What Detroit Can Learn From Evo Morales’ Anti-Poverty Fight

By Bankole Thompson

In 2006, Evo Morales was inaugurated as the first indigenous president of Bolivia. His improbable political journey to the highest office in Bolivia, which has a population of 11.5 million, instantly put him on the global stage. As Morales, a former coca grower, began to steer the ship of state forward by putting poor people at the center of his grassroots political revolution, he continued to shock the media and the global elites.  

Unlike other Latin American nations like Venezuela, where the struggle to address gross inequality has descended into chaos and totalitarianism, Morales’ people’s revolution which is made up of peasants and miners, stood out as a success story because of its authenticity, and his penchant to be a voice for those who have been marginalized for a long time in Bolivian society.

“But Bolivia is a different story. Since Morales came to power in 2006, the country’s economy has grown at a steady 4.9% per year. For a country that had to be bailed out by its foreign lenders just one year before Morales became president, such macroeconomic success marks an incredible turnaround. But more remarkable still is that fact that this success is feeding through to the poorest segments of society,” the Guardian reported in March of this year.

The BBC reported that Morales since his first election has drastically cut poverty from 38 percent in 2006 to 17 percent in 2018. That is a remarkable feat for a president of any country. What Morales has done in Bolivia, is a clear example of how to combat global poverty and any leader who is interested and serious about tackling inequality should look to the Bolivian model for how to meet the needs of underserved and disenfranchised populations.

Too often what we find is leaders who make lots of promises to change the conditions of their people for the better and yet have nothing to show for when it’s time to account for their failed campaign promises.

In fact, a Guardian analysis cited Ernesto Perez, who is United Nations development economist in La Paz, the capital of Bolivia. According to Perez, Morales’ economic success in meeting the needs of the underclass in his nation has been due to also boosting basic infrastructure.

“According to its own figures, the government last year spent $6.5bn on schools, hospitals, power plants, electrification, irrigation and such like. In 2005, the figure was $629m. Public investment on this scale brings direct jobs through construction, but its primary impact is to increase productivity,” according to the Guardian.

Perez adds, “It’s like the post-War programs that occurred in Europe, only they’re happening now in Bolivia 70 years later.”

The people of Bolivia are heading to the polls on Sunday as Morales seeks an unprecedented fourth term in office. Despite his success in fighting poverty, Morales should not count on being a lifetime president. If anything he should follow the example of Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa, who stepped down after two terms in office. History has shown that leaders who run incessantly for office end up becoming sit-tight masters and rulers as the late Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe has demonstrated.

Still, no matter the outcome of the election in Bolivia, Morales, has shown that it is not impossible to successfully fight poverty.

For a city like Detroit, which is among the largest poverty cities in America, the administration of Mayor Mike Duggan should follow the example of Bolivia. Maybe the administration should send a delegation to the Latin American country to study how to positively create change from the bottom up. It should be in the interest of the Duggan regime to look at best practices from various places such as Bolivia about how to confront the cruelty of poverty that so far has denied many Detroiters the opportunity to thrive in this economic recovery.

In fact, in Bolivia, those who have been sentenced to economic desolation for so long have been sharing success stories lately with the media and explaining how Morales’ administration has made direct investments in their neighborhoods and villages to change their conditions for the better while maintaining a stable inflation.

Noah Smith, a columnist at Bloomberg News, described Bolivia’s success this way: “By 2017, Bolivia was 42 percent richer than when Morales took office. But for the average Bolivian, the results were even better – the country’s Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, fell by more than 19 percent since Morales took office. Poverty has declined by 25 percent since he was elected.”

As Detroit and other places around the world continue to face extreme inequality, Bolivia, is rapidly becoming the world’s leading example of successful anti-poverty policies.   

If Duggan wants to turn the tide against poverty in Detroit, he and his team should start taking down notes about what is taking place in Bolivia.

Bankole Thompson is the editor-in-chief of The PuLSE Institute, the anti-poverty think tank headquartered in Detroit. He is a twice-a-week opinion columnist at The Detroit News. 

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