Social equity in the Americas: Perspectives and proposals from the OAS

Betilde Muñoz–Pogossian: “Social Inclusion is the process to achieve Equity in the Americas”

Women’s empowerment, eradicating hunger and poverty, promoting the inclusion of people in situations of vulnerability, many of those often treated as second-class citizens, such as afrodescedants and indigenous people who do not have equal access to basic benefits and services, the LGTBI community, as well as protecting human rights in general. These issues are part of the life and works of Dr. Betilde Muñoz-Pogossian and are also her passion. In this interview conducted in Washington, D.C., Dr. Muñoz-Pogossian, Director of the Department of Social Inclusion of the Secretariat for Access to Rights and Equity of the Organization of American States (OAS) told us about the progress made and the main challenges regarding the equity agenda in the Americas.

What is equity? What are the key issues in the equity agenda in the Americas?

All human beings, from the time we were kids, understand how situations of inequity feel; those situations in which due to gender, race, age, migration status, ethnicity, sexual orientation or identity, a person cannot enjoy their rights and cannot have access to all goods and services in a society. We are all equal before the law. That is a basic obligation of democratic governments. But equity is something else. Equity makes evident the differences amongst all individuals, of their life trajectories that often impede equal access to opportunities. It seeks to generate conditions to level the playing field so that all can effectively have access to education, health, housing, social protection, jobs, to the benefits of economic growth and development throughout their life cycle, and ultimately, to all their human rights. Because the Americas continues to be the most unequal region in the world, the General Secretariat of the OAS has decided to prioritize its efforts to promote more equity in the region, and to contribute to ensuring more rights for more people.

Apart from eradicating poverty and extreme poverty, the regional equity agenda must be focused on the social inclusion of populations in situations of vulnerability. The emphasis should be placed on promoting and ensuring the enjoyment of the rights of children and youth, afrodescedants and indigenous peoples, LGTBI people, people with disabilities, and to continue moving forward with the gender equity agenda. This is where we have had the most progress, but where there is still much to be done.

This work needs to focus, on one hand, on generating conditions of real democracy where these populations can, on a comparable basis as the rest of the members of society, enjoy their civil and political rights, namely, to elect and be elected, to have influence in decision-making processes, and to have incidence in the political agenda. On the other hand, the equity regional agenda must refine the series of public policies that have been implemented so far to ensure a more equal distribution of the benefits of economic growth and development. But we must also move one step further regarding economic and social rights. More political will is needed to ensure the full socio-productive inclusion of these populations, and to ensure a life free of discrimination for all. This, in the end, has everything to do with their capacity to exercise their civil and political rights. Which person who has to provide for his or her basic needs regarding food, housing or health can effectively enter the political arena and compete for public office? The discussion regarding what to prioritize is a national one. The fact is, however, that the continued existence of socioeconomic inequities that are replicated in the power asymmetries in the political sphere have a negative impact for the stability of our democracies, and on the levels of citizens’ trust in political institutions. This is something that should concern us all.

Which progress should we celebrate? Which challenges should we prioritize?

One of the most important achievements in the last few years has been to have moved the scale in favor of the gender equity agenda. Women’s right to vote is today the norm in all countries of the Americas, and legal frameworks guarantee their right to be elected. According to data from ECLAC, the average number of national female legislators went up from 9 to 25% between 1990 and 2015. Today practically all countries of the region have implemented quota or parity reforms, and some have even legislated in favor of targeted political financing for female candidacies. This has been manifested in greater representation of women in national legislatures, in ministerial cabinets, and although in 2018 we will only have one woman directing her country’s future in Trinidad and Tobago, we have had a number of women as heads of state in a few Latin American countries.

The challenge that we must prioritize is actually a historic debt that we have as a region.  We have about 200 million afrodescedants and 50 million indigenous people in the region. These populations are generally in the most vulnerable situations: 90% of these populations in the countries of the region live in poverty or extreme poverty, and in many cases, do not enjoy universal access to health, education, housing, and potable water. This perpetuates a situation of political underrepresentation. At the same time, this translates into the formulation of public policies that do not consider the ethnic specificities of these populations, which again affects the representativeness of the decisions that emerge from the political system, and people’s trust in democracy.

Betilde Muñoz-Pogossian, Director of the Department of Social Inclusion of the Secretariat for Access to Rights and Equity of the Organization of American States (OAS) pictured with Geovanny Vicente Romero, the founder of the Dominican Republic Center of Public Policy, Leadership and Development (CPDL-RD)

What is the OAS doing to promote the equity agenda in the region?

At the OAS Secretariat for Access to Rights and Equity, and its Department of Social Inclusion, we strive to give our support to Member states in their efforts to address inequality in all its forms using an integral, inclusive and sustainable approach. We base our work in the commitments established in the OAS Charter, the Social Charter of the Americas, the Interamerican Democratic Charter, the Protocol of San Salvador, and the numerous interamerican juridical instruments on human rights. The OAS work on the equity agenda is organized along three key strategic lines:

  1. Supporting intersectoral dialogue processes at the highest level to capitalize national capacities, both human and institutional, as well as to promote the exchange of lessons and solutions that contribute to the full exercise of all human rights by the people of the Americas.
  2. Promoting and strengthening efficient cooperation strategies and the generation of alliances amongst countries of the region to promote social inclusion and the exercise of economic, social, and cultural rights, to contribute to the eradication of poverty and extreme poverty in particular, and to revert situations of inequity, and discrimination.
  3. Accompanying countries of the region to fulfill obligations contained in the interamerican normative frameworks regarding development, social inclusion and no discrimination of groups in vulnerable situations, to ensure the effective protection of their human rights.

We at the OAS understand equity as the goal, and social inclusion as the process to achieve it. Promoting more rights for more people is our strategy to tip the scales in favor of equity in the region.

At the end of the conversation with Dr. Betilde Muñoz-Pogossian, it is clear that, although there is much to do, there has been important progress made in our region to ensure more social and political equity. It is also clear that we have the tools to do it. Via legislation, administrative measures, and public policies with a rights-based perspective, we can reverse situations of inequity. The work is monumental, urgent, and difficult because we are dealing with people who are in highly vulnerable situations. The work, however, is worth it because it brings us closer to having better democracies and better societies.

(Opinions are personal. They do not represent the views of the OAS).

Betilde Muñoz-Pogossian is Venezuelan. She has a Ph.D. in Political Science from Florida International University (FIU) in Miami, FL and a Master’s degree in International Relations at the University of South Florida (USF) in Tampa, FL. Her more recent publications include the volume Equity and Social Inclusion: Overcoming Inequalities towards more Inclusive Societies (2016), and Women, Politics and Democracy in Latin America (2017) from the “Crossing Boundaries of Gender and Politics in the Global South” series, Palgrave McMillan (NY, NY). Following her tenure of more than a decade in the political-electoral secretariat of the OAS, in 2015 Dr. Muñoz-Pogossian assumed the leadership of the work on Social Inclusion at the General Secretariat of the Organization of American States. Twitter: @BeticaMunozPogo

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