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Social inequality and its effect on democracy

 The decision of the government of Paraguay to dedicate the 2014

Organisation of American States (OAS) General Assembly to issues of development and social inclusion comes at a very opportune moment. 

Recent economic growth has been important to our region and, in that context, the delay in the full inclusion of all citizens in the benefits of development takes on fundamental importance. 

We have maintained for years that in addition to the weaknesses that still exist in our institutions and in our political practices, the full exercise of democracy in the Americas suffers from a serious problem of inequality, which not only affects democra­tic coexistence but also constitutes an obstacle to healthy growth.

While it is true the number of people living in poverty has dropped substantially in the last decade, many of those who have emerged from poverty still face extremely precarious conditions. 

Around a third of the total population of Latin America live in households with an income between four and ten dollars a day. They have escaped the poverty that still afflicts more than 167 million Latin Americans, but to call them the “middle sector” makes no sense. In truth, they are millions of “not-poor” people, who occupy an income level that keeps them extremely vulnerable. 

Despite the fact that much of the recent alarm over inequality has focused on its economic aspects, especially on the distribution of income, it is worth noting it also affects other areas of social life, in ways that do not emerge from the presence of greater or lesser poverty. 

In truth, inequality is not expressed only in the enormous diversity of people’s buying power or income, but it also comes from discrimination in terms of class, race, gender, geographic origin, differing physical capacities and other sources, which turn it into a multidimensional phenomenon and make it incompatible with our democratic ideals. 

To be female, poor, indigenous, afro-American, migrant, disabled or an informal worker means to start from a disadvantageous position in society, compared to other groups. Generally, these categories entail different economic conditions, different levels of access to services, public protection and education or employment. Their origins as social categories may differ, but the main effect is to make the people in these groups more vulne­rable to abuse, exclusion and/or discrimination.

The times in which we believed the interaction between democracy and the market economy would reduce inequality are long gone. On the contrary, the massive injustice that exists in our countries, in terms of the distribution of wealth and access to social goods, seriously damages the social fabric. That is why the debate has ceased to be purely economic and has become one about public policies. 

The politi­cal decisions taken by states to improve distribution is what makes the market economy compatible with democracy, and it is up to them to find a balance, within the rule of law, between growth and the reduction of inequality.

OAS Secretary General 

José Miguel Insulza


(The 44th Organisation of American 

States General Assembly is scheduled for 

June 3 to 5 in Asunción, Paraguay)

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