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USA: World Bank Lambasted for Ignoring Racial Dimension of Poverty

by Gumisai MutumeInter Press Service
October 25th, 2000

WASHINGTON -- Race has become such a scary word to the World Bank that its officials found themselves referring to it as the 'R- word' while responding to charges that the institution had skirted race in its recent World Development Report.

The Bank came under fire this week at a conference to review the 2000/2001 World Development Report (WDR) for failing to present data and analyses on how race and ethnicity are a factor in global poverty.

''The issue is not adequately addressed in the WDR yet at the world conference on racism next year, it is publications such as this, that will be in the spotlight,'' says Lynn Walker Huntly of the Southern Education Foundation, an Atlanta-based research agency focusing on racial issues in Brazil, South Africa and the United States.

With deprivation based on race and ethnicity so evident around the world, Walker Huntley asks whether the Bank fears being labelled as divisive by dis-aggregating data on who exactly makes up the bulk of poor people in the world.

''Do we seek to hide these realities? Race is a very critical factor in understanding poverty and there is no such thing as just poverty,'' says Walker Huntly.

The World Bank based its annual flagship report this year on poverty, having last dedicated a WDR to the theme a decade ago.

In this year's report, the Bank measures poverty in relation to income, health, education, powerlessness and vulnerability. It also analyses the gender dimension of poverty noting that this is one of the key poverty variations within countries.

Although it is not an official policy document approved by the Bank's executive board, the WDR has a major influence on development thinking and operations worldwide.

It will influence some of the deliberations next September at the UN World Conference against Racism and Racial Discrimination in South Africa. The conference will review the results of three UN Decades Against Racism and spotlight the horrors of slavery, the holocaust, apartheid and ethnic cleansing.

This year's WDR concedes that there is a dearth of information on race and poverty. It however says income poverty is higher among indigenous groups in a sample of Latin American countries for which data is available.

In Guatemala, for instance, indigenous groups have on average 1.8 years of schooling compared to 4.9 years for non-indigenous groups while in Peru, indigenous people were 40 percent more likely to be poor than non- indigenous groups.

Nora Lustig, who lead the WDR team, says the message of deprivation and inequality runs throughout the document which points out that poverty ''may be related to acts of discrimination that keep certain groups disadvantaged''.

However, another researcher, Ruthanne Deutch an economist in the Social Development Division of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) says the major challenge is obtaining racial data and incorporating it into reporting.

''For instance only four out of 26 Latin American countries ask the racial question in census questionnaires.'' In some of these countries, she says it is illegal to ask about race and ethnicity.

Next month, the IDB is bringing officials from Latin American countries to Columbia to a seminar titled 'Race and Ethnicity in the Censuses of Latin America'.

''Once the countries agree to include these questions, we have to find a way to ask the questions well, in an inclusive way, without being offensive,'' says Deutch.

But other officials within the development banks say the problem is deeper than just acquiring information as it translates to the make-up of the international financial institutions themselves.

''If you were to gather all the workers of the IDB in Washington and ask how many of them are of Mayan or Aztec descent or are Afro-Brazilians, you would probably not find one,'' says an IDB official from a Caribbean country. ''That is the problem, but no-one is prepared to talk about it.''

''It has only been 100 years since many of these nations emerged from colonial rule, and those relationships are still reflected in all institutions.''

The IDB is mandated to direct 50 percent of its spending toward the poor, the majority of whom are made up of racially excluded groups. But IDB officials say the institution spends far less on the group partly because there is no substantial information on them.

Some suggestions that emerged from this week's forum on the WDR included calls to explore the possibility of making the international financial institutions adopt new loan conditions that compel governments to directly target racially and ethnically excluded groups.

Richard Collier of the World Bank's Development Economics Department, however, says the World Bank may consider financing programmes that individual countries propose but it would not be appropriate for the institution to press affirmative action programmes on its clients.

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