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Digging for dollars: Researcher focuses on Latin America's challenges

PESOS AND POVERTY: Political science professor Judith Teichman examines the challenges that face Latin America. (Photo by Ken Jones.)

by Lisa Boyes

For political scientist Judith Teichman, poverty and inequality pose a tenacious dilemma in Latin America: how can governments probe beneath their reliance on economic growth to generate prosperity for citizens, most of whom remain poor.

This is the subject of Teichman’s current research, for which the University of Toronto Scarborough professor has received a Connaught Research Fellowship in the Social Sciences, awarded to distinguished scholars at U of T.

The Connaught Fellowship provides six months’ release time from teaching and academic administration, along with a stipend towards research costs. Teichman is augmenting the fellowship with a six-month sabbatical.

“Economic globalization and policy reforms have failed to produce sustained and widespread prosperity for most Latin American countries,” says Teichman. “However, it is the nature of economic growth that needs to count more in the future — which sectors are developed, and whether these are sectors that will employ people domestically in jobs that pay well. It is also important that people be trained and healthy enough to take those jobs. We need comprehensive knowledge of the historical conditions in Latin American countries that have made it so difficult to reduce poverty and inequality. Poverty is fundamentally a political, social and moral issue.”

In Latin America in 2005, almost 40 per cent of the region’s population -- 209 million people -- were poor, according to statistics from the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. Of these, 15 per cent were extremely poor or indigent. Extreme poverty equates to a lack of sufficient income to cover even the cost of basic food needs. Inequality, a large gap between the highest and lowest incomes in a country, also persists widely in Latin American countries. Social indicators of inequality, as collected by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), show large income disparities between rich and poor. Wide disparities can also be seen in urban employment rates, access to improved sanitation, attendance in secondary education, and the percentage of urban women in paid employment, among other measures.

Teichman has been grappling with questions of policy and policy reform in developing countries since the 1960s and 1970s during her time as a student on the U of T campus, when few Canadians were studying Latin America. “Campuses were buzzing with social justice issues at that time,” said Teichman.  “This was the era of the revolutionary Che Guevara in Cuba and Bolivia, and of the election of Salvador Allende in Chile, pre-Pinochet.”

At first, Teichman honed in on Argentina. Her PhD thesis dealt with industrial trade associations in Argentine politics, and she followed this up with work comparing Canadian and Argentine economic development.  But the brutal dictatorship under Jorge Videla prevented her from returning to Argentina to further her research. She then focused her research on Mexico, which industrialized between 1940 and 1960 -- a situation then described as the “Mexican miracle,” until the economy collapsed in the 1980s, despite Mexico’s petroleum wealth. Market liberalization and privatization followed in the 1990s.

Teichman has traveled extensively in Latin America and has been interviewed frequently about the region in the Canadian press. She was also invited to monitor the electoral process in Mexico in 2000. Her research findings are the subject of three books and one co-authored book, in addition to many journal articles and book chapters. Currently, Teichman’s research involves digging into the complex roots of poverty and inequality in the global south. Current studies of economic and social policy in the region, she says, are “voluminous and lacking in consensus.”

The book that results from Teichman’s research will be a comparative analysis of three late-industrializing countries and their distinct status on poverty and inequality measures: Mexico, a new democracy that continues to endure deep poverty and inequality; Chile, a new democracy that has reduced poverty for those with the lowest incomes but is still plagued by large income gaps between rich and poor; and South Korea, also a new democracy, but a country where a military, state-led industrialization achieved much higher degrees of prosperity and equality.

Although her South Korean research is at a preliminary stage, Teichman proposes that the country’s social success may stem from the state’s targeting of economic sectors that thrive and provide employment. When it comes to the impact of history on improved living standards, she points to the Chilean example. Though historically beset by many of the common Latin American problems, land redistribution under President Allende in the early 1970s, and the country’s long history of universal access to education and health care were crucial to Chile’s later success in poverty reduction.

As to the roots that will tend to choke out prosperity for citizens, Teichman highlights the “desperate clutch” of overzealous market reform in Mexico. She says the wealthy upper echelons carried out this reform repressively, while weakening the trade unions. Teichman also cites pervasive criminal activity, linked to the growing importance of the drug trade in Mexico as a major factor contributing to corruption, weak government and ongoing political and economic difficulties. The drug trade aside, Mexico has a diversified economy, she says, although this base has yet to produce significant benefits for most citizens.

“People in Chile and Mexico are skeptical about their governments,” Teichman adds. “And I am also skeptical about the power of electoral democracy alone to greatly reduce poverty and inequality.”

When asked what could make a difference to people’s chances in Latin America, Teichman suggests two things as a start. First, “a class compromise of the kind that Canada and other industrialized countries have, in which the government redistributes through taxation and spending some of the wealth of upper income groups to poorer citizens. Except for Chile, systemic wealth redistribution is not even being considered in Latin America, where typically 10 percent of the population holds a disproportionate share of wealth.”

Second, Teichman says, “Civil-society organizations — anti-poverty groups, trade unions and others — are increasingly active in these countries and expert in their areas. They are beginning to serve as watchdogs over their governments and to signal problems to the world. It’s a messy way to move governments, business and the wealthy towards social reform, but it may be one key to helping people dig out from under the poverty in Latin America.”

According to Prof. John Coleman, Vice-Principal (Research and Graduate Studies) at the University of Toronto Scarborough, “The awarding of a Connaught Research Fellowship to Prof. Judith Teichman is recognition of her outstanding commitment to her research. She demonstrates a superb level of scholarship and passion in her studies of Latin America, and we congratulate her on this well deserved recognition from the university.”



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