The colonial city’s main square with its vaulted church, government buildings and curio shops interspersed with chic restaurants for the nouveau rich and tourists are in stark contrast to the surrounding dark alleys, which stretch blindly into another world. In one such alley, a hollow-eyed woman sitting on the sidewalk begging with her three small children looks harried and weary. They are ingrained with grime and, their clothes caked in dirt are mere rags. Their eyes, piercing and resigned seem accustomed to their invisibility. This is but one of the many faces of poverty in Peru. Like its fellow countries in Latin America it bears all the hallmarks of increasing urban chaos. In a country already burdened with high levels of poverty; the swiftness of urbanization, economic crisis and structural adjustment policies over the last fifty years have had a profound effect on Peru.

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Squatter settlements abound; the informal sector has swelled and great disparities between the rich and poor still exist. In fact, urban poverty is on the increase and this trend is not abating (J. Beall, 2000, p430). That being the case, this essay will examine this recent phenomena of urban poverty in Peru and, the initiatives the government has undertaken to overcome it. At the turn of the last century, Peru was a predominately agrarian based society with the bulk of its population and poor confined to rural areas. However, in the 1940s, Peru began its transition towards urbanization in earnest. To illustrate, in the 1940s, two out of three Peruvians lived in rural areas, by the 1980s two out three Peruvians lived in urban areas. The main influx of migrants has been most notable in the capital Lima, where the population grew from 8.6% in 1940 to 26% in 1980 (H. de Soto, 1989). Although today the influx of migrants to the capital has lost some of its momentum, it continues to grow and now accommodates about 35% of the nation’s population. This demographic shift in Peru can be attributed to continual economic instability, lack of arable land, property rights, development and decreasing labor demands in rural areas. As a result, people have been forced to look for more secure livelihoods. In addition, the increased mobility of the population due to the improved infrastructure throughout the country has enabled greater movement to areas where there are better prospects. Like moths to a flame, the growing awareness of the differences between the living standards of those who live in the cities and the rest of the country have attracted many who want to escape the grinding monotony of poverty (B. Melbourne, 2001). The unequal distribution of investment and development between the rural and urban areas has been one of the enduring qualities of poverty in Peru. The urban bias towards Metropolitan Lima and other urban areas, due to the centralization of government and industry has led to better social and welfare services, higher wages, greater employment options and education opportunities. As the table below clearly indicates, this is indeed the case in the capital, Lima (B. Melbourne, 2001).
However, Countryside Lima Access to safe water supply 25% 60% Access to sewage disposal 17% 51% Households with electricity 3% 55% Infant mortality (per thousand) 58 73 Weekly income (soles) 50 2,500 although the table shows development in the capital surpasses that of rural Peru; it fails to address the increasing disparities between the rich and poor in urban Peru. If one considers that 72% of Peru’s population dwells within urban areas then the table above clearly shows that a high proportion of the urban population still does not have access to basic services.
Therefore, the promised land that migrants seek is not always what it seems. The unprecedented urban growth of the last century combined with political and economic instability has found most governments struggling to deal with this problem.
Furthermore, the threat a growing migrant population has posed to the status quo of the elite has been met with increasing hostility and discrimination, making integration harder (H. de Soto, 1989). Consequently, the lack of commitment and funds to provide adequate housing, basic social and welfare services and the exclusion from legally established social and economic activities has meant that poorer migrants have had to fend for themselves with whatever resources they have had at hand. As Jo Beall (2000) claims, there is often great inequality within cities. Even though the poor are closer to better facilities and services, this does not automatically mean they are able to afford or access them. The repercussions of this hostile reception has led to, burgeoning squatter settlements where in 1990, half of Lima’s population was contained in 400 settlements surrounding Lima and Callao (Library of Congress Country Studies, 1992). Moreover, the lack of employment options for unskilled workers have resulted in an expanding informal sector; for example, in Peru, 45% of the urban population are involved in the informal sector (Poverty Net Library, 1999). Thus livelihoods are less secure and more vulnerable to economic fluctuations. So, instead of the promised land, many migrants find themselves excluded from mainstream society, making a subsistence living in poor and inadequate conditions (P.Harrison, 1993, p150). The adverse conditions urban migrants in developing countries, find themselves in has led to an increasing concentration of poverty in urban areas over the last few decades, and Peru is no exception (E. Wratten, 1995). Today, 50% of Peru’s population (26 million) lives in poverty and, whereas this was generally considered a rural dilemma, a significant shift is taking place. In 1970, urban poverty accounted for 28% of the population, in 2000 it has increased to approximately 55%. Furthermore, while the incidence of poverty has slightly decreased in metropolitan Lima, it has significantly increased on the urban coast from 52% to 58%.
Therefore, whereas poverty had been more concentrated in rural areas, today urban poverty is overtaking that of rural areas. Although, the depth and severity of those living in poverty is still the plight of rural areas. Furthermore, the distribution of income and assets is still very unequal, in 1994 the Gini co-efficient increased slightly from 0.695 to 0.726 in 1997, which indicates that the gap between the rich and poor is growing wider (Japan Bank for International Cooperation, 2001). Previous governments have always been aware of the need to deal with poverty, but in the past it merely paid lip service than really tackling the problem head on. Today, poverty is not confined to the distant regions where out of sight, out of mind might be the case. It is now an increasingly visible entity in urban Peru, and governments have realized that poverty will not disappear with a sleight of the hand. Therefore, governments have begun to approach poverty in a more comprehensive way. In the 1990s, pro – poor programs were set up to counteract structural adjustment policies and to provide better targeting of the most socially vulnerable. In addition, the government implemented legal reforms to improve coordination of programs between ministries and agencies involved in food provision, nutrition, health services, education, housing and basic infrastructure. Also, social expenditure increased from 4% of GDP in 1993 to 7% in 1998. Although this is still well below the regional average of 12%, the amount of expenditure allocated to poverty reduction has effectively doubled. These measures have resulted in better access to basic social and welfare services, a significant drop in infant and maternal mortality, increased access to secondary education and decreased illiteracy rates.
While there has been some success in reducing or alleviating poverty, the fluctuating poverty levels which, seem to be a notable feature of Peru today indicate that, the government still needs to be more committed and consistent in its approach towards poverty alleviation. The last four years of economic recession and continuing structural adjustment have had a huge impact on the poor and the government’s ability to ameliorate poverty. However, these are not the only factors, which have hindered the government’s performance in this area. The government’s priorities in spending still favor reinvestment into the international financial markets, servicing its foreign debt and maintaining an excessive bureaucracy, making poverty reduction a secondary consideration. Furthermore, the Peruvian public administration continues to suffer from poor accountability, inadequate policy coordination resulting in program duplication and, a reduced capacity to perform the functions for which they were established due to insufficient funding. Also, the lack of commitment on the government’s part to separate social policy from politics has encouraged over ambitious social policies aimed at short-term rather than long-term gains.
To conclude, Peru’s turbulent past has been characterized by political, economic and social instability. Through it all one quality of Peruvian society has endured: the legacy of poverty. Poverty has largely been thought of as a rural phenomenon but, today it is joining the exodus to the cities and is now firmly taking root. The shear numbers arriving have ensured that the government cannot keep pace with the provision of adequate services to accommodate them; hence, urban poverty has increased significantly and is in danger of becoming a permanent fixture. In fact, Peru is well on its way to fulfilling projections for this century, which suggest that Latin America will be the most urbanized region in the developing world with the majority of poor living in cities or towns. If this is so, then the challenges, which face the Peruvian government, are indeed greater and more pressing than ever before.
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