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OPINION January 21, 2020

Are We Heading Toward Another Lost Decade for Latin America?

According to World Bank data, between 2000 and 2019,  average annual growth in the Latin American and Caribbean region was 1.6%. That level of growth is clearly unacceptable both if we compare it with growth in other regions – East Asia (4.8%), Europe and Central Asia (1.9%), the Middle East (2.9%), South (6.5%) and Sub-Saharan Africa (3.5%) –  as well as if we put it in per capita terms, where the rate would be 0.56%, insufficient to rapidly improve living standards for the population.

It should come as no surprise then that the decade ended with protests in several Latin American countries, especially if we view these protests as an expression of the discontent with an economy that does not grow fast enough to satisfy society’s demands and expectations and with an inequality gap that remains too high, although it has decreased over the past decade (this region has the highest level of regional inequality in the world).

Thus, it appears that the reasons behind the unrest largely remain. If this situation is not addressed, there is risk that nothing will change and the next decade will be equally challenging in the region.  We have already experienced the first year of that future. Governments of the region need to make urgent, serious efforts to implement an agenda of inclusive growth. It is time to leave behind the cycle of disillusionment and simply building on the many conquests of the past to now respond to the needs of our societies, which are raising the bar with their demands. Recognizing this as a priority is the first step in transforming what seems like a challenge today into an opportunity for progress.

The region’s sluggish growth has different causes, both internal and external. Analyzing them is crucial. The World Bank has just presented its Global Economic Prospects (GEP) report, a semi-annual flagship publication analyzing the global economic situation, including economic growth estimates for 2019 and the outlook for 2020. The GEP can be taken as a thermometer that measures the health of the economy at the local, regional and global levels. Reviewing global trends can help put the economic situation of Latin America in context. Today that context is telling us that, for now, the cold snap will continue.

According to the GEP, the global situation remains fragile. Annual global growth for 2019 (2.4%) is the lowest since the 2008-2009 financial and economic crisis. While economic growth in 2020 is expected to improve (2.5%), this recovery will be modest. Anemic international trade and investment and a slowdown in productivity explain this fragility, among other reasons.

Latin American Winter

How does this global scenario affect the region? In the Latin American context, economic growth also cooled in 2019. Excluding Venezuela – where the economy contracted by an estimated 35% – the region grew just 0.8% last year as a result of weak investment and private consumption.

The slowdown was quite consistent both because it affected most Latin American countries and because it occurred in nearly all economic sectors. Currently, we expect growth to reach 1.8%. Clearly, this growth rate will not help close the per capita income gap between Latin American countries and more advanced nations. Once again, there is a fear that if history is not rewritten, it will repeat itself within the decade.

Beyond growth

It is well known that moderate growth limits economic opportunities for the population. If this occurs, we must be aware of the risks given the social tensions in several countries in 2019.  

But we also know that the ongoing issues of Latin America go well beyond those of economic growth. They are associated with structural problems that must be resolved, such as persistent inequality or the need to build the necessary consensus to support growth and social inclusion in government policies, based on a long-term vision.

We are talking about reforms that contribute to improving the business climate to attract private investment, which in Latin America is strikingly low.

And we are talking about improving governance to help enhance legal security.

These reforms are not easy for several reasons. Often, the business climate suffers because many established firms fail to see the positive side of implementing reforms that facilitate the market entry of new firms, which may threaten their dominant position. In the field of education, besides the need to persevere for many years to have a positive impact, implementing the economic policy of the reforms to improve education quality is exceedingly difficult. Additionally, we cannot ignore the problems that even the most reformist government will encounter when addressing deficient governance issues.

We could look at these deficits as elements of an inalterable reality and the seeds of future disappointments – or we could view them as the starting point for an in-depth discussion to forge the necessary agreements.

I choose this last option. I believe that the challenge of achieving broad consensus on government policy, with the involvement of all sectors of our societies, in an open, participatory dialogue in which all voices are heard, offers us the opportunity today to make social pacts that are the bases for more robust, inclusive growth in our region.

It is not an easy task, for sure. That dialogue must involve politicians, members of the business community, workers, civil society organizations and the many other sectors of our societies. Yet there is no other possible path if we want to avoid looking back in 10 years and being horrified by our wasted efforts. The discontent of the region’s societies in recent months is a call to action. We should capitalize on this opportunity to ensure that the recurring history of disillusionment does not repeat itself in Latin America and the Caribbean.

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