Article prepared by the director of the EUROsociAL+ Programme, Juan Manuel Santomé Calleja, in the context of the coronavirus pandemic facing the world today.
We have been saying it. For years, the EU EUROsociAL cooperation programme with Latin America on social cohesion has been one of those significant voices raised in favour of promoting societies with fewer disparities and inequalities. Societies founded on a strong rights-based social pact, in which social ties have been increasingly strengthened, with increasing trust between citizens and regarding institutions, with a strong sense of belonging that enabled the building of a sense of community with people taking root, ultimately more cohesive societies. We have been making that point. We have been insisting for many years that economic growth without redistribution of wealth was not enough, that development models should be inclusive because, as has been shown, there are many, too many, who are left behind, who live in conditions of poverty and who are extremely vulnerable. Social cohesion and the reduction of inequalities, we said, should be at the centre of the social contract. As an objective and as a means, a horizon to walk towards and a compass for prioritising public policies.
And the 2008 financial crisis arrived, ending years of expansive social spending policies in Latin America protected by political priorities and high commodity prices, and again austerity and deficit containment policies were applied to balance the economy to guarantee the fiscal sustainability of States… But despite such improvements, inequality levels in Latin America continued being the highest in the world, rates of precarious employment were close to 70% in some countries, taxation was still insufficient and above all not progressive, and capital flight was still a scourge for economies, ultimately leaving them extremely vulnerable to eventual and new economic shocks.
Meanwhile, from the EU’s cooperation with Latin America through its regional programmes (EUROsociAL being one of them), a contribution was made to a steady expansion in the platform of public servants who shared expertise between Europe and Latin America. The latter because of an increasingly mutual awareness that we were all in the same boat, that some of the main problems that plague us are common to all, such as climate change, the growth of inequalities (also in Europe), the future of work and the fourth industrial revolution (ICT), etc. Increasingly confirming that peer learning and knowledge sharing were necessary strategies, but not enough, since the SDGs, in order to move forward, demanded more financing for development and greater policy coherence.
By 2019, such excessive vulnerability, the lack of equality of opportunities, progress that too often was unadventurous and delayed social inclusion of the majority already began to have consequences: abrupt changes in government, new protagonists coming to power in the face of the prevailing mistrust in traditional political parties and institutions, broad mobilisations in various countries demanding new, more inclusive social pacts, the ceding of liberties in exchange for supposed assurances, volatility, uncertainty, democratic deterioration…
And then, all of a sudden, the impossible happened. A global pandemic of unknown dimensions arrived in 2020, first affecting China and Asia and then Europe. After the first emergency reactions (respirators, medical supplies, masks, etc.) and with a significant proportion of the population under lockdown, what was important was once again remembered, as well as what was not. And it turned out that what was essential was the health and physical well-being of the population (protecting life), although many of you who have been working in the field of cooperation for so many years know that 3.5 million children worldwide die every year from malnutrition. Ten thousand a day. That 870 million people still suffer from food insecurity – something which has been brought up time and time again. But this time the pandemic is affecting the heart of the most developed countries, which clearly contributes to health once again becoming a priority on the agenda, something we hope will remain to be the case. As the days passed, the news made it clear that the virus, COVID-19, knows no frontiers, and that to fight it, the strength of health systems was essential. That strength involves personnel, beds, equipment, social protection, the existence of unemployment benefits, public policies getting through on a multi-level basis throughout territories, timely, transparent and reliable information so that citizens can show solidarity in their response to extreme measures adopted during States of Alarm, and so on. Analysis began to make clear that the virus does have a greater impact on people with fewer resources, on those who live in overcrowded situations due to their greater exposure to contact, on the self-employed and on people who work in precarious jobs. COVID-19 suddenly became a mirror which showed us the extent to which our societies were resilient. And there was talk again of social cohesion, of the need to reduce inequalities and to strengthen what is public and what is shared. And to cooperate more than to compete. Cooperation as a way to strengthen resilience.
But COVID-19 is still developing mainly in Europe and the US and only recently in Latin America. A region rich in resources, creativity and human capital, but still the most unequal in the world. How will people survive confinement if many must go out to work on a daily basis to earn a few pesos to feed their families? How, without social security and health systems in many fragile cases? How will millions of people who live on the outskirts of large cities do without access to clean water and adequate sanitation? Now, a strong response from the public sector is demanded, but how can countries with almost no fiscal room for manoeuvre respond to catastrophes of this nature? With insufficient tax systems, 22.8% GDP vs. 34.3% GDP OECD countries, and with systems which are also not redistributive, which have high levels of public debt, with part of the latter being foreign? Countries with a productive base which is not yet sufficiently diversified and therefore too dependent on the export of raw materials? According to ECLAC projections in Latin America, in 2020, the number of poor will rise from 188 million to 220 million (there are 125 million people who lack access to quality basic health according to the OECD).
At the moment there is consensus that a massive fiscal stimulus is needed both to attend to the emergency and to rebuild. And there is also a consensus regarding the need for coordinated and concerted multilateral action that optimises available resources. Part of such an effort belongs, although logically not only, to international cooperation for development, and the EU is called on to play a key role right now on being the main donor of non-reimbursable ODA and also being the holder of knowledge regarding many public policies that have been built up by Welfare States, policies which put people and their lives centre stage. In this framework, and as part of a concerted effort coordinated by DEVCO, EUROsociAL is receiving and responding to requests for support from friendly Latin American countries to accompany them in the adoption of urgent measures (early warning to avoid gender-based violence which increases in confinement, social protection systems, unemployment funds, institutional transparency, etc.). While, at the same time and even in these circumstances, EUROsociAL continues to accompany more than 200 ongoing public policy reforms to guarantee inclusive justice, equitable public finances, social policies for the care of vulnerable groups (children, older adults, etc.), cross-border cooperation focusing on rights, inclusive national employment systems, migration due to human rights issues, transparency and access to information, the fight against corruption; betting strongly on the adoption of a gender approach throughout the programme and accompanying public policies to improve the physical, economic and political autonomy of women; a bet that has to do with placing care at the centre; carers (70% women) who have been systematically invisible, underpaid and who now turn out to be the key group in saving our lives. As it always was. As still is. Caring for people. Taking care of the planet. Social cohesion and the reduction of inequalities, we said.
Social cohesion and the reduction of inequalities as we continue saying here at EUROsociAL. We continue, and will continue, to serve the friendly countries of Latin America by supporting public policies that value the common good, that strengthen ties, so as not to leave anyone behind as set out in the 2030 Agenda.