Caribbean countries have grappled with poverty and related problems for decades. So have anti-poverty strategies and welfare programmes worked? What should be done now? This article from the International Journal of Social Welfare presents an overview of persistent problems and outlines proposals for social development. No single approach applies to all Caribbean countries. NGOs, community organisations and ordinary people should be involved in programmes to reduce poverty, develop human capital and improve social welfare.
The Caribbean’s small island economies face formidable challenges in dealing with globalisation, particularly in relation to the vital agricultural sector. Race, class and gender hierarchies of colonial domination have left a legacy of exclusion of the poor. Despite general improvements in living standards, poverty rates average 30 per cent of the Caribbean population. Social and human development indicators show that Barbados, Antigua-Barbuda and the Bahamas are doing better than Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica and Suriname. Plagued by political and economic problems, Haiti consistently scores lowest.
The causes and characteristics of poverty in the Caribbean and efforts to overcome it are discussed below:
- The human capital of the poor, including education levels, is low. Accessible employment tends to be low-skilled and low-paid. There is evidence of intergenerational transfer of poverty, stigmatisation and discrimination.
- Factors contributing to extreme poverty in Haiti include political corruption, the ‘brain drain’, business monopolies, deforestation, decreased tourism and the economic embargo of the 1990s.
- Structural adjustment programmes, aimed at creating economic stability, forced some Caribbean countries to lay off public employees and resulted in more severe poverty. Economic and institutional measures have failed to achieve their intended “trickle down” effect.
- The legacy of the Victorian Poor Law is evident in distinctions between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. Social welfare programmes provide basic services but there is little provision for the able-bodied. Maintaining the poor at the threshold of poverty may be valued politically in some areas.
- Social safety net programmes such as national insurance, food stamps and student loans aim to target resources where they are needed most. Though forming the mainstay of publicly funded programmes in the Caribbean, they serve to alleviate rather than reduce poverty.
While recognising that there are no quick fixes or universally applicable strategies, a number of recommendations are made:
- Each country should develop a comprehensive action plan with explicit targets, budgets and effective organisations. Political stability is a necessary condition for reducing poverty and corruption in Haiti.
- Governments should promote economic growth and maintain stability through diversification of agriculture, manufacturing and tourism. New products such as eco-tourism are an option for remote island countries.
- Microfinance Institutions (MFIs) should improve and widen provision to promote entrepreneurship. Investing in self-employment strategies provides opportunities for workers to move beyond the poverty wage.
- Social development programmes should involve non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and community-based organizations (CBOs) in information sharing, consultation and decision making at the local level.
- States should invest in basic services such as healthcare and housing and in developing human resources by improving education and work-based training. Better education for women will help break the intergenerational transfer of poverty.
- Jamaica’s social fund provides an excellent model for improving social and economic infrastructure through public sector investment and management, private contributions and civil society participation.