Invisible citizens?

Invisible citizens?

IDB America: Magazine of Inter-American Development Bank
August 2001

Charo Quesada

Censuses in many Latin American countries omit questions about race, rendering minority groups statistically invisible

If we relied entirely on censuses to understand what the people of Latin America and the Caribbean look like, the picture that would emerge would be a complete fantasy.

While the cities and villages of this part of the world abound with color and vitality thanks to the multitude of ethnic groups that live together on its soil, most of the region’s censuses do not include questions about race or ethnicity. As a result many indigenous communities and, in particular, millions of citizens of African descent, are not officially recognized as such by their governments. In many cases, questions about the respondent’s native language are also absent from census forms.

Despite the fact that more than 30 percent of the population of Latin America and the Caribbean is of indigenous or African descent, less than one-third of the region’s countries gathers information on its population of African descent explicitly. The data collected on indigenous peoples, while somewhat more abundant, tend to be incomplete and flawed.

Since these two groups are not taken into account or are poorly covered in official figures, their particular needs are not reflected by government programs in which resources are allocated for such important areas as health, education, employment, and housing.

The consequences of this fact can be seen in regional statistics on poverty and marginalization, that consistently show indigenous groups and Afro-Latin Americans to be disproportionately disadvantaged. A 1994 World Bank study shows that in Guatemala, where the national poverty rate is 64 percent, the figure climbs to 86.6 percent for the indigenous population. In Peru, the national poverty rate is 49.7 percent, compared with 79 percent for the indigenous population. In Mexico, it is 17.9 percent for the country as a whole, and 80.6 percent among indigenous groups. In general, indigenous and Afro-Latin American communities experience higher infant mortality, illiteracy, and unemployment, and also tend to be less healthy than the white population…

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