extreme poverty but have struggled to make the leap to the middle class, according to UNDP.

But the same policies may not be viable to prevent people falling back into poverty, Faieta warned, as economic woes plague many countries hit by a downturn in resource prices.

"Resilience requires a new set of policies," she told Reuters.

In the past two years, the number of poor has started to rise again around the region, with UNDP warning that up to 30 million people are at risk of sliding back into poverty.

They include women, indigenous groups, young and LGBTI people, Faieta said.

"There's a group of people that, regardless of the growth or progress in the last decade, did not really benefit from this progress. And this is related to the high levels of inequality in our region," she said.

Jobs for the girls

Policies to support those left out should focus on social protection including health care for all, and life and unemployment insurance, Faieta said.

Steps allowing people to own assets that can help them earn an income or be sold in times of hardship, such as a motorbike, taxi or small plot of land, would also boost their resilience, she said.

Moves to encourage savings and give workers better skills are important too, along with provision of care for children and the elderly, which is mostly done by women, she said.

"If there are systems that enable this to be ... recognized as an income-generating activity and enable more women to be employed, that's one more income that could be in a home," she said.

Faieta said declines in Latin American poverty levels could not be credited to socialist political ideologies alone, in response to arguments by some that progress could be reversed as more conservative governments take power.

"This is not so — we find actually there have been very effective social policies including countries of right-wing political inclination, in a case like Colombia," she said.