Drops of Balsam on a Large and Gaping Wound
For the first time, the government of El Salvador brings itself to admit that there are poor people in that Central American country. However, it fails to mention that they are the opposite pole of a very small group that lives in conditions of extreme wealth.
Poor families are often large. With twenty dollars a month it is impossible to pay for all the children’s studies.
02. July 2005
El Salvador’s territory is equivalent to that of Jutland, peninsula of Denmark. However, within its borders there are differences between rich and poor that are equivalent to the gap between, say, a Dane and a Somalian. As is the case with other Central American countries, El Salvador finds itself stuck in the thorny triangle between formal democracy, extreme poverty and a broad, ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor. The 20% of wealthiest households make 58,3 of national income, while the poorest fifth struggle to get by with a mere 2.4%. Forty-two percent of the population lives in poverty, and 17% cannot afford the luxury of eating rice and beans three times a day. However, on average El Salvador is no longer poor. For this reason, Danida and many other European donors have cut off their aid.
One after another in the long succession of presidents from the ruling party, ARENA, have assured the world that in El Salvador all is going splendidly. Nobody has wanted to discuss the issue of poverty until the other day, when president Antonio Saca pulled out a poverty map produced by FLACSO, a progressive socio-economic studies centre, along with a plan to mitigate said poverty.
“Over the past fifteen years the ARENA governments have managed to spin the image of the macroeconomic situation in such a way as to generate the idea abroad that El Salvador is country with a risk-free business climate. By showing us the poverty map, Saca is admitting that poverty is widespread. That is a first step in the right direction”, says Jorge Urbina, director of CoCivica, a Salvadoran NGO network that is also a MS partner organisation.
However, the Salvadoran poverty map, which looks disappointingly like the maps made by the World Bank for Honduras and Nicaragua, is no more than an analysis of the symptoms. “The government now admits that there are poor people. That is the good part. But it does not concern itself with the causes of poverty and its opposite pole, the extreme wealth of a few, and that is decidedly the bad part”.
Offer to 200,000 families
Besides the poverty map, Saca had a plan in mind by which to mitigate the scourge. It is however, equivalent to a few drops of balsam on a large and gaping wound. During 2005 some 20,000 families living in extreme poverty will receive from fifteen to twenty dollars a month if they sign a form committing themselves to send their sons and daughters to school. By 2009 the programme is to include 100,000 families, reaching twice that amount in 2015. Each family is entitled to participate for three years.
“Of course for people who don’t live in a cash economy, twenty dollars make a difference”, explains Jorge Urbina, “but it is also true that poor families tend to be large, and twenty dollars are not enough to pay for the studies of, say, six boys and girls. The monthly expenses for such a family, including food, clothing and school fees may be around four hundred dollars, and this is why many boys and girls must work to help make ends meet. And, honestly, what will happen when a family retires from the programme once the three years are up?”
ARENA has governed El Salvador for fifteen years straight without doing a thing to curb poverty. This has put pressure on a full quarter of the population to emigrate legally or illegally to the United States.
Jorge Urbina emphasised that “Poverty cannot be tackled by mapping it. We need to attack the root causes, and there needs to be political will to face and deal with the economic and social inequalies.