Latin America: Closer to achieving MDGs, but maternal health and sanitation still lag behind

April 24, 2013


Georgia Santos and her family in Salvador, Bahia

Mariana Ceratti / World Bank

  • Latin America and the Caribbean have made significant progress towards achieving the nine Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
  • Nonetheless, the region still lags behind in terms of health and sanitation
  • Both urban and rural areas face the challenge of eradicating poverty

In less than a year, Georgia Santos has really moved up in the world. The mother of three from Salvador, Bahia in Brazil moved with her family to a brick house, with an uninterrupted water and electricity supply, leaving behind the family’s precarious wooden shack in the poor Sao Bartolomeu neighborhood. This life-changing event came courtesy of a government effort to create sustainable infrastructure for 200,000 local families living in poverty.

 “My family faced the constant risk of landslides. Also, we had no sewerage service or property deeds for the house,” says Georgia, adding that she can now sleep peacefully.

Her case is an eloquent example of how urbanization has become a driving force for reducing poverty and promoting development, as discussed in the Global Monitoring Report 2013. The report assesses countries’ progress in meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Given that more than 80% of global goods and services are produced in cities, highly urbanized countries, from China to those of Latin America, have played a crucial role in reducing poverty. However, the report cautions that if urbanization is not adequately managed, it can also result in the uncontrolled growth of slums, pollution and crime.

According to the report, the region has made notable progress towards achieving the nine MDGs. Nevertheless, like other regions, Latin America still lags behind in the goals associated with maternal health and access to sanitation.

" My family faced the constant risk of landslides. Also, we had no sewerage service or property deeds for the house "

Georgia Santos

Advances and setbacks

Despite the fact that 32 million Latin Americans continued to live on less than US$ 1.25 a day in 2012, the region managed to reduce the percentage of people living in extreme poverty from 12% (in 1990) to 6% (in 2010). Seventy-two million people escaped from poverty and 50 million joined the ranks of the middle class.

At a country level, the most urbanized nations – such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Peru – have made the most progress toward meeting the MDGs.

According to the report, no country has achieved the goal regarding maternal health and only Peru has achieved the required reduction in child mortality. Today, 14 countries have met targets for access to safe drinking water whereas just 10 have achieved targets associated with access to sanitation. This is mainly due to limited progress in recent years. Projects such as the one that benefitted Sao Bartolomeu residents remain the exception rather than the rule. In addition, out of a group of 30 countries, only 18 achieved gender equality in primary education.

A double challenge

Globally, extreme poverty declined rapidly in several countries. Nevertheless, the World Bank estimates that 970 million people will still be living on US$ 1.25 a day in 2015.

Given that the MDGs reflect the basic needs of all citizens, both urban and rural areas face the challenge of reducing poverty and improving living conditions of the poor.

Around the world, slums are growing rapidly in cities both large and small. If urbanization is not well managed, slums could proliferate.

In Asia, 61% of its 828 million inhabitants currently live in slums; in Africa, the figure is 25.5%, whereas in Latin America, 13.4% of the population reside in these areas. This means that one in every four Latin Americans lives in a slum. Women – like Brazilian Georgia Santos – and children bear a disproportionate burden of poor service delivery in the slums.

Rural areas and cities

Seventy-six percent of the world’s 1.2 billion poor live in rural areas of the developing world. And so, achieving the MDGs is crucial for closing gaps between rural and urban areas.

While addressing the challenges of rural development is no easy task, the report notes that they can be tackled with complementary rural-urban development policies.

For residents of small cities and towns who have few prospects for moving, for example, it is crucial to implement measures to better connect local activities with the economies of large urban areas to promote non-agricultural employment.