REPORT #497 June 2002

Produced by the Belize Development Trust

As studies go, this Poverty Assessment was a pretty good one! There is no clear definition of poverty for all countries and all situations. But in the case of Belize, a small third world country with a small scattered population and a mix of ethnic groups with varying life styles, from town, to rural and sophisticated rich, to slash and burn Indian milpa farming, the assessment of poverty was fairly accurate.

As in all things, there were compromises. In the past, the Belize Development Trust had criticized such reports for their importation of industrialized study criteria, to environments and peoples from rich countries, that simply did not fit the situation found in countries like Belize.

The criteria for poverty in this study, was subsequently given much thought. The classification of what it was to be poor, was set on the basis of the amount of regular food of nutritious value necessary for the support of health and life. Considering the varying situations in Belize, and the idea that many Maya slash and burn jungle farmers have; that they are richer than their cousins in ghetto sections of Belize City the main port town who own material things and have infra structure services they do not have, the idea that it was the idea of sufficient food on the table each day and the quality of that food for a family was the assessment baseline for calculating poverty levels.

Basically speaking, 9.6 % of the population of Belize households were found to be below poverty level. Of this, some 13.4 % as separate individuals without family support were found to be below poverty level.

The young were found to be effected as a percentage of the population at 31.6 %. The elderly were found to represent 27.6 % of the below poverty levels of the population of Belize.

Below poverty was found to be concentrated in three major districts. The Cayo District, the Stann Creek District and the Toledo District. The Cayo and Toledo Districts were found to have the most below poverty levels. The majority of the poor lived in rural settings. Their food primarily seasonal food crops and tree fruits. There would be a couple of months between seasons when food was exceedingly sparse. I say this from my own experience on Caye Caulker. Seasonal food supplies are mostly available twice a year.

Hydroponics, and irrigation systems could change the supply of seasonal food supplies and even out the flow. But this would require some teaching by example plots.

Below poverty levels had certain characteristics. This was noted by more persons sleeping per bedroom, where they had a separate bedroom. Toilet facilities were often non-existant. Pit latrines were common and the more fancy ventilated pit latrine was not found much. So, teaching how to make a better latrine is obviously a social program that needs to be increased.

Most poor families had a radio and a radio seems to be a benchmark as a necessity. But in the port of Belize City for example, those below the poverty criteria often also had television sets as a material possession. The below poverty criteria of the port of Belize City ghettos were far richer than those in rural areas, whose material possessions and access to government infra-structure were either less, or non-existant. In other words, the government has failed their rural populations in the past, in their orientation of dollars committed to social projects. Ufortunately, under the Constitutional system we use, the below poverty criteria population of the port of Belize City, control the political parties of the country and the power. They thus get hundreds of millions in social spending while the rural poverty get almost none at all. To resolve this distortion of revenue disbursements, it would imply the need for political reform to spread the distribution of limited financial resources and encourage a re-allocation voluntarily of ghetto populations of the port city to newer more wealthier rural areas. The system of voting and representation needs to be addressed to resolve these development imbalances.

The rural poor are also suffering health problems at a greater rate than poverty people in the port of Belize City. This again is due to the voting representation limitations under the current constitution. There has been little impact, or teaching of the rural poor about cause and effect, between the way they deal with the environment and their health. Using streams for water, that can be contaminated from upstream usage and Cholera epidemics are an example. Efficient latrines another example. The worst cases for water born diseases occur in the Toledo District, the Stann Creek District and the Cayo District.

Many communities lack the ability, skills or knowledge to tackle their own problems. This is probably best resolved through the use of volunteers like the Peace Corp. It worked in Caye Caulker back in the 1960's and should work in other villages.

Annual income flows of cash varied around the country. In some parts, $751.32 was the family cash flow per annum. In other locations, like the Stann Creek District, $633.64 was the annual cash flow average. In the Toledo District, $1,013.82 was the average annual cash flow. Bear in mind this is Belize currency and you need to cut that in half to get the equivalent in USA dollars. This bears out my own experience on Caye Caulker an island. My annual cash flow was about $1500, but I would often get threatening bullying letters from the Internal Revenue service demanding an assessment of $6000 for the year. Where they got such fictitious notions from, I have no idea? In the tropics in rural areas, where you live from the land, or sea; people often only work for cash if work is available to buy a material possession. Social life is often regarded as more valuable. But in communities were material possessions such as refrigerators, electricity and televisions are introduced, then competition starts for who can show off with the most material lifestyle. The industrialized concept that a person should work 5 days a week ,every week of the year is foreign to rural Belize. You will in season , work 18 hour days if necessary. But out of season, you will lay in the hammock and chat with friends and circulate for weeks, or even a couple of months. If you were smart enough to save and had a resource for some basic food supplies, such as fishing, then all you would need really in the tropical life is some rice, beans, and sugar. The idea that a low cash flow annually is poverty, is thus false. The study method of using food supply and nutritional value works fine. Particularly for families. There is danger in these studies by introducing different work ethic requirements from temperate zoned industrialized countries.

The incidence of poverty was greatest in the Toledo District. Where 57.6 % of the Toledo District population were unable to cover their basic dietary needs. The Toledo District also had the greatest number of indigent individuals. With 40.2% the average. I rather think this figure is a misrepresentation of lifestyles. People who do subsistance farming have set seasons a year, that they must work in community groups to clear jungle and plant. They also have seasons when no substistance farming is required, other than a daily walk to the milpa to look after crops and bring home a bag full of food, such as beans and corn for the family. It is during their non-farming seasons that they are available for work, for a cash basis. To presume they would take a factory, or office job if one was available is erroneous. If they want to buy a radio, or rubber boots, then they will take work long enough, ( 2 or 3 weeks ) to get the amount of cash to buy what they want and then quite sensibly they quit and go home to a life of leisure and friends. Swimming in the river then takes priority on a nice lazy sunny afternoon.

