The notion of well-being is relevant for nations at various levels of development. This is evident in the numerous initiatives for measuring progress and well-being in almost every country with the use of other indicators apart from the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Traditionally, Latin America has played a crucial role in this field. For example, Mexico, Chile, Colombia and Ecuador have put in place measurement projects along those lines. Others like Colombia have included the concept of well-being as major social right in their constitution. This essay looks at life in Latin America in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
According to Birdsall, Lustig & Meyer (2014), indicators of well-being have been determined on the basis of GDP per head. However, since development is now seen as a multi-dimensional process, a more comprehensive way of measuring the standards of living has been put forward. It involves a new historical index of human development beginning in 1870 at a time when large-scale improvements in primary education and health were put in place. It ended in 2007 when the Great Recession was about to start. This index shows significant gains in human development of Latin America since 1870, particularly between 1900 and 1980. In 2007, the index was nine times the level recorded in 1870.
It was observed that trends in the historical index failed to match those witnessed for real GDP per head. Human development grew at a faster rate than real GDP between 1870 and 2007. However, clearer discrepancies began to emerge in the course of the globalization backlash of the 1930s and 1940s. Hence, while real GDP stalled as factor and world commodity markets crumbled, better education and health practices became prevalent leading to significant advances in human development. How human development has advanced since 1970 has not matched economic growth. There was a dramatic contrast during the 1980s when a collapse in per capita incomes seemed to go parallel with reasonable gains in well-being (Astorga, Berges & FitzGerald, 2005).
In Latin America, gains in human development have largely been driven by social dimensions in the long-run. In the first half of the twentieth century, longevity accounted for the larger share. In the second half, access to knowledge played a leading role. The earliest health transition in Latin America was experienced in the first half, particularly between 1938 and 1950. Notable gains in longevity up to the mid-twentieth century were linked to advances in medical science and technology. They include diffusion of disease germ theory of the 1880s, advent of new vaccines in the 1890s, use of sulpha drugs to remedy infectious diseases in the late 1930s, as well as antibiotics in the 1950s (Lavinas, 2015).
Economic growth also played a role in boosting longevity through public provision of health and improvements in nutrition that boosted the immune system and minimized morbidity. However, in Latin America, such advancements often did not lead to large-scale treatment of infectious ailments with antibiotics and sulpha drugs as the larger low-income population could not access them. Rather, it was attained through cheap public health measures and the dissemination of hygienic practices, particularly during instances of economic stagnation. Starting from the mid-twentieth century, gains in longevity stalled in the continent as the first ever early-life health transition got exhausted. The case of the communist state of Cuba offers an interesting example. It presents an extreme contrast between succeeding in provision of basic needs in education and health, and failure to expand citizens choices- the core of human development. In Cuba, freedom and agency are restricted by an oppressive regime.
Astorga, P., Berges, A. R., & FitzGerald, V. (2005). The standard of living in Latin America during the twentieth century. The Economic History Review, 58(4), 765-796.
Birdsall, N., Lustig, N., & Meyer, C. J. (2014). The strugglers: The new poor in Latin America?. World Development, 60, 132-146.
Lavinas, L. (2015). Latin America: anti-poverty schemes instead of social protection. Contemp. Readings L. & Soc. Just., 7, 112.
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