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Economic development

Economic growth has fluctuated in the region over the past three decades from a high of 8.4 per cent a year in 1973 to a low of -2.2 per cent a year in 1983 (World Bank 2001). As a result, per capita GDP has grown by an average of only about 1.0 per cent a year, from US$2 827 in 1972 to US$3 819 in 1999 (compiled from World Bank 2001), although some countries have performed better than others. In Chile, for example, per capita GDP more than doubled from US$2 360 to US$5 121 while in Nicaragua it almost halved from US$917 to US$472 (World Bank 2001).

GDP per capita (US$1995/year): Latin America and the Caribbean

For the region as a whole, growth of per capita GDP averaged only about 1.0 per cent a year during 1972-99

Note: reliable data for the Caribbean sub-region are unavailable

Source: estimated from World Bank 2001

Growth in the 1990s was made possible through major economic reforms, particularly trade and investment liberalization. Integration processes, including free trade agreements and customs unions - such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Andean Pact, the Southern Common Market of Latin America (MERCOSUR), the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), and the Central American Common Market - have begun to pay dividends. For example, Andean Community exports increased by 37 per cent in value terms in 2000 and intra-regional exports by 29 per cent. Similarly, intra-regional trade in the MERCOSUR countries increased by 21 per cent and under NAFTA by 20 per cent (IADB 2000).

Nevertheless, except for a few countries such as Chile, the majority have been unable to regain their pre-1980s economic strength and, overall, the region has achieved only modest economic growth over the past 30 years. Exports remain largely based on commodities and primary goods, particularly oil and its derivatives, minerals, agriculture, forestry and related products. In this respect, the region's traditional vulnerability and external dependence have increased further due to the unsustainable nature of these activities in terms of both market access and long-term availability of natural resources (UNEP 2000). In many countries imports continue to grow more rapidly than exports (ECLAC and UNEP 2001).

Per capita energy consumption increased from about 0.7 to 0.9 tonnes of oil equivalent during 1972-99, compared with the global average of 1.1 tonnes of oil equivalent (compiled from IEA 1999 and United Nations Population Division 2001).

Inequities in social development

The level of distributive inequity in the region is the highest in the world, and is still increasing in all sub-regions. In the region as a whole, the minimum wage was on average 28 per cent lower in 1998 than in 1980. The limited job creation capacity of the region's economies and the fact that those with university education benefit most from rising demand for labour are among the suspected reasons for the continuing concentration of income but debate continues on the root causes. The situation with regard to the distribution of land reflects a similar trend, with land ownership highly concentrated in Chile, Mexico and Paraguay, for example. Inequality in access to this basic asset by the rural population is a source of social tension. Numerous conflicts arose during the 1990s due to land access problems and high levels of rural poverty. To address this problem, Costa Rica's government has redistributed almost 2 million hectares (roughly one-third of the country's total land area) through large-scale land title allocation, acquisition and settlement programmes. El Salvador's 'Peace Agreement' has brought agrarian reform and a land-transfer programme (currently, 75.1 per cent of land is owner-occupied in El Salvador).

Source: ECLAC and UNEP (2001)

The region's external debt burden increased dramatically (21-fold) from US$46 251 million in 1971 to US$982 032 million by 1999, accounting for 38 per cent of global debt (World Bank 2001). Governments started to take on unsustainably high levels of debt in the 1970s with devastating consequences for regional economies during the decades that followed. In the 1980s, rising interest rates in the United States and Western Europe increased debt service payments while efforts to reduce the inflation caused by recession reduced the income from which to service the debt. Hyperinflation occurred in many countries, notably in Argentina and Brazil, as governments resorted to printing money. The 1990s saw an accumulation of large macroeconomic imbalances that led to severe crises in Mexico in 1995, Brazil in 1998 (ECLAC and UNEP 2001) and most recently Argentina in 2001-2002. Argentina alone has a national debt of US$147 880 million, or about 18 per cent of the region's total. Some countries, such as Bolivia and Guyana, have now qualified for debt relief under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative (World Bank 2001).

In 1999, the unemployment rate in the region reached 8.8 per cent, the highest in the 1990s (ECLAC and UNEP 2001), similar to the rate at the height of the debt crisis in the 1980s. With the exception of Chile and Panama, the number of people working in the informal sector rose in most countries as unemployment rates increased. In the 1990s, seven out of every ten jobs generated in the region's cities were in the informal sector, characterized as non-permanent, with little regulation and no social security (ECLAC and UNEP 2001). The only positive development in terms of labour force trends is the growth in female participation in the labour market. In 1980, little more than one-quarter of the labour force was female in Meso- and South America; by 1997, women made up one-third of the labour force in Meso-America and nearly two-fifths in South America. In the Caribbean, where female participation in the work force has been higher than the rest of the region, the figure reached 43 per cent in 1997 (ECLAC and UNEP 2001). The increase over the past two decades has been larger than in any other region in the world.