By Marcela Sanchez
In 1998, the second deadliest hurricane from the Atlantic, Hurricane Mitch, leveled much of Honduras and left at least 6,500 people for dead and 1 million homeless. As Honduran President Carlos Flores observed at the time, “In 72 hours we lost what we had built little by little over 50 years.”
What has happened since seems almost unfathomable: Honduras has raised nearly 850,000 people out of extreme poverty and cut hunger by more than one third.
Honduras is turning out to be Latin America's over-achiever in poverty reduction and development gains and one of the nations most likely to meet the Millennium Development Goals, a set of anti-poverty targets that members of the United Nations committed to reach by 2015. Later this month world leaders will gather in New York to review progress toward these goals and push to accelerate it as the deadline approaches.
According to a new report by Ben Leo, research fellow at the Washington-based Center for Global Development, Honduras has been the top scorer in the world, either meeting or surpassing six out of eight top goals. In terms of the number one goal, reducing extreme poverty by half, Honduras has exceeded expectations with a 58 percent reduction -- nine years ahead of schedule.
Development experts pinpoint that some of the top achievers of the Millennium Development Goals have been some of the poorest. “Sub-Saharan Africa accounts (for) the largest number of star performers with five countries,” Leo noted in his report. There are only two other Latin American countries among the top 15 performers, Nicaragua and Bolivia, the only two countries in the region with lower gross domestic product per capita than Honduras.
The London-based Overseas Development Institute also lists Honduras at the top of Latin America in terms of progress toward the Millennium Development Goals. In their June analysis, the ODI found that the best performers displayed consistent leadership and commitment to poverty reduction, adopted sound macro-economic policies including open trade, encouraged active community participation, and received international support.
Most data for these evaluations dates to 2008, so it is still unclear what effect the global economic crisis has had on overall poverty reduction. For the same reason, it is also difficult to know how Honduras’s military coup of June 28, 2009, may have negatively affected its efforts.
But for development workers such as Jonathan Brooks who have been deeply engaged in Honduras, even political upheaval has not been enough to disrupt the country’s progress.
Brooks is country director in Honduras for the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the U.S. aid program that seeks to reward good governance and encourage local participation in development projects. In 2005, MCC signed an agreement or “compact” with Honduras worth $215 million, making it the first Latin American country and only the second in the world to receive MCC funds.
“Through the political crisis … the commitment of the country and the government to the objectives of the compact has remained strong," said Brooks. As a consequence of the coup, the MCC’s board, headed by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, voted to cut $10 million of the plan. Still, said Brooks, the Honduran government has sought its own financing -- evidence of what aid workers call the country’s ownership of the program.
Brooks also attributed continued progress in Honduras to the MCC's focus on results, tracking and clear deadlines. The MCC compact in Honduras is scheduled to end this month having reached important benchmarks such as increasing incomes in rural areas. More than 6000 farmers have received training on crop production and are now earning at least $2,000 per hectare as opposed to $700 before the compact.
Honduras' impressive numbers have been made possible by the participation of the people most directly affected. In the remote and poverty-stricken community of San Francisco de Opalaca, citizens banded together to make their case for development. In cooperation with the United Nations Development Program, they collected data, identified their priorities and linked them to the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals. Eventually the government improved road conditions that connected Opalaca to the rest of the country. Other donors provided funding for a pediatric and maternal health clinic.
Opalaca like Honduras has achieved perhaps more than it could have imagined in the face of natural and political turmoil. The work is clearly not finished, but Honduras has demonstrated that even among the poorest nations, adversity does not trump progress.Marcela Sanchez is one of the most respected journalists writing about Latin America, as evidenced by her work for the most important papers in the United States -- including both the New York Times and The Washington Post -- as well as the two most important newspapers in Colombia -- El Espectador and El Tiempo -- Colombia's En Vivo and QAP TV channels, and Venezuela's Daily Journal. We welcome her back to the Latin American Herald Tribune, where her hemispheric wisdom appears every Friday.