BELMOPAN, Belize — At first glance, wide-spread poverty in Belize may be hard to imagine. The World Bank calls this small nation on the southern end of the Yucatan Peninsula — with Mexico to the north, Guatemala to the west and south, and the Caribbean Sea to the east — an “upper-middle income country.”
Poverty Seems Unlikely
The World Banks states the per capita income last year was $6,130. About 92 percent of households have electricity, nearly 80 percent own a television, and 92 percent of households have at least one member who owns a mobile phone.
The country, too, is blessed with the kind of features that support a growing tourist industry, responsible for 21 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product in 2012. Its barrier islands create the longest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere, 199 miles long; the coast also boasts three of the four coral atolls in the hemisphere. U.S. tourists especially feel at ease in Belize because it is the only English-speaking country in the Caribbean.
Yet, alongside this picture of abundance, there is another reality of broad poverty in Belize. The most recent assessment of poverty in Belize in 2010 found that 43 percent of the population and 34 percent of households lived below the poverty line. Those numbers actually reflect an increase in poverty since the 2002 assessment of poverty in Belize. Then, 25 percent of households and 32 percent of individuals were below the poverty line.
The increase in poverty can be attributed partly to natural disasters — hurricanes and flooding — and the World Wide Recession. But the on-going poverty itself comes from underlying socio-economic factors. According to the authors of “The Poverty Reduction Action Plan, Government of Belize,” these factors include low wages, scarcity of employment opportunities, an unsupportive business environment and vulnerable groups that are taken advantage of.
Reducing Poverty in Belize
The government of Belize has launched several programs to reduce poverty. Some are in conjunction with international and regional grant and loan programs such as through the U.N.’s Development Program and the Caribbean Development Bank’s Basic Needs Trust Fund.
Other programs are the government’s own. Perhaps the most effective of these so far is the BOOST program (Building opportunities for our social transformation). BOOST is a conditional cash transfer program for the disadvantaged. It is intended to directly relieve poverty by providing cash payments to those in need in return for them meeting certain requirements. These requirements include seeing to it that their children are vaccinated, making sure that they go to school and agreeing to see a doctor if pregnant. In return for meeting these requirements, each household participating in the program receives BZ$44 to BZ$82 a month per person for a maximum of six members.
The World Bank has called BOOST the best social protection program in the hemisphere, and it has been studied as a model program by other nations in the Caribbean including Grenada, Dominica, Bahamas, Barbados and Antigua.
Even with programs like BOOST, poverty in Belize is stubborn. Nonetheless, the government of Belize and its international partners remain committed to the vision for Belize articulated in the Belizean national framework, “Blue Horizon 2030.” The vision is for Belize to be a country of “peace and tranquility, where citizens are in harmony with the natural environment and enjoy a high quality of life. Belizeans are an energetic, resourceful and independent people looking after their development in a sustainable way.”
– Robert Cornet