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Strengthening Workers: A Challenge for Green Economy in Latin America

25 Aug 2011

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This is part of a series of podcasts reflecting on the importance of bringing the social dimension back into discussions about green economy and sustainable development.

Amalia Palma and Claudia Robles are research assistants for the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. They are participating in the UNRISD conference Green Economy and Sustainable Development: Bringing Back the Social Dimension in October 2011, with the paper: The Green and the Social: How Far, How Close in Latin America?
(This interview reflects the views of the interviewees and does not necessarily represent those of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean).

In your view, what important social dimensions are being left out in mainstream discussions about green economy?

Amalia Palma: As Latin America demonstrates, economic growth does not automatically lead to poverty elimination and the reduction of inequality. Economic growth has been relevant in reducing the levels of poverty within the region. However, poverty is far from disappearing, and there are extreme poverty traps that have shown to be persistent even in spite of the implementation of various social policies.

Claudia Robles: It may be also argued that there are potential short and medium term social impacts of green economy. In the short term, it is expected that a large number of jobs will be created, particularly in the area of green jobs. This will be beneficial, for sure. However, these jobs will require new competencies and training on the part of workers, which may not coincide necessarily with the reality of workers within developing regions. Since there is no mention concerning what investment is to be made in the area of human capital strengthening, there is the risk that a significant part of the work force, particularly those located in low productivity sectors, will be excluded from these opportunities. Similarly, we find that it is quite relevant to introduce a gender approach, which has remained quite absent from current formulations of green economy. Concerning the long term impacts, on the other hand, there are indirect benefits that local communities will have as a result of lowering the rate of degradation of natural resources, reforestation and all the actions that are planned in a green economy. However, without a precise measure of these impacts and expected goals, it is possible that resources may be diverted to more successful territories, reproducing the regional inequalities that we already observe in Latin America.

How can existing inequalities affect the transition to green economy? What kinds of inequalities are most important or relevant?

Amalia Palma: Recent approaches to green economy rely on a series of assumptions that need to be confronted against the reality of developing countries. In Latin America, access to education is quite unequal: access to primary education is close to 95% - however, this rate is considerably lower in the case of secondary and tertiary education. Many students leave school in order to enter the job market and increase the income available within their households. Furthermore, the quality of the education they access shows important differences, as PISA tests have shown. This situation is repeated in the case of access to training and insertion in the low or medium productivity sectors. Green economy on its own will not sort out this situation unless specific measures are taken into account.

How does social policy need to be adapted so that a green economy reduces poverty and inequalities?

Claudia Robles: Well, there are a series of policies that we consider that could activate a virtuous circle between green economy, poverty and inequality reduction, and well-being, for instance, in Latin America. What we aim for is an integrative agenda of policies for sustainable development and green economy within the countries that might advance the social dimension of the green economy. A first element of this agenda is connected directly to the labour dimension in green economy. The strengthening of capacities and credentials on the part of workers is essential on this matter. We also know that a greater part of the income of the poor comes directly from labour. Hence, it is crucial to make advances in both levels of remuneration, income and working conditions. This is also connected to the implementation of the correct incentives to promote training through public-private partnerships, for instance.

In the second place, green economy may constitute an important window for opportunities to extend social protection in Latin America. Links between green economy and social protection may take basically two formats: on the one hand, it is possible to think of policies that protect those who will be more affected due to the productive reforms, delivering transfers complementary to training in schools in areas compatible with the green economy. On the other hand, it is also possible to implement subsidies of the kind that are already in place within the region and that fund access to water and electricity among poorest households. This may facilitate that these household may have access for instance to renewable energy, contributing to decreasing the use of more polluting energies. Planning actions according to a territorial gender and ethnic approach on this matter is also fundamental.

In the specific context of Latin America, would you say green economy is a priority for the private and public sectors? How could green economy create appropriate jobs for Latin American countries? What are the limitations of the job market?

Amalia Palma: We believe that green economy has not yet become a priority within the private and public sectors in Latin American countries. However, some efforts have been advanced on either the social or environmental components of the project of social equity in debt within green economies. However, these efforts have had only limited impact.

Claudia Robles: Also, concerning your question about the labour structure, as we have already mentioned, labour structures in Latin America conspire against the aim of social sustainability that forms part of green economy. The labour structure in Latin America is maybe depicted through its high stratification and segmentation between sectors and employment located in high, medium and low productivity sectors. We believe that one concept that may contribute in order to promote appropriate jobs within green economy is the concept of decent work that has been developed by the International Labour Organization. Decent work basically aims at realizing the labour rights of workers around the world, acknowledging the inequalities that they have to confront.

From your research, what are good examples of where the social, environmental and economic pillars of sustainability have been successfully brought together through policy?

Amalia Palma: Before entering into the discussion of good examples, we think that it is important to consider there are also various examples of how these collide. For example, this is the case of the production of energy: there is a wide and intense debate concerning the potential environmental damage caused by the construction of hydroelectric or thermoelectric projects vis-à-vis their economic and social benefits.

According to our research, there are a few policies that have dealt jointly with these three pillars.
This is the case of a cash transfer programme, the Plano Brasil Sem Miséria, that aims at deepening the impacts of the program Bolsa Família, working also with families living in strict poverty. Besides the components of monetary transfers, access to social services, sanitation, training and others, the programme has implemented a component that has been called Bolsa Verde that focuses directly on sustainable development, including a transfer associated with the preservation of national parks and forests.

Another example that we would like to mention of these efforts is the deployment of natural landscapes to promote sustainable tourism. From the logic of the green economy, this sector might be an important source for green growth, if adequate investment to equip rural areas with infrastructure is granted.

Last but not least, we also want to mention an initiative that has emerged from the third sector so as to create a market for fair trade products, which involves an approach of social and environmental sustainability. If this initiative becomes massively known, the transformation of the productive sectors will be motivated, not only from the perspective of the policy makers, but also the consumers that will approve or disapprove with their election.

Amalia Palma and Claudia Robles, research assistants for the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, thank you for taking the time to talk to us.

For UNRISD, this is Alice Stock in Geneva.

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