Sunday, March 30, 2008

Hugo Chavez -- Not Helping the Poor that Much?

Following on from the previous post about inequality, here's an interesting article in Foreign Policy by Francisco Rodriguez, chief economist to the Venezuelan National assembly from 2000-04. Rodriguez deconstructs the belief, prevalent among not only Hugo Chavez supporters but also his critics, that Chavez has redistributed resources to the poorest in Venezuelan society.
Certainly, there is a wide range of different opinions of Chavez and his government, which we might summarise as follows:

a) Chavez is a dictator who is buying support by redistributing the oil wealth. He will eventually make himself president for life, let all the terrorists camp out in his back yard and form some kind of nuclear alliance with Iran
b) Chavez is popular among many in Venezuela because he has used the oil price boom to establish promising though rather haphazard social programes for people who have always been marginalised. He's an annoying (though occasionally amusing) demagogue who has authoritarian tendencies and but has won his elections fair and square
c) Chavez is the reincarnation of Simon Bolivar and Che Guevara combined, a charismatic leader who is righting the wrongs of centuries and setting a model for 21st century socialism.

What supporters and opponents alike (I'm more or less category B) agree on is that Chavez has redistributed wealth and prioritised helping the poor. Yet this orthodoxy is precisely what is questioned by Francisco Rodriguez. Having worked closely with the Venezuelan adminstration, Rodriguez argues that the perception that Chavez has done a lot for the poor is mainly the product of good public relations campaigns.

Although poverty in Venezuela was reduced from 53 to 27 percent between 2003 and 2007, Rodriguez claims this is almost entirely due to rapid economic growth in the wake of the oil boom. The one percentage point reduction in poverty for every point of GDP growth is a poor return, says Rodriguez, compared with other (unnamed) developing countries which have managed two points of poverty reduction per point of GDP growth. In addition, he says:

The average share of the budget devoted to health, education, and housing under Chávez in his first eight years in office was 25.12 percent, essentially identical to the average share (25.08 percent) in the previous eight years. And it is lower today than it was in 1992, the last year in office of the "neoliberal" administration of Carlos Andrés Pérez -- the leader whom Chávez, then a lieutenant colonel in the Venezuelan army, tried to overthrow in a coup, purportedly on behalf of Venezuela's neglected poor majority.

The further statistics Rodriguez cites include:

-- the Gini coefficient (a way of measuring income inequality, the higher the worse) increased from 0.44 to 0.48 between 2000 and 2005
-- infant mortality has dropped, but at the same rate (3.3 percent per annum) as the previous nine years, and much less quickly than in Argentina, Chile and Mexico (5.2--5.5 percent per annum)
-- the percentage of underweight babies, percentage of people without access to running water, and percentage of people living in house with earthen floors all slightly increased between 1999--2006
-- the much vaunted Robinson literacy programme shows "little evidence [of having] had any statistically distinguishable effect on Venezuelan illiteracy"

The most notable policies of the Chavez administration, according to Rodriguez, have in fact been its nationalisations and expansion of state economic (rather than social) activities. These appear to be leading to a re-run of the 'macroeconomics of populism', a particularly Latin America affliction where expansionary government policies eventually lead to balance of payments problems, spiralling inflation, and a decline in real wages (Alan Garcia's 1985-90 mandate in Peru perhaps winning the prize for the most disastrous example of this cocktail).

His concluding paragraphs strike me as rather wise and, for those who've paid attention to any of my previous posts, run along similar lines to other conclusions I've favoured:

It would be foolhardy to claim that what Latin America must do to lift its population out of poverty is obvious. If there is a lesson to be learned from other countries' experiences, it is that successful development strategies are diverse and that what works in one place may not work elsewhere. Nonetheless, recent experiences in countries such as Brazil and Mexico, where programs skillfully designed to target the weakest groups in society have had a significant effect on their well-being, show that effective solutions are within the reach of pragmatic policymakers willing to implement them. It is the tenacity of these realists -- rather than the audacity of the idealists -- that holds the greatest promise for alleviating the plight of Latin America's poor.

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