Welfare state gone, rich-poor gap widens despite charity & NGOs

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Fri, 23 Jul 1999 18:41:56 -0700 (PDT)

FWD  Reuters - July 22, 1999


  By David Haskel

BUENOS AIRES, July 23 (Reuters) -
Argentina's welfare state has all but
disappeared and, with 9 million poor, a
widening gap between haves and have-nots
and rising unemployment, the timing could not
be worse.

And yet a gem has emerged from the debris of
the public sector -- an explosion of social
solidarity. Three million of Argentina's 36
million people volunteer for community work,
mostly in non-governmental organisations
(NGOs) and Catholic church groups helping to
feed, cure and shelter those who eke out a
living on the fringes of the system.

``A real solidarity revolution is under way,''
said Juan Carr, a 37-year-old veterinarian who
four years ago founded the Solidarity
Network, a nonprofit group that helps others
help millions by building a bridge between
those willing to aid the needy and those
clamouring for assistance.

``In the beginning 90 per cent of the calls we
got were help requests and just 10 percent
offered help. Now we get more calls from
people willing to help than those asking for

Soup kitchens, food, clothes and medicine
donations and distribution, shelters for the
homeless and foster homes for abandoned
children -- all responsibilities linked in the past
with the state -- are increasingly in private
citizens' hands.

Doctors and lawyers are signing up to give
free assistance, others donate money or goods
and many more help collect and distribute
donations or do other community tasks free of
charge, Carr said. Many of the volunteers are
or have been victims of deprivation

A recent exhibition, ``Solidarity '99,''
included a parade of models -- not slender
beauties displaying haute couture but models
for society like Margarita Barrientos, a mother
of 10.

Barrientos inhabits one of Argentina's many
``villas miserias'' -- literally ``misery
villages,'' as the squatter slums littering
Buenos Aires and other big cities are known.
Three years ago she had her husband and sons
build a makeshift dining hall where she
prepares three meals a day for 245 villa miseria
dwellers using donated food.

Why does she do it? Because she does not
want others to suffer as she did, she says.
``Those who have never been hungry can
hardly understand other people's hunger.''

A recent study by the Centre for State and
Social Studies (CEDES), an Argentine
think-tank, concluded that 2 million people are
engaged in 50,000 NGOs and another million
in charity work organised by the Catholic

Mario Roiter, a CEDES director, says the
sweeping privatisation drive launched nearly a
decade ago by President Carlos Menem has
put an end to the welfare state and changed
people's attitude toward social responsibilities.


``We have moved from a centrally managed
economy to a private economy. Somewhere
in-between a new phenomenon, private
activity with a social orientation, has
emerged,'' he said. ``The state no longer
solves all the problems. It is retreating from
everyday life, leaving a vacuum that the NGOs
are filling.''

The state has recognised the NGOs' key role
and provides about 20 percent of their
financing, compared with 40 percent in the
United States and 50 percent in Europe, Roiter

In 1991, Menem's government launched the
Convertibility Plan, which put an end to years
of hyperinflation and constant devaluations by
pegging the peso at par with the dollar. It also
swapped a decades-old centrally planned
economy for free market policies, tearing
down trade barriers and opening up the
country to foreign investment.

Convertibility managed to break the economy
loose from years of stagnation, but hopes that
it would improve standards of living across the
board proved too optimistic. Unemployment
shot up from 8 percent before Menem took
office to 18.4 percent in 1995. It is currently
running at 14.5 percent.

Poverty figures are widely disputed but even
the most sanguine estimates show it has not
receded. Official figures show one quarter of
the population lives in poverty, making
Argentina still Latin America's richest country
but way behind First World nations whose
club it yearns to join.

And a recent report by the private consultancy
FIEL showed that, although Argentine's
average income has increased under Menem,
the gap between rich and poor has widened.


Ironically, the welfare state was erected by
Menem's mentor, the legendary Juan Peron,
who built up the Peronist movement 55 years
ago championing the rights of the legions of
what he called the ``shirtless'' -- mostly poor
and disfranchised European immigrants and
their Argentine-born children.

Taking the side of workers against ``big
money,'' Peron and his wife Evita, known as
``the standard-bearer of the poor,'' snatched
power from the hands of traditional
landowners who also owned the cows and
wheat that made Argentina one of the richest
countries on Earth at the time.

Until a coup pushed him out of power and into
exile in 1955, Peron built a ubiquitous welfare
state to which his successors, civilian and
military alike, paid tribute.

It took another Peronist, Menem, to tear it

The new Argentina joined a world trend,
privatising most utilities and public companies,
which for decades had been major employers.
But unlike industrialised nations, it lacked the
resources to cushion the social impact of
massive layoffs.

With a new wave of poor joining the
dispossessed, the quiet solidarity revolution
came to the rescue. Its byproducts include a
bimonthly magazine, The Benefactor, a new
postgraduate degree and a specialist news

But Bishop Rafael Rey, who heads Caritas, a
Catholic church organisation that feeds
100,000 poor children every day, has mixed
feelings about the phenomenon. Spontaneous
displays of solidarity are something to be
proud of, he says. But it also highlights the
fact that the state is not doing its job.

``The most grievous sin this government
committed in the past few years was to ignore
or, worse still, deny poverty,'' he told
Reuters. ``As a consequence, it has taken no
effective steps to fight it.''


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