Should the results of this poverty program then conclude that jobs were necessary, it would be a false conclusion. What is needed is the knowledge and farming samples of planting more nutritious plants that would supply the missing dietary needs. Some techniques to spread growing seasons to cover all the months of the year would also improve the lifestyles.

If you compare the urban and rural populations of the nation of Belize. Then only 20.6 % of the urban population fit the dietary poverty criteria; whereas 42.5 % of the rural population were impoverished with below the necessary dietary needs.

Rural primary education quality continues to be the biggest problem facing any government of the day. Training local rural teachers and getting them supplies is the top need. There is no evidence the government can do this. The majority of the financial resources are going to the port of Belize City where the political votes and power blocs lie.

Belize City the port town also has the most teen pregnancies. It is a challenge that the local schools need to face in their operational plans and construction plans. Schools in the port of Belize City ALL should have day care centers for unwed mothers as part of their school offering. Whether it be primary or secondary schooling. Young girls giving birth is a natural phenomena and without an industrialized society setting, then a very normal function of a local life cycle. Educational planners should simply include child care into the normal every day educational school program. Resistance from religious groups should be overcome and City planners and city politicians need to tackle this problem of a religious stigma and punishment for natural causes. This is a local community problem and not a problem of national government.

65.8% of the people in the country owned land. Squatting on jungle land was the most common method in the Toledo District. Which implies a need for a better Toledo Land assessment and assignment program. It is believe the current PUP government are working on this problem.

The conclusions of the report on causes of underdevelopment and poverty levels were inconclusive. We did not even agree with them. There was much talk of open trade and export processing operations, but little or no useful suggestions or data. The Educational system has taken great strides in the last five years to address shortcomings in education distribution nationwide. There is more effort today to concentrate on technical work skills, rather than academic skills necessary for exporting the young as a brain drain to other countries. The pace has slowed down in the past year or two, but education is indeed trying to get useful technological training to the rural districts. It needs another boost, but financial resources are lacking, as also any useful plans capable of implementation, to tackle the rudimentary shortcomings of rural primary school education.

There is talk of tax reform. The collecting of more taxes. I again disagree with this assessment. I believe some taxes need to be abolished. The Income Tax for instance, in order to attract foreign investment. It is only with new ideas from outside and people with small amounts of capital and experience and skills to invest, that a change can be made. Increased taxation would be counter-productive. Increased government revenues will come from first; new foreign small businesses setting up shop and then locals learning and copying them. This process takes about two or three years in my experience.

The study believes that the subsistance agriculture is a low level equilibrium trap. Hmmnn! Yes and no! That it produces poverty study below dietary needs seasonally is true. But increasing the sort of crops grown and increasing the weeks and months you can grow through irrigation for example, and natural nitrogen producing soil fertility crops, would do far more to satisfy curing the poverty criteria of this study than factory jobs. Now if you are concentrating on increasing government revenues that is a different story. Jungle farming can be a sweet life! You need some processing and marketing cooperatives to increase farming production and cash flows to tax.

Successive governments are slowly bringing road infra-structure to the hard to reach areas. Other services are problematical though. Especially since they have been privatized inside a monopoly setup, that prohibits any new investor from going to what the monopoly perceive as unprofitable areas at this time. Yet without the services, you will not get growth. The problem here is a monopoly constitutional system, versus competition. A political problem, not a development problem.

There is a financial problem to development. Currently it is that there is only $150 million a year, or $75 million USA a year to run a whole government and nation. An equal amount is needed to meet interest payments on foreign debts incurred; trying to overcome development and poverty problems by throwing borrowed money at it; with the encouragement of predatory lending agencies plying nave provincial politicians with false encouragement.

Our PUP party now in power have fallen for this trap and seductive sales pitch by loan salesmen.

Consequently for about another ten years while the debt gets paid, there is going to be little funds available for more than a holding pattern of government services. The other alternative is to de-centralize. Some efforts have been made in this line, but not enough.

Continued diversification is paramount. Many small new ventures need to be encouraged in whatever forms the government can do. Wherever possible. Here lies the salvation and future security of government revenues. If an investor needs a road, then build a road. We have a bulldozer and if he will buy the diesel, lets do it. They need a piece of land, then give the land. But get new ventures of all types going.

Probably the Tourist Investment funds have been the most rewarding in recent years. The PUP paid for a lot of specialized foreign advertising in niche markets and also rebuilt beach streets in two major island resort areas. These are paying dividends in increased tourism flow figures.

Essentially, in fighting poverty in Belize, the government has not managed to reach the needy segments of the nation in more difficult remote areas with departmental services.

There is often talk of supplying a social safety net like Europeans. The most needy groups are two. The very young, for health, education and dietary needs. The very old, who are alone with no relatives, or extended family over the age of 55 years for food and dietary needs, which need to be addressed on a permanent basis until they die. Social security should be supplying some cash flow to programs serving these two groups. The need is most dire in rural areas, not in the port Belize City.

Wider rural located community college non-credit educational technical programs need to be increased at the expense of training university graduate students. Primary school teacher training and supplies for remote rural schools also take priority over all of the above.

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