Media Center



November 6, 1998 - Kingston, Jamaica

I am very pleased to be here in Kingston to attend this Fifth Annual Conference of the Social Network of Latin America and the Caribbean, and to have the opportunity to address you -- the Ministers and managers of the social investment funds in our region -- who have the enormously difficult, but essential, task of defining the social policies and instruments needed to eradicate poverty and to foster social participation as a means to further development.

Let me also, at this time, thank the Government of Jamaica for being such gracious hosts, and for the excellent arrangements they have made for this meeting. This annual conference is very important as it affords us a forum to review the accomplishments of the past year and to plan the way forward. I am confident that the regional dialogue, which we started yesterday and will continue this afternoon, will generate new ideas and commitments that can advance the efforts that our countries and organizations are making to overcome poverty and discrimination, and to improve the quality of our collective human existence, based on a spirit of political and economic freedom and social equity.

It is fitting that this years conference takes place in Jamaica, which has expended so much effort, both nationally and at the hemispheric and international levels, to foster the development of equitable social policies that can deliver a safer and healthier environment, with improved living standards, in which we can raise our children. The commitment of this government, led by Prime Minister Patterson, to finding the most appropriate formula for creating a society in which all share equally is unquestioned. This is by no means an easy task, and Jamaica, like our other 33 member states, can count on the OAS to accompany and support them in this all-important quest.

As you know, the OAS has been instrumental in the creation and development of the Social Network for Latin America and the Caribbean. Since its foundation seven years ago, the OAS Unit for Social Development and Education has been working intimately with the Social Network to promote and support policy dialogue and exchange of experiences on the vexing social problems that confront us, with a view to finding practical and effective solutions. The Unit is also providing assistance to our member states, through technical cooperation programs and activities, to deal with the problems of social development, and to achieve poverty alleviation and improvements in education, labor training, and job creation.

I would like to take this opportunity to reiterate the OAS= strong commitment to continue to support the work of the Social Network in the years to come. Indeed, we expect that another US$255,000 will be approved this month for technical cooperation activities in support of the Social Network during 1999.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

The sum of OAS activities in this area, which dates as far back as the origin of the Organization, is not a product of chance. OAS member states, that is to say, the countries gathered here today, have defined the fight against poverty as one of their principal objectives and have mandated the OAS to strengthen its work in this area. Recent amendments to the OAS Charter, successive OAS General Assemblies, the Summits of the Americas held in Miami and more recently in Santiago, and the Summit on Sustainable Development of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, all have been of one mind in stating that the social development of the countries, and of the region as a whole, is one of today=s fundamental challenges.

In the last two decades, Latin America and the Caribbean have experienced important economic and political changes. Our nations have embraced democracy. We have also reformed our economies. Yet, widespread poverty, income inequality, and the generally slow pace of social progress remain the most pressing problem -- the worst enemies of democracy at home and of integration in the Hemisphere. The positive growth shown in the Americas in the last three and a half years has yet to resolve the problems of inequity and social exclusion. At least one quarter of the total population in the Americas -- or somewhere in the order of 150 million people -- continue to live in poverty. Perhaps another quarter lives just above the poverty line and, thus, is extremely vulnerable to any economic shocks affecting their employment and incomes. The gap between rich and poor keeps growing; and many people still live without access to basic education, health care, clean water, and basic means to provide for their families adequately.

These facts reveal the central challenge for Latin America and the Caribbean, namely, poverty in the midst of abundance and growth. We have to join hands and start now on a crusade to tackle this seemingly intractable problem in order to improve the conditions of the poorest of the continent. In doing so, special efforts will be required to address the problems of especially disadvantaged and vulnerable groups, including women and children, the elderly, and minorities and indigenous populations.

The Social Network is critical to this process, and it is in recognition of this fact that the OAS continues its longstanding support for its activities. Even though Latin American and Caribbean countries show differences in their levels of development, as well as in the magnitude and significance of poverty, it is fundamental to adopt common goals. Such goals, besides materializing the political commitment of governments, demand the establishment of follow-up and technical cooperation mechanisms, as well as a steady exchange of experiences. The flexibility and dynamism of the Social Network encourages effective participation of interested parties and supports vigorous decision-making. It also provides a mechanism to monitor and evaluate the accomplishment of established goals.

The importance of elevating the priority assigned to the struggle against poverty and of focusing our reform efforts on improving social policy in Latin America and the Caribbean, however, will not be a simple task because, in general, governments are not properly equipped to meet social needs. Nearly all of our countries -- including the United States -- continue to rely on the same jaded investment and social policies of the past. With very few exceptions, reform of the state in Latin America and the Caribbean has not reached the critical area of social policy and institutions.

But the Heads of State and Government of the Hemisphere now have unanimously and collectively accepted the challenge. At the Second Summit of the Americas, held in Santiago in April, they reiterated the commitment of the Miami Summit to eradicate poverty and discrimination in the Hemisphere. Specifically, they resolved to redouble their efforts to enhance the quality of life of all peoples in the Americas, ensuring access to quality education and productive employment, to adequate health services and improved health technologies, to clean water, and to proper nutrition. The leaders also agreed to increase access to credit, to provide technical support for micro-enterprises, to protect the basic rights of workers, and to work to remove all forms of discrimination against women, indigenous communities, disadvantaged racial and ethnic minorities, and other vulnerable groups. Taken together, these measures will facilitate the inclusion of all citizens, without exception, in the economic and democratic transformation of the Hemisphere.

The OAS will support the member states in their efforts to achieve these ambitious, though attainable, goals. We have assigned renewed priority to the fight against poverty and have already taken concrete steps with a view to winning the battle.

In 1997 the OAS General Assembly adopted the Inter-American Program to Combat Poverty and Discrimination, which is designed to promote sustainable social development and increase over-all quality of life in the Hemisphere. The Program has two main objectives. The first is to strengthen inter-American dialogue on economic and social development, in order to promote the analysis and exchange of information and experiences among the countries of the region. The second objective is to identify specific areas for cooperation within the framework of the OAS and other international agencies.

The Inter-American Program includes a Plan of Action for the next four years, focussed on: (1) the modernization of public institutions and social management; (2) participation of civil society in overcoming poverty and discrimination; (3) financing of social investment; and (4) strategies to overcome discrimination against indigenous peoples and other groups at risk. These are the subjects to be considered by the Ministers of Social Development over the course of the next four years, and will guide the activities of the OAS Unit for Social Development and Education.

As part of its activities to implement the Inter-American Program, the OAS will continue to support the Social Network, working in close cooperation with the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, the Economic Commission for Latin American and the Caribbean, the United Nations Development Program, and other international agencies. The Unit also will continue to promote innovative ways of attacking the poverty dilemma, such as the Young Americas Business Fund, a joint undertaking with the private sector to foster skills training and micro-enterprise opportunities in the Caribbean and the Americas.

It is undeniable that poverty remains a major obstacle to development and constitutes a threat to social peace and political stability in the Hemisphere. If we want to reduce poverty and discrimination in the Americas, a strong national and international commitment is essential. Such a commitment implies systematic and continuous efforts and investments in such areas as education, health, and employment. Though results may not always be immediate, such efforts will provide substantial benefits over the long-term to those who need it most. Such a national and international commitment to overcome poverty and discrimination also will pay high dividends in terms of building citizenship and strengthening democracy in the Americas.

I thank you for your attention.