Top United Nations experts on Latin America and the Caribbean have warned that global economic shocks could throw some 16 million people of the Americas into extreme poverty, threatening important gains toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals in the region.
Concluding a two-day meeting at the Pan American Health Organization, the regional directors of 13 UN agencies promised joint action to ensure continued progress on the MDGs in the Americas over the next two years.
MDGs aim at sharply reducing or eliminating several social and economic ills by 2015. They were set by the world leaders at the Millennium summit at the United Nations.
"Latin America and the Caribbean have made real advances toward fulfilling the MDGs, particularly in areas like infant mortality, hunger and poverty reduction," said PAHO Director Mirta Roses Periago.
"But not all groups have benefited equally, and the new global developments are a real threat to our progress. We need to mobilise and coordinate development action among UN agencies and the region's governments to continue to fight poverty and promote sustainable and equitable development," Periago said.
Alicia Barcena, executive secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, said the region has already reduced the proportion of the population living in poverty (MDG-1) from 48 percent in 1990 to 35 percent in 2007, thanks to sustained economic growth over the past decade coupled with poverty reduction strategies.
"But this still leaves 190 million poor people, of which 70 million are extremely poor," she said. An additional 16 million people could be forced into extreme poverty as a result of the global economic slowdown that began in mid-2007, primarily due to declining remittances, slower growth in exports, and lower prices on manufacturing exports, she said.
Under a joint action plan, the UN agencies will develop an assessment of the impact of higher food prices and other external shocks on hunger, poverty and inequality in Latin America and the Caribbean, using common data and indicators.
They will also define a set of integrated development actions that address the needs of the most vulnerable population groups, including indigenous people, Afro-descendants, women, youths and migrants and mobilise resources from governments and international donors to support these actions.
They will also support the use of a new "Atlas of Vulnerability" developed by PAHO and ECLAC's population division to identify areas and population groups with the most urgent development needs.
Periago said despite overall improvements in nutritional status at the aggregate level in Latin America and the Caribbean, 52 million people in the region are still undernourished, and 9 million children under 5 are chronically malnourished.
The American Alliance for Nutrition and Development that is being set up would promote better nutrition not just through food production and distribution but with a broad range of actions, ranging from safer cooking stoves and safe water to urban agriculture and sustainable use of natural resources.
Nils Kastberg, UNICEF regional director, told the group "We must take action, and we must focus on the issue of equity. If not, we're going miss the groups who need the MDGs the most."