This story is written with characters all-too-common in Latin America and the Caribbean. Think about a little girl. Place her in a rural setting, alongside her four brothers. Her mother is a widow with scarce education, earning just USD 180 a month to sustain her family. Now, let’s change that scene. Imagine a little boy living in a city with his brother and parents who have completed secondary education and earn an average income. You have surely seen many cases similar to this boy’s. Let’s say both are six years old. But, who do you think will have a greater chance of becoming a lawyer or professor in a university when they grow up? The answer is easy, isn’t it?
Just like the little girl from the rural area, many children face obstacles to their social and economic success due to circumstances beyond their control, such as gender, race, birthplace, parental education and income.
For many years, Latin America has debated income inequality. But the origin of that inequality is due partly to differences generated during childhood. One of the most critical elements required to place inequality at center stage of public policy is the ability to measure inequality of opportunity.
Now, a group of experts from the World Bank, Brazil’s IPEA and Argentina’s La Plata University have developed a methodology to measure the inequality of opportunity within 19 countries in the region, to analyze how far each of them is from providing the same opportunities to all, and to determine in what ways they are advancing towards that objective.
“The feeling that Latin America’s playing field has never been level was impossible to measure up to now, and since it could not be measured, neither could we design, implement and evaluate public policies to address the problem. All of that is going to change now. What this study brings is a new methodology to measure equality; we finally possess the instruments to measure human opportunity” says Marcelo Giugale, Director of the Poverty Reduction and Economic Management Department with the Latin America and Caribbean Region at the World Bank.
Experts devised a formula that answers a very simple question: what influence do personal circumstances, over which they have no control or responsibility, have in providing children access to basic services such as health, electricity, water and sanitation, and primary education, all of which are essential to their future development?
The study concluded that there are two circumstances that weigh heavily on determining the opportunities available to a child: their mother’s education and their father’s income. Of secondary but still significant importance are skin color, gender and birthplace.
“A country can show equality of opportunity with regards to clean-water access, for example, because some children have water and others don’t, that is already generating inequality; but it can also happen that a given region, or a given racial group, or a given socio-economic group, lack clean water” says Jaime Saavedra, Manager of the Poverty and Gender Sector with the Latin America and Caribbean Region at the World Bank.
Among those countries in the region that provide more opportunities to their children –based on the five indicators taken into account by the Human Opportunity Index– you find Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, Uruguay and Venezuela. Some countries like Brazil and Chile, which now show a high level of inequality, will be able to reduce it in the future thanks to a more equitable access to basic opportunities.
“The Human Opportunity Index will tell us what chances of success a child has, will give us the opportunity to tackle the issue before and not after, in the same way that we have always been able to detect those obstacles faced by companies in order to succeed; we did that through the Doing Business report on business climate quality produced by the Bank. We will now not only be able to respond to the question of which obstacles do companies face on their path to success, but also which obstacles do Latin American children face on their path to success. You now have a much more complete and useful picture –for public policy– of the real state of development in a given country” says Marcelo Giugale.
The ability to measure equality throws new light on social programs, and enables the design of new policies focused on increasing opportunity among children, as well as creating a more promising future for them, in comparison to their parents’